Friday, April 15, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Last Emperor" (1987)

Scene from The Last Emperor
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Last Emperor
Release Date: April 15, 1987
Director: Bernardo Bertolucci
Written By: Henery Puyi (Autobiography), Enzo Ungari (Initial Screenplay), Bernardo Bertolucci & Mark Peploe (Screenplay)
Starring: John Lone, Joan Chen, Peter O'Toole
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 163 minutes

Oscar Wins: 9
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Sound
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Broadcast News
-Fatal Attraction
-Hope and Glory

And the winner is...

Among the Best Picture winners, there are few films as wonderful yet forgotten as director Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Following the final days of the last emperor of China, whose name was Puyi, it is a magnificent film full of beautiful imagery and discussion of Chinese history and the disabilities faced by a man used to privileged activities. Spanning most of Puyi's life, it is a film that elevates the biopic genre while also setting unfathomable precedent in the shooting opportunities. Even if it's not as well remembered as some other 1980's winners, it definitely deserves every honor that it has received. 

In 1987, filming in China wasn't common. With exception to a 1982 documentary called The Forbidden Kingdom, no film had been shot within the walls that housed Puyi known as The Forbidden Kingdom. Yet Bertolucci approached China with a request to film one of two films there. The first was called Man's Fate. Yet they preferred the other one about the story of Puyi. Producer Jeremy Thomas also noted that the country was a lot easier to work with than the studios - of whom were skeptical to endorse a movie about the subject. Still, Thomas did diligent work - sometimes by scouring the phone book for references - to raise $25 million of the $44 million budget. By that point, filming was read to go.

There were a few requirements in order to film at The Forbidden Kingdom. For starters, contemporary modes of transportation were outlawed. This meant that even Peter O'Toole had to ride a bicycle to set. It was also heavily guarded, meaning that when O'Toole forgot his identification card, he was denied access. Thomas would later suggest that it was a nightmare to film everything, especially since they had limited six month access and way too much to do. However, he also suggested that it was all worth it in the end, believing that it created a work of beauty and solidified a long term partnership with Bertolucci, who would make additional films about oriental culture with The Sheltering Sky and The Little Buddha

Thomas wasn't wrong to be a little worried. The scale was at times unfathomable. Over the course of filming, they had approximately 19,000 extras - including some military and school children (approximately 1,100); the latter of whom Bertolucci noted couldn't get as angry as he wanted likely because they weren't alive during the scene's origin. Italian chefs were brought in to feed the international cast wit a list that included: 22,000 bottles of Italian mineral water, 450 pounds of Italian coffee, 250 gallons of olive oil, and 4,500 pounds of pasta. Of course, those numbers were also applied to other fields; including human hair for wigs (2,200 pounds). The latter included extensive training for 10 days to get 50 people to pin wigs onto 2,000 in under two hours. There were also Buddhist lamas who couldn't be touched by women, thus forcing them to be dressed by men.

To call the film an immediate success would be a lie. While the studios were impressed with the work and critics praised its visual grace, it suffered the typical independent movie start. It took 12 weeks before The Last Emperor entered the box office Top 10, and it was the week prior to the Oscar nominations. It would peak around the top five around its 22nd week of release. So in a sense, it was successful. However, it wasn't in the traditional way. Meanwhile, controversy arose when Japan edited out a short scene featuring The Rape of Nanjing without permission. It is due to Japan and China's opposing views on the matter. Bertolucci remained upset, but the problem was never resolved.

Despite the strange career trajectory and Fatal Attraction being the highest grossing nominee that year, The Last Emperor came home with a total sweep at The Oscars that year. With an impressive nine for nine wins, it tied with Gigi in wins. While there had been higher totals (Ben-Hur with 11 wins), The Last Emperor's total sweep remains unprecedented for the average Best Picture winner. The film was also the first film initially rated PG-13 to win (history would change this when films were retroactively rated as such, but it remains the first to be rated as such during competition). It was also one of the first partially independently financed movies to win. It could also be suggested that had it not been for the late push, The Last Emperor would've joined three films (The English Patient, Amadeus, The Hurt Locker) that won Best Picture without ever entering the Top 5 at the box office. Likewise, it remains one of the highest winners without a single acting nomination.

The legacy of The Last Emperor hasn't been as immediate as other Best Picture winners, even in the 80's. While the beautiful imagery and epic story set a precedent for biopics, there's little credit given to its achievements as a story. Even in Bertolucci's filmography, more people are likely to discuss Last Tango in Paris than this. Still, the director's interest in oriental culture lead to two other films. The availability to shoot in China also became more readily available as time went on. The most recent achievements of the film came when the Criterion Collection released the "Director Approved" box set in 2008, as well as a 3D conversion that played at Cannes in 2013. Otherwise, the film remains one of the most underrated Best Picture winners in an era where most of the titles are household names.

The Last Emperor may not be as familiar to audiences as it should be, but it definitely engaged the art of cinema with breathtaking beauty and a story unlike any other. With excellent acting and direction, the film is a trip through Chinese history that makes audiences sympathize with what starts as a spoiled child in a doomed position. Still, the film is enthusiastic and powerful without ever falling into saccharine. It set unprecedented shooting capabilities thanks to China's endorsement, and one that feels understated even today. Even without the film making history to judge it by, The Last Emperor is a powerful film about life and what it means to live the life unlived. 

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