I have made films myself, scripted films, and known directors, crew and actors, so I have few illusions about films as a working reality. I know that a film set is never a peaceful, safe place for anybody. A film set is like a dysfunctional family that falls apart after a couple of months.
So I don’t like to moralize about the issues of making cinematic art, but I find it is impossible to stay silent — especially when others are being offensively loud about the industry’s dark side. For instance, the world-famous Bernardo Bertolucci. Bertolucci released a new film recently — it was well-received — and then he reminisced in public about the high-points of his Oscar-winning film career. Especially “Last Tango in Paris.”
This much-discussed film is a decadent erotic love story between an old boxer and a young hippie in an empty flat in Paris. It had a scene that has never lost its potential to shock. It involved butter and sodomy.
Of course I’ve seen hardcore movies, with plenty of violence, sexual and otherwise, represented on the screen. I’ve been present while the crew was bullied by directors and producers in the name of art, money or ambition. I’ve even appeared nude on screen myself, because it seemed like a good idea at the time — the 1970s. But listen to Bertolucci’s description of how this famous Last Tango scene came to be.
“This idea came to me and Brando while we were having breakfast… at a certain point he started spreading butter on his baguette, we immediately exchanged the glances of accomplices… We decided not to say anything to Maria, in order to have her reaction more real, not that of an actress but of a young woman… She cries, screams, she feels hurt. And in some way she was hurt, because I never told her that the scene of sodomy would happen, but that pain was useful for the movie. I don’t think she would have reacted in this way if she knew. These are serious things, but this is also a way to make movies: provocations are sometimes more important than explanations. And in this way you also achieve a sort of atmosphere, which I would not be able to make otherwise. Maria was twenty. All her life she was bearing a grudge towards me, because she felt used. Unfortunately it happens when you are in the middle of an adventure you don’t understand. She had no means to filter what was happening to her. Maybe I was guilty, but nobody can take me to the court for this.”
Well, I myself knew Maria Schneider. The life of this young actress did not go well after that dark episode. She became a drug addict, she had a lesbian coming-out, and eventually she died of cancer in 2011, still complaining from her death bed how she never got over the trauma of that film scene. She said she felt “raped”. I once met Maria in a hotel in Rome, when we talked about her starring in a movie I was scripting at the time. Maria wanted to prove herself as an actress and escape her unsought notoriety for this Last Tango episode. She had not consented to it, the scene was not in her script, her agent was not around to defend her interests, and the worldwide success of the film certainly did not make Maria rich. Never again did she play such a role , on the contrary, and I happen to know that she wasn’t even Bertolucci’s first choice but the producer saw in her the sex bomb.
Actresses are often cruelly exploited by the film industry and its male directors, those minor dictators. The Roman Polanski underage rape scandal has gone on for decades now. It was painful to hear, recently, from the victim herself, describing how she was trapped, as a minor, in a machinery of sex drugs and fame that scarred her entire life to date.
That’s no new story, either. Tippi Hedren complained about Alfred Hitchcock trying to rape her during the shooting of the masterpiece about sex and sexual violence, “Marnie.” No doubt the great maestro was aiming for some spontaneous affect. Is this cruel behavior supposed to benefit art somehow? It’s someone else’s adventure at the cost of a woman’s integrity.
And what if these women were men instead? Raped for the sake of a good shot!And what if the scene turned to be lousy, or the movie a still born ? Or if these woman were wives, sisters and daughters of the genius…
Bertolucci is sure that he won’t be legally prosecuted. Does art make rape legal?
Maria Schneider didn’t get her career back after being splashed across the screens worldwide as Brando’s hapless sex object. Has cinema ever improved by an actress being deceived and exploited on-set by a director — as a surprise, as a provocation? How would the director respond if he was surprised and provoked by being charged with a criminal act?
No matter what Brando or Bertolucci may have thought over their breakfast table, it’s not that big a deal to include some butter in a sex act in some movie.
Instead that scene will always shock us because of the fact that Maria was “raped” by Brando and Bertolucci. And if that makes art, even though I am a big fan of Bertolucci, Hitchock and Polanski I’ d rather be a policewoman than an artist!