A Battle for ‘1900’

Newsweek – September 27, 1976

Bernard Bertolucci’s epic “1900” has been in the making for almost four years, and his fans have been impatiently awaiting it as the celebrated director’s major artistic and political statement.  Those who saw it at this summer’s film festivals in Cannes and Venice describe it as controversial, but incomparably beautiful and rich in texture – a study of the struggle between Fascism and Communism in Italy from 1900 to 1945, portrayed through the lives of an aristocrat and peasant born on the same day near Parma.  But the film’s American distribution is in jeopardy, in a classic conflict of art against commerce – and Bertolucci now finds himself in an agonizing dilemma.

The problems are both creative and commercial.  To begin with, the $8 million film is an unwieldy five and a half hours long, a formidable bar to normal distribution.  Stars Robert DeNiro, Dominique Sanda, Laura Betti and Gerard Depardieu were filmed speaking in three separate languages, and an English dubbing has yet to be completed.  Perhaps more important, the second part of the film is passionately political, culminating in a resounding paean to Communism – and no major U.S. studio wants to risk showing it split into its logical halves, with the second standing alone.

For his part, Bertolucci is adamantly resisting any major changes in the film.  But the Italian producer, Alberto Grimaldi, is under pressure to pay off at least $1.8 million of the money he borrowed to help finance its production.  Grimaldi got the loan on the strength of a commitment from Paramount Pictures to buy a three-hour and ten-minute version for the U.S.  When he delivered a five-and-a-half-hour version last spring, Paramount turned down the film and Grimaldi was left on the hook.  Since then, he has conducted an extensive campaign of shuttle diplomacy on behalf of his investment.  Negotiations with Don Rugoff’s Cinema 5 company broke down over money and how to space the release of Parts I and II.  Rock tycoon James Guercio, who directed “Electra Glide in Blue,” wanted to open both parts simultaneously will full stereophonic sound in theaters next door to each other.  But he didn’t want to pay the $2 million in advance money Grimaldi was asking for the film’s distribution rights.

Variety: Three weeks ago, Grimaldi finally made a deal with Twentieth Century-Fox, which already owns some of the foreign distribution rights for the film.  Fox agreed to distribute a four-hour English version of “1900” in the U.S. if Bertolucci would make – and enthusiastically approve – such a cut.  Though there was no signed agreement, Fox announced in Variety that it was planning to distribute the film and even sent out a letter to exhibitors inviting theater owners to bid on it in their areas.  One New York theater has already booked “1900” for Christmas.  But apparently nobody had told Bertolucci about the deal – and when he first heard about the four-hour clause, his reaction was reportedly explosive: “I will not cut one frame!”

Technically, Grimaldi has final cut of “1900” and can do what he wants.  But he also has a contract with Bertolucci to produce his next four films, and doesn’t want to antagonize the director.  Bertolucci, 36, who is in fragile health and is reported to be distraught over the haggling, can withhold his name from the film if he doesn’t approve – a move that would undo the Fox deal since Fox executive Johnny Friedkin has said flatly: “We have no interest in the film if it doesn’t get his support.  The critics would destroy us.  It’s a man’s’ work.  You can’t take it out of his hands.”

In Rome last week, Grimaldi was anxiously conciliatory.  “We must compromise,” he insisted. “The main thing is to get the picture released.”  But so far, Bertolucci wasn’t budging.

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.