How a Macho Italian Communist Who Hated Pop Culture Became the Man Who Swept the Oscars

updated 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/09/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Bernardo Bertolucci strolls through the lobby of L.A.'s Bel Age Hotel like visiting royalty. A smile here, a wave there. Stopped by two PR women carrying a hefty parcel wrapped in brown paper, the filmmaker momentarily loses his composure. They are holding the award Bertolucci recently won from the Directors Guild of America for The Last Emperor, his $23.8 million epic about China's final imperial ruler, Pu Yi. The 47-year-old director, about to return home to Rome, is nonplussed at the bulk of the package. "Can you perhaps mail it to me?" he asks.

Upstairs in his suite, Bertolucci shows off two awards he insists on carting around himself: his Oscars. Four days before, accompanied by his coolly elegant English wife, Clare Peploe, 39 (her brother Mark co-wrote the Emperor script), he had watched his film pull off the first Academy Award sweep since Gigi 30 years ago. Emperor took nine—count 'em, nine—including two to Bertolucci for his direction and screenplay. In his acceptance speech, he referred to Hollywood as "the Big Nipple," causing a few embarrassed giggles. He wishes to explain: "I wanted to say that I was overwhelmed by this gratification, which poured forth like milk. I was enjoying this vision of so many generous breasts."

Of course he was. This, after all, is the ultimate movie sensualist; his last U.S. hit was the erotically radical masterpiece Last Tango in Paris (1973). Before that his reputation was for making films that were politically radical (Before the Revolution, The Conformist). An extremist in both periods, he fit only one stereotype: that of the macho Italian male. "Before I was 35,1 couldn't have just a friendship with a woman," he says. He lived with actress Adriana Asti and later with Maria Paola Maino, the set director on Tango. He left neither in any doubt about who was boss.

Then came the women's movement—and wife Clare. He and Clare met in 1973 in Rome at a screening hosted by noted filmmaker Michelangelo (Blow Up) Antonioni, her former lover. "We met and talked about films," says Bernardo. They did more than talk: Clare became his collaborator on the scripts for 1900 and Luna. Both were box office flops for him in the U.S., but he and Clare were married in 1978, a first marriage for both.

Those who know him say he became a changed man. Gabriella Cristiani, Bertolucci's longtime film editor, says that 10 years ago, "I could have said terrible things about him. Now he is an extremely kind man." Bertolucci gives some of the credit to Clare, some to feminism: "Now to be arrogantly macho would be embarrassing."

Clearly, Clare helps him hold that thought. Her first feature as a director, High Season with Jackie Bisset, recently opened in America to good reviews, but her wish for independence takes priority over her wish to publicize it. "It's horrible being written about just because I'm Bernardo's wife," she says. They commute between her apartment in London and his in Rome.

More gradual than Bertolucci's victory over machismo was his conversion on matters of art and politics. Born near Parma, Italy, he is the eldest child of intellectuals (his mother, Ninetta, was a teacher; his father, Attilio, a noted poet and critic). At home, art and left-wing politics were standard table talk. While attending Rome University, Bernardo wrote poetry, a practice he abandoned at 21 when he directed his first movie, Grim Reaper. Poetry, he decided, was his father's kingdom, not his. "I had to find my own language," he says. "That language was cinema."

For his first years as a director, it was decidedly left-wing cinema. Bertolucci disdained popular culture: "I thought movies that gave pleasure were reactionary." Only while doing Tango did he develop an appetite for what he calls "the excitement of having a dialogue with the audience."

In making Emperor, Bertolucci was convinced that he had first to dazzle the eyes of viewers before he could reach their hearts and minds. He insisted on shooting inside Beijing's Forbidden City. He got his way by promising the Chinese script approval, which he says they did not abuse.

Even without the problems of shooting in China, the film would have been a daunting enterprise. Emperor required 60 actors from six countries, 19,000 extras, a 275-person technical crew and 32 interpreters for the crew's English, Italian and Chinese speakers. "It was a Tower of Babel," says Bertolucci. And the man who has directed such difficult stars as Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro (in 1900) had his hands full with Emperor's 3-year-old star, Richard Vuu, who played the baby emperor: "One morning we were shooting the coronation scene with 3,000 extras in costumes kneeling in front of this little creature. I asked Richard to walk to the edge of a platform and look down at this carpet of bodies. Richard said, 'No.' " Bertolucci pauses to sigh. "I wanted to strangle him." Finally, the director found that "I could bribe him with my viewfinder. If he did a scene, I'd let him play with it, and he'd be happy." Compared to directing that child, says Bertolucci, everything else was simple.

Until the Academy Awards. From the announcement of the nominations in February until the ceremony last month, Bertolucci says, he was a wreck: "I got colitis, my heart began beating fast, I even started smoking again." As Bertolucci was leaving Rome airport for L.A., a customs agent said to him, "Be sure to come back with a full bag." Bertolucci took the agent seriously. "I feel like Italy's national soccer team," he said at the time. "If I don't manage to win anything, it will be hard to return to Italy. I know that this seems exaggerated, but I am filled with national pride."

His nine Oscars did more than vindicate that sentiment: A Best Picture Oscar does wonders for a sagging box office. Since its opening in November, Emperor has played a scant 450 theaters in America and grossed a very unepic $25 million. Now, thanks to Oscar, the number of theaters will more than double. No longer politically wary of popular success, Bertolucci is in fact radically delighted about that. "When a film costs more than $20 million," he says, "it has to be popular."

Before leaving for home on April 20, Bertolucci enjoyed the last of his "Bernardo, baby!" period in Hollywood. Still, he remains leery of the play-safe studios, every one of which refused to finance Emperor(Columbia picked the film up only after shooting had been completed). Why should they underwrite the movie dreams of an intellectual who, although he left the party in 1978, still votes Communist? "Nothing has really changed," he says. "My movies are too risky. But it gives me a feeling of being more secure." That feeling peaked when he got to Rome airport. He was proud to show the customs agent there a bagful of Oscar gold.

—By Joanne Kaufman, with Lee Wohlfert in Los Angeles

From Our Partners