I wanted to write an article on the ‘recent revelation’ of Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando’s treatment of Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris (1972). Despite Schneider discussing her experience in 2007, why is it only now being acknowledged by the media as a case of sexual abuse? It’s upsetting proof of how 21st century Hollywood is plagued by rape culture, permeating all levels of the industry.
Bertolucci’s film catapulted both the director and lead male Brando into Hollywood’s limelight, earning both men a spectrum of awards and achievements. Despite the questionable nature of the film’s narrative, and the explicit sequences throughout, it’s garnered widespread respectability and a cult status since its release in the early seventies.
Yet, female protagonist Schneider was flung head first into a world plagued with mental illness, narcotics addiction and a rocky career, eventually dying from cancer at only 58 years old. The positive success experienced by both Brando and Bertolucci was certainly not shared by the 19-year-old actress, who’s career and health was damaged from the onslaught of a negative, sexualised treatment by the film and media industry.
In a candid Daily Mail interview with Lina Das in 2007, Schneider divulged just how her experience filming Last Tango in Paris effected both her career and life, stating:
I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol – I wanted to be recognised as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.
A particularly uncomfortable scene involved Brando using butter as a lubricant and having sex with Schneider’s character, causing international controversy and aiding the film to be banned in various countries, including parts of the UK. But it isn’t just the shock of the images on screen which is disturbing and upsetting, with Schneider discussing how:
That scene wasn’t in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea [.. .] They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry. I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that. Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.
Here, in her very own clear-cut words, Schneider is publicly stating her experience on set with both Brando and Bertolucci was one of sexual assault. With Das entitling her article ‘I felt raped by Brando’, it’s an honest account that does not want to ignore or undermine the issue voiced by the actress.
Yet, despite Schneider’s comments about the infamous ‘butter scene’, her interview has remained ignored and Bertolucci has never lost credit. The film has continued to remain on various critics/websites/magazines ‘top’ lists. In March of this year, Complex published an article regarding the Top 25 Most Important Nudity Scenes in film, featuring Last Tango in Paris. With no mention of Schneider’s experience on set or the questionable nature of the nude sequences featured, Complex simply state ‘the film shows that very bad things happen when the veil of anonymity is lifted and a sexual relationship turns personal’. Presumably they’re referring to the murder of Brando’s character in the film’s finale when they mention ‘bad things’, not the on-set sexual abuse or the off-set effect on Schneider’s life the film would have.
The scene between Schneider and Brando has resurfaced in the media over the last few days, after an interview from 2013 was discovered of Bertolucci discussing his mistreatment of Schneider. Many reputable actors and critics have come forward, denouncing both the director and the film in light of the information.
In Bertolucci’s own words, he can be heard stating:
The sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting. […] I wanted her to act humiliated. I think she hated me and also Marlon because we didn’t tell her. To obtain something I think you have to be completely free. I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage, I wanted Maria to feel… the rage and humiliation.
Evidently, this dangerous man cannot be allowed power, influence and access to women in cinema and it is great he is being publicly showcased as an abusive person by people within the film industry. But it’s very upsetting to know Schneider admitted, nearly a decade ago, the exact same things as the director. The statements about Schneider’s ignorance to the scene taking place and her feelings towards the situation are identical, but she was ignored by mainstream media outlets. So, why have people only started to condemn the director and his film now?
Because we’re still completely and utterly immersed in Hollywood’s ‘rape culture’ – where only a male’s recognition of a female’s experience is taken seriously.
It also brings great discomfort in acknowledging how many of Bertolucci’s films follow suit, focusing on the loss of ‘innocence’ of a female lead and showcasing her body, virginity and sexuality on screen. Both Stealing Beauty (1998) and The Dreamers (2003) prove Bertolucci has continued decades of success and popularity in the film industry, on the process of selling and objectifying women’s bodies.
And, unsurprisingly, after the resurfacing of Last Tango in Paris‘ controversiality, Bertolucci has attempted to defend himself in a statement released on Monday:
Somebody thought, and thinks, that Maria had not been informed about the violence on her. That is false! Maria knew everything because she had read the script, where it was all described. The only novelty was the idea of the butter.
But it’s all too convenient for Bertolucci to attempt to clear up matters regarding the violent nature of the sequence and the sexual abuse experienced by Schneider, after her death, when she is unable to defend herself. Thankfully, the interview in the Daily Mail is concrete proof of her awful treatment, and it’s a very painful wake up call that we must begin taking cases of sexual abuse within the film industry seriously and confronting the inherent sexist culture.