NOTE TO SELF; There. That oughta make me go viral….
Last Tango in Paris (1972)
D. Bernardo Bertolucci
The Executioner’s Song (1982)
D. Lawrence Schiller
NOTE TO READERS: Spoilers included.
After I finally caught up with Last Tango in Paris over the weekend–because what else would you watch when you’re existentially depressed?–I found myself wondering (as I often do with these “edgy” films of yesteryear) what all the fuss was about.
I thought I’d give Pauline Kael a try and her contemporary essay is worth reading, if only so you can have an idea of what such debates were like in Last Tango‘s day, a day when “eroticism” was still going to rescue the day in poor old American Life and Art.
Not surprisingly, her essay is mostly about Marlon Brando. Brando had made himself the point of every film he had ever made to that point. Once or twice he stooped to interpret a character, but this wasn’t one of those times. No matter how hard the intelligentsia rooted for him, he could never quite get out of his own way. All of which means, neither Pauline Kael nor anyone else was likely to explain what Brando himself failed to deliver, which is any reason a young woman as lovely, charismatic and, yes, erotic, as Maria Schneider, about to be engaged herself (to a dweeb, which might have been it’s own explanation if it was say, Paul Newman’s or Alain Delon’s bones she wanted to jump if he just happened along, or if the most erotic scene in the movie weren’t her and the dweeb’s “Oui/No” argument over who is proposing to who), would stoop to anonymous hate sex with anybody as creepy and dessicated as Brando’s “Paul.”
Kael took the position that Brando’s, and, perhaps, “Paul’s” as well, was a tragic character, a sensitive Americano, led on to his doom by a Euro-trash Cookie. We’re supposed to be really sad when she shoots him.
I thought she was about a day late. I was rooting for her to off him right after he anally raped her (in the film’s most famous scene and one which Schneider was not prepared for by either Bertolucci or Brando). Evidently, they didn’t think enough of her acting skills and figured they could only get what they wanted by “surprising” her with a little improv.
They might have been wrong about that, because Schneider’s lovely, lethal and unaffected performance is the only thing time hasn’t burned away in a film that promises to drown you in Art from the first frame.
Why all this put me in a mood to finally re-watch The Executioner’s Song, which I hadn’t seen since the eighties–and certainly hadn’t forgotten–I don’t know. But perhaps Schneider’s presence/performance (and reading about her subsequent reluctance to take her clothes off for the camera) was bound to call up Rosanna Arquette some way or other.
Arquette expressed a similar reluctance to shuck her clothes after her experience with The Executioner’s Song, and she was able to at least cut back on–though not eliminate–the fantasy nude scenes until her real-life encounters with Harvey Weinstein reduced her to taking anything she could get to keep working (whilst being given all kinds of grief from Kael’s natural inheritors–Greil Marcus, Charles Taylor, et al, for tanking her own career). One can respect her choices, but it’s easy to see why male directors became a little disoriented.
Arquette’s Nicole Baker–the real life girlfriend of murderer Gary Gilmore (played in a very Brando-esque turn by Tommy Lee Jones, who, to be fair, was at least channeling a real-life narcissistic sociopath and was operating with a script that managed to flatten actors as gifted as Eli Wallach and Christine Lahti)–is never so alive as when she’s either got her clothes off (“You and seven other motherfuckers!”) or is trying to scheme her way out of them.
She’s still trying when the only place she and Jones/Gilmore can get it on is the conjugal visit room next to Death Row in the State Pen, where she must have known she was likely to end up all along, even when she, Arquette/Baker, was pulling guns on Jones/Gilmore himself and withholding herself, maybe, just maybe, with thoughts of driving him to murder.
It’s a lived-in performance and should have had more screen time. It’s also a short, but significant, evolution beyond Maria Schneider in Tango: Yeah, I might have shot him, just like that chick in Last Tango, but he was bound for the firing squad anyway so why bother? Especially when we could get in on right there in the Big House while his lawyers were exhausting his appeals and it won’t even matter if they won’t let me take my clothes off in there. Might even work a double suicide attempt–in which neither of us will quite manage to die–while we’re at it.
One wonders if Nicole Baker had seen Last Tango.
Hard to believe Rosanna Arquette–along with everybody else involved with The Executioner’s Song–hadn’t.
In which case it doesn’t matter what Baker knew. Once Rosanna Arquette got hold of it, with Maria Schneider’s ghost at her back, it wasn’t Nicole Baker’s story anymore anyway.
It wasn’t even Gary Gilmore’s.
But, to Baker’s credit, even Rosanna Arquette never had a better one.
Story, I mean….