The least you can say about Last Tango in Paris is that no one who saw it could ever look at butter in quite the same way again. Director Bernardo Bertolucci’s tale of violent and debatably romantic sex between strangers Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, who meet in a vacant Paris flat, became the cinematic cause celebre of the decade when it debuted in America on Feb. 1, 1973. Making liberal use of female frontal nudity, masturbation, and the aforementioned dairy product as a sexual lubricant, Tango was thought to dance a very fine line between art and pornography.
”I never thought I did a pornographic film. Never,” Bertolucci, 53, says today. But his motives were much debated at the time. While such critics as Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby called the movie high art, ABC commentator Harry Reasoner and columnist William F. Buckley Jr. both denounced Tango without even seeing it. While New Yorkers eager to see the film had to reserve tickets weeks in advance, Time readers mailed more than 4,300 mostly negative letters in reaction to the magazine’s Tango cover story.
The uproar was transatlantic, and especially vehement in Bertolucci’s homeland. The Italian government banned the film for 15 years and revoked the director’s right to vote. ”In some ways I could deal with it, because I was feeling like a martyr,” says Bertolucci. ”But the suspension of civil rights was really painful, because I felt like a second-class citizen.”
Bertolucci went on to forge a first-class career in film, win- ning an Oscar for 1987’s The Last Emperor. (His next epic, Little Buddha, with Keanu Reeves, will be released in the spring.) The sight of Brando, then 48, frolicking in the buff evoked a variety of responses (from riveted to revolted), but the performance added cachet to the comeback he had launched with The Godfather the previous year. Only Schneider, a nearly unknown French actress, failed to capitalize on Tango. She made news more for her bisexual affairs-most sensationally in 1975 when she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital to be near her female lover. Now 41, Schneider still appears in European films.
Over the years, Tango has sustained its excellent critical reputation, while its shock value has faded to a memorable footnote. ”When today I think back on this Tango affair,” says Bertolucci, ”I (feel) like it’s not 21 years ago but 500 years ago.”
TIME CAPSULE Feb. 1, 1973 Radio listeners believed in Stevie Wonder’s ”Superstition”; Frederick Forsythe’s The Odessa File was top fiction; TV viewers flipped over The Flip Wilson Show; and moviegoers ran to see Steve McQueen in The Getaway.