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The Homophobia of Italian Director Bernardo Bertolucci – on Film and in Person

 Bernardo Bertolucci

Bernardo Bertolucci (1941-)

Until the launch of the gay civil rights movement in the late 1960s, the entertainment industry and the media that cover it colluded in a conspiracy that kept gay issues in the closet and out of newspapers and films.

Before my reincarnation as a biographer and historian and before the advent of the Internet, I was a journalist whose columns about Hollywood were distributed to newspapers around the world by two wire services, United Media and the New York Times Syndicate.

My millions of readers gave me enough clout to be invited to the press room backstage at the Oscars ceremony. Immediately after winning an Academy Award, the ecstatic, dazed recipient was hustled backstage by an Academy publicist and interrogated during an impromptu press conference.

The New Hollywood Blacklist – the Fate of Cheeky Journalists

In 1988, I was in the press room when Bernardo Bertolucci, that year’s winner of the best director and best screenplay Oscars for The Last Emperor, turned up displaying the euphoric semiconscious state of an honoree. The members of the media who cover the Hollywood beat are infamous for being intimidated and emasculated by the handful of powerful publicists who represent major movie and TV stars and directors.

If a reporter has the temerity to ask a celebrity a cheeky question, which a journalist who covers the political beat wouldn’t hesitate to ask the president of the United States, the celebrity’s publicist blacklists the impertinent entertainment journalist.

The blacklist is a career-ender because the publicist also denies the reporter access to all of the press rep’s other star clients, a catastrophic development since a minority of A-list press agents represent the majority of A-list stars.

I became so infected with fear of this blacklist that like most of my colleagues I involuntarily neutered my investigative instincts so thoroughly that when the BBC aired a documentary, Naked Hollywood, a reporter from the Washington Post sneered at how toothless Hollywood journalists had become due to the their fear of blacklisting by Hollywood publicists.

Then the documentary cut to me, interviewing Arnold Schwarzenegger. Earlier, I had written a cover story for US Weekly about celebrity feuds, so I asked Schwarzenegger if Sylvester Stallone was still mad at him for saying in an interview with Playboy that Stallone dressed like a pimp.

The documentary makers, who hadn’t told me I was being filmed, cut out my explanation of the cause of the superstar feud, and the only part of my extensive interview with Schwarzenegger that ended up in the BBC documentary made me look like a wuss, timidly asking the actor, “Are you and Stallone still mad at each other?”

The documentary unfairly made me seem like the embodiment of lightweight Hollywood journalism and more like a teen magazine reporter who asks a ‘tween star what her sign or what his favorite color is.   

After failing to fawn over a few subjects interviewed for my Hollywood column syndicated by United Media, I found myself banished to celebrity Siberia, which had the unintended but ultimately beneficial effect of forcing me to write books instead of mindless, 750-word columns with the depth of a contact lens that revealed the secret of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 22-inch biceps and other ground-breaking statistics like Sharon Stone’s genius IQ and brassiere size (for the record: steroids, a 157 IQ and a 34-B cup, respectively).

How I Ended up on the New Industry Blacklist

One incident that contributed to the my purge by Stalinist publicists who send uncooperative reporters to the media gulag involved a question I asked Bertolucci after I grew bored listening to my intimidated colleagues lob softballs at one of the greatest directors of all time – questions that would have made a correspondent for Teen Vogue blush.

Journalists know a trick that softens up their celebrity target and gets the star to open up by starting with a tame, lame question. Then, relaxed and off-guard, the interview is hit with a hardball. I usually took an alternate side trip to the jugular by preceding a tough question with lavish praise of the VIP’s work.

The Last Emperor

With the interviewing trick in mind, I began my backstage interview with Bertolucci at the Oscars by noting the critics’ universal praise of The Last Emperor’s historical accuracy and attention to even minor details of the title character’s life, aided and abetted by Communist China’s permission to film in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Shooting in the aptly named Forbidden City was an honor that provided access never accorded a Western filmmaker before.

The xenophobic Chinese government’s favoritism toward Bertolucci may have resulted from his reputation as a Marxist and one-time member of the Italian Communist Party.

(Access to the Forbidden City turned out to be more hype than helpful, because Chinese bureaucrats severely limited the director’s ability to film in their country to such an extent that most of the palace interiors were reproduced and filmed on soundstages at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome.)

Fear and Loathing Backstage at the Academy Awards

After a bit of groveling during Bertolucci’s press conference, I followed up with a hardball question: “In your film, you graphically depicted at great length the last empress’ lesbian fetishes, among them sucking the toes of her Japanese aviatrix girlfriend and both women’s fondness for men’s leather clothing.”

So far, no problem, because the taboo against female homosexuality tends to be less powerful than the demonization of male homosexuality. Years later, an editor of one of my books explained the disparity between the heterosexual public’s attitude toward gay males and lesbians: “Guys love to watch two chicks get it on.” Apparently, Bernardo was just one of the guys.

The director’s orgasmic facial expression turned into coitus interruptus as I escalated the interrogation by asking, “Why did you devote so much footage to the empress’ lesbian behavior while not even mentioning the established fact, much less depicting it, that the last emperor, Pu Yi, was exclusively homosexual?”

