Bernardo Bertolucci leaves a cinematic legacy of great films, including “The Conformist” and “The Last Emperor,” which won nine Oscars including Best Picture and Director. However, his biggest hit would be inconceivable today. “Last Tango in Paris,” the X-rated drama starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, made more in its 1973 domestic release than the year’s James Bond entry, “Live and Let Die.” It was the year’s number 7 film, with an adjusted gross of $186 million — just a little below what Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” has amassed so far.
The mid-’70s were a high point for sophisticated, critic-influenced foreign films. Veteran directors like Bergman and Fellini remained significant players, while Francois Truffaut, Alain Resnais, and Claude Chabrol regularly found success. However, “Last Tango” was a sensation; even today, among foreign films it’s outstripped only by “La Dolce Vita” ($245 million) and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” ($207 million).
Several unusual and distinct reasons contributed to its success. Among them:
From its world premiere at the 1972 New York Film Festival (which Pauline Kael, in her seminal rave review, compared to the uproar to Stravinsky’s Paris debut of “Le Sacre du printemps”), anticipation was stratospheric. The film’s sexual content came at a time when full nudity and realistic portrayals of intercourse were recently permissible. “I Am Curious – Yellow,” an otherwise minor Swedish arthouse film, grossed $140 million in 1969 (and broke ground in overturning many censorship laws). Though their figures are tricky to calculate and confirm, the consensus is that porn films “Deep Throat” and “Beyond the Green Door” each ultimately grossed over $200 million domestically. The initially X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” (initial standards covered films that later would have been rated R) grossed nearly $300 million.
Bertolucci cast Brando before “The Godfather” debuted in March 1972. When the film began its dominance of American screens, Brando suddenly was one of the biggest stars around. The “Last Tango in Paris” theatrical release started slowly in January 1973. The Oscars broadcast came in late March, and all of the major playdates were either still showing or opened after the ceremony, which saw the actor win (and refuse) the award. Reviews said this performance was even greater than Don Corleone, which only added to awareness.
Bertolucci’s “The Conformist” hit festivals in 1970, with Paramount Pictures getting it into U.S. theaters in 1971. It became one of the year’s biggest art-house successes, and its screenplay received an Oscar nomination. That reception along with Brando, gave “Last Tango” a prestige value that overrode viewer skittishness about seeing an X-rated film.
United Artists was then a major source for top subtitled releases, handling films from Fellini (“Satyricon”), Bergman (“Shame,” “The Passion of Anna”), and Truffaut (“The Wild Child”). And the distributor masterfully handled X-rated “Midnight Cowboy” to huge popular success and its Oscar wins. Unlike smaller specialized companies, UA had the access to the best theaters and the financial stability to spend money to reach maximum success.
The gross of “Tango” was boosted by an initial ticket price in major cities of $5. Doesn’t sound like much? That’s the equivalent of $28.48 in 2018 dollars. The film’s delayed release heightened interest (its initial European dates were in December 1972). And though New York opened in late January, and Los Angeles shortly after, most cities were slow in arriving.
The theaters chosen were top ones in their cities, with bigger capacities than most art houses. In Chicago, for example, they played the McClurg Court, a theater that opened in 1971 and for most of its existence showed two UA musicals — “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Man of La Mancha” — as exclusive engagements. But it wasn’t just the locations. United Artists made it more difficult to see the film by setting up these engagements as pre-purchase availability reserved performances. The audacity of asking customers to buy tickets in advance (which required stopping by the theater or by mail) made the film stand out as a special event.
With early dates in New York and Los Angeles drawing huge initial crowds, words of sellouts and the difficulty of getting in fed already-strong interest. This led to more people willing to pay the high-end cost, and commit themselves early to the film. This marketing turned the film into even more of a must-see; people accustomed to being on top of movies couldn’t imagine not being able to express an opinion. Even those disappointed fed interest.
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Reviews helped, though they weren’t the primary driver; hardly all were favorable. Post-Kael there was a backlash, with some reviews critiquing her as much as the movie. But the New York Times was favorable, Roger Ebert (then known primarily in Chicago) was a major supporter, and UA certainly had plenty of quotes to work with.
The film ended up losing the National Society of Critics to another subtitled film (Truffaut’s more conventional “Day for Night” won, with Brando winning best actor). The film went on to receive Oscar nominations for Actor and Director, but not Picture. By then, the film had run its very successful course and entered history.