Bernardo Bertolucci, a towering figure of world cinema, has died aged 77.

The influential Italian auteur, perhaps best known for epic The Last Emperor, which won nine Oscars, and groundbreaking works such as Last Tango In Paris and The Conformist, has passed away in Rome following a battle with cancer his publicist has confirmed.

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Columbia Pictures

Bertolucci was a key figure in the extraordinary Italian cinema of the 1960s and early 1970s but also made a successful transition to big canvas Hollywood filmmaking with 1987’s The Last Emperor, whose Oscars included Best Picture and Best Director for Bertolucci.

Bertolucci was born in the Italian city of Parma in 1941, the son of a poet and teacher. His father was friends with future avant-garde filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, then a novelist and poet, and Pasolino hired the 20-year-old Bertolucci as his assistant on his 1961 debut, Accattone. Bertolucci made his own directorial debut on 1962 feature La Commare Seca (The Grim Reaper) and later in the decade would write on Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti western Once Upon A Time In The West.

Bertolucci’s career took off with political features such as Before The Revolution (1964) and the highly influential The Conformist from 1970. Jean-Louis Trintignant and Stefania Sandrelli star in the latter, the story of a weak-willed Italian man who becomes a fascist flunky and goes abroad to arrange the assassination of his old teacher, now a political dissident.

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Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (7360679b)

The film marked the beginning of Bertolucci’s long-term collaboration with cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, with whom he would work on The Spider’s Stratagem (1970), Last Tango In Paris (1972) and epic and starry drama 1900. Last Tango In Paris, with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, became an international and U.S. art-house sensation and a lightning rod for controversy. The film, about an American businessman who begins a sexually charged relationship with a young Frenchwoman, was banned in several countries and Bertolucci was brought up on charges of obscenity in his homeland.

The experience of actress Schneider on Last Tango would also become a source of controversy many years later, with her saying the film’s infamous scene in which butter is used during an anal rape made her feel “humiliated.”

The Last Emperor, produced by RPC’s Jeremy Thomas, became Bertolucci’s biggest awards success. The epic story of the final Emperor of China is one of the few films ever to shoot in Beijing’s The Forbidden City. Thomas and Bertolucci would go on to make a string of English-language features together, including The Sheltering Sky with John Malkovich and Debra Winger, Stealing Beauty with Liv Tyler, and The Dreamers starring Eva Green. Bertolucci’s final completed feature was 2012 Italian drama Io E Te (Me And You), adapted from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti.

Bertolucci received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008 and was awarded the Venice Film Festival’s Honorary Golden Lion in 2007 and an honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2011. The director had been a wheelchair user in his later years reportedly due to several botched surgeries for a herniated disc.

He had been married since 1978 to filmmaker Clare Peploe, but had no children.