At that, the sunshine turned into a thunderstorm. The violent change in the beaming director’s countenance was almost frightening.

After sputtering a few words rendered incomprehensible by his rage and accent, Bertolucci offered an unsatisfying justification for keeping the emperor incommunicado in his closet. “Because I didn’t want to open up a can of worms,” said in an attempt at explanation that provided none.

The director was just about to stomp out of the press room when he was stopped by my friend and colleague who enjoyed much greater clout because he was an entertainment reporter for the Los Angeles Times and unintimidated by Bertolucci’s fury.

In fact, the Times’s reporter was almost as ticked off as the director, but for an opposite reason.

Like me, the gentleman from the Times was gay and offended by Bertolucci’s placing the emperor’s sexual orientation in a can of slimy . “Yeah,” the reporter asked, “why didn’t you” depict Pu Yi’s homosexuality?”

Epilogue – My Career Ends Along With a Friend and Colleague’s Life

As I feared, the celebrity publicist mafia eventually terminated my career in entertainment journalism. But with the power of the Los Angeles Times behind him, the other reporter continued to enjoy access to movie stars and A-list directors until his death a year later from complications of AIDS.

It may have been the journalist’s knowledge of his impending death, hastened by the federal government’s inadequate funding of AIDS research, that encouraged the reporter to challenge Bertolucci.

Like Ronald Reagan’s regime, one of the giants of international cinema had ignored the last emperor’s homosexual orientation. Continuing the blackout, the press had not criticized or even mentioned the director’s omission of the Chinese ruler’s love life until I ruined my 20-year-career in journalism by opening what Bertolucci referred to as a can of worms.

Prologue – Before The Last Emperor, Bertolucci’s First Homophobic Film

The Conformist

Not coincidentally, Bertolucci’s The Conformist, considered his masterpiece by most critics since its release in 1970, two years after the director joined Italy’s Communist Party, does depict male homosexuality. But the director engaged in a grotesque homophobic sin of commission rather than The Last Emperor’s sin of omission. The theme of the film, set in 1930s Italy during Mussolini’s regime, contends that repressed homosexuals favor fascism as proof of their conformity to sexual norms, a preposterous bit of pseudo-political science not subscribed to by even the most die-hard Communists.

As one critic noted, “Marcello (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the lead character…becomes a Fascist in order to suppress his growing recognition of his homosexuality.”

Besides being literally politically incorrect, Bertolucci attributes Marcello’s sexuality to his childhood molestation by the family chauffeur, which is psychologically incorrect and a long-time canard promoted by right-wing politicians that victimization during childhood by a homosexual turns the victim into a homosexual as well.

That’s a theory discredited decades ago by the mental healthcare establishment represented by both the American Psychological Association and the American Psychiatric Association.

But the argument continues to be marshaled as justification for purging gay teachers from the classroom to prevent them from recruiting impressionable young minds to their “lifestyle” or “sexual preference,” annoying terms that imply something as ingrained as the dictatorship of the libido is comparable to genuine lifestyle choices like vegetarianism or body-piercing. Who would voluntarily “choose” or “prefer” to belong to a persecuted minority?

The Conformist’s molestation scene is brief and so G-rated a director at Disney might have filmed it. No one sucks anyone else’s toes. The overall homophobic flavor of the film is not confined to this author’s possibly bigoted opinion about the causes of bigotry or conformity. The critical consensus is summed up by film reviewer Robin Wood:

“In The Conformist, the ‘liberated’ woman with left-wing commitments and explicit lesbian tendencies is associated with decadence and irresponsibility. The homosexual chauffeur who seduced an already sexually ambiguous youth in childhood is also presented as decadent and exploitative.”

As in the director’s later film, The Last Emperor, much more screen time accrues to the lesbian relationship between Marcello’s bride and mistress, played by the supernal beauties Dominique Sanda and Stefania Sandrelli. Perhaps the most voluptuous erotic dance sequence in cinema depicts a conga line led by Sanda and Sandrelli.

Aristotle said that great art must contain three elements: truth, goodness and beauty. Oscar Wilde insisted that only beauty was necessary to qualify as art. Ironically, the homophobic Bertolucci’s beautiful but untruthful classic, The Conformist, proves the Wilde was right.

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Comeback Kid?

Frank,

Enlightening revelations of a past era.  One view, as you undoubtedly well know, is that those with such fears have insecurities themselves.  At least you apparently knew the right people in those days; i.e., had "good connections" in the celebrity world. That in itself must be a "plus" in attracting readers/followers.

With more universal acceptance these days of the gay perspective and lifestyle, are you considering a "comeback" in media/celebrity journalism or closed that chapter and moved on to exclusively other writing endeavors?  Needless to say, your writing is "polished" and incisive in the best senses, among other merits.  

Be well,

Brenden

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The Last Emperor.

I really enjoyed the film "The last Emperor". I had no idea that he was gay. It certainly was not even hinted at there. You have made him seem a much more interesting character now Frank. Thanks for that. All credit to you also for standing up for truth and fairness, when so many others just folded under the pressure to conform.