The Best Picture Project – The Last Emperor (1987)

Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci

Written by Mark Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci

Starring John Lone, Peter O’Toole and Joan Chen

After my last entry, for Wings, went super-long, I purposefully set out to rein this one in a bit, but it probably won’t be that difficult a task, because there really isn’t much of anything special I can say about The Last Emperor, other than it’s not really special – yet another default Best Picture winner in an otherwise dull year.

In another year, where it’s competition was better – you’d have to believe the strongest competition came from Moonstruck, simply because it rated a best director nod, and also took two acting prizes from three nominations – you’d think that The Last Emperor wouldn’t have run the table the way it did, with 9 wins from 9 nominations.  For instance, move it up a year, to face off against Platoon and Hannah and Her Sisters, or move it back a year where it faces Rain Man and Mississippi Burning, and a victory for The Last Emperor is inconceivable.  In fact, in either of those years it might have a tough time even rating a nomination.

However, in life, timing is everything.  So, instead of barely getting into the field as the fourth or fifth choice, The Last Emperor dominated it.  Which is too bad, because instead of being rightfully placed into the same category as other under-whelming and mostly-forgotten epics, such as Nicholas and Alexandria, The Last Emperor will forever be lauded.

Jeremy Thomas TIFF09-portrait.jpgNot that I don’t recognize the effort that went into making the movie.  Producer Jeremy Thomas raised the entire budget of the film – $25 million in mid-80s money – independently, before selling the finished product on, and as if raising that kind of cash wasn’t difficult enough, he had to somehow convince the government of Red China to let a bunch of Westerners come in and take over the Forbidden City so they could make a movie about their cultural history.  If nothing else, the filmmakers need to be praised for their efforts in getting the film made, and if there were a category for ‘most difficult production to mount’, I’d say The Last Emperor wins hands-down.  Alas, such a category does not exist and so the choice is Best Picture or nothing.

The problem is, The Last Emperor is frustratingly dull.  While the opening scenes – perhaps the first hour or so – showing the daily life of the interior of the Forbidden City and daily life for Pu Yi are fascinating, once the film moves outside the city walls, and into the intrigue over the Japanese invasion, Pu Yi’s imprisonment, the cultural revolution, and everything that happened thereafter, it just because a rather sodden, leaden weight that refuses to be dragged easily to the end.

Aisin-Gioro Puyi 01.jpgPart of the problem is clearly structural.  The first third or half of the film spends a great deal of time following Pu Yi throughout adolescence, with little mention of the historical or political turmoil happening outside – now and again we get the sounds of students demonstrating, and we see flashes of Pu Yi in prison, but these sequences are little explained when they appear.  When the political turmoil is finally explained, it is in the context of the remaining portion of the picture, which has to cover nearly 40 years of a man’s life, compressing it down until it’s little more than wild melodrama.  In some ways, the film is like a double-CD greatest hits package from some band.  On the first CD are the twelve or fifteen big hits, the one’s everybody knows and will listen to endlessly.  The second CD, though, is B-sides, rarities, and vault cuts that were B-sides, rarities, and vault cuts for a reason: it’s because they weren’t very good.  In this analogy, the first half of The Last Emperor is disc one, the second half is disc two.

Perhaps it might be salvage if there were something in the performances to save the film, but aside from a noble effort by Peter O’Toole, most of the acting is bland and labored.  I don’t think this is necessarily because the actors are bad, or miscast, it’s that most seem to struggle with speaking the English language clearly.  It’s almost as if they’ve been taught to do it phonetically, and it shows.

In the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the picture and it falls into the same category as many others: saw it once, and once was enough.

Against a white backdrop is a camouflaged military helmet with "Born to Kill" written on it, a peace sign attached to it, and a row of bullets lined up inside the helmet strap. Above the helmet are the words, "In Vietnam the wind doesn't blow it sucks."The sad thing is that 1987 actually produced a few truly great films that didn’t otherwise get much recognition at the time.  I’m tempted to hand the award to Full Metal Jacket, because Kubrick was a great director that never truly got the Academy love he deserved, and also because he had the nerve to make a Vietnam picture completely in England and then actually pulled it off.  But, as marvelous as the boot-camp section of the film is, it’s not enough to overcome the almost-pedestrian quality of the remaining sections.

Throwmommafromthetrain.jpgNo, the film I’d give Best Picture too, simply for its utter willingness to embrace its oddballness, is Throw Momma From The Train.  In a not-great year for films, Throw Momma From the Train is easily the most successful of the films of 1987 I saw – at least in terms of what it was trying to accomplish – and also the most memorable.  In other hands it might’ve been nothing more than the riff on Strangers on a Train it started out as, but under the combined talents of Danny DeVito, Billy Crystal and Anne Ramsey, the film becomes a classic.

Trivia:

The first time I ever heard of Pu Yi was in the Why We Fight documentary series, started by Frank Capra, which touched on Pu Yi’s re-installation as the pupper leader of Manchukuo.  I remember seeing this series of films on TV when I was a kid – one of the local stations played them in the mornings for some reason, at about 6:30 a.m.  I have no idea why they did it, though I suspect the films were probably out of copyright and could cheaply be used to fill the programming day.

The Last Emperor is one of only ten films in Academy history that won Best Picture without receiving a single acting nomination – this includes 2008 (Slumdog Millionaire), 2003 (The Lord of the Rings III), 1995 (Braveheart) and 1958 (Gigi).

David Byrne of Talking Heads won an Oscar for his work on the music.  Unfortunately, I’m doubtful his work was on the parts of the music I liked.  The parts that seemed appropriate and thematically right for the film were the Oriental music, which was great.  The string parts, otherwise known as the ‘classic orchestration’, and which I suspected Mr. Byrne had a hand in, are dated and awful and clashed with the film and should have been dropped.  Of course, I may be wrong on this and if David Byrne wishes to drop me a line and set me straight and correct this notion I have, I would not be too proud to eat crow.

Sorry

Uh, so remember when I said I was going to try and rein this in a bit?  Sorry about that.

For other entries in the Best Picture Project, please go here.

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