When I was a kid, a pirate video tape went around school. It was so fuzzy and muffled that it was practically – and mercifully – unwatchable. It was a film called Last Tango in Paris and despite it being extraordinarily dull, we feigned interest because it featured a notorious scene involving a man, a woman and a grocery item engaged in what we cluelessly and generically regarded as “sex”. Young, naive and struggling to make out what the hell was going on, we knew only that it was forbidden, and therefore required, viewing. We didn’t realise it was a depiction of rape.
I feel quite sick now, when I look back to teenage parties spent huddled around a top-loading VCR, because I know that what I was actually watching was a fellow teenager in genuine distress. And the film’s director, Oscar-winning Bernardo Bertolucci has confirmed that this is exactly what he wanted the audience to see. In a just-surfaced interview he gave in 2013, he admits that he and star Marlon Brando (then 48) had deliberately kept details of the scene (in which Brando lubricates his fingers with butter and smears them on his protesting victim’s anus before sodomising her) from the film’s female star, Maria Schneider, who was just 19 years old at the time. The two men had chosen to change the script and surprise her while cameras were rolling, in order to make her reaction to the attack seem real. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation,” Bertolucci said.
What seems to be clear is that Brando did not – at least in the physical sense – rape Schneider. The penetration was simulated. Schneider had expected some form of simulated rape to take place in the scene. What came without warning was Brando forcibly turning her over, taking a stick of butter and using it to lubricate his hands and her anus, before lying heavily on her back and thrusting his pelvis into her back passage. The idea only occurred to Brando and Bertolucci as they buttered baguettes over a nice spot of lunch. They instinctively and immediately knew what they wanted to do to her, the director says. They just didn’t want Schneider in on the plan. In the event, she said she didn't know she could stop it. Barely into adulthood, she didn't know she was allowed. Her pain and tears as she begs Brando to stop are, she said, real.
It's a shame Schneider, a professional actress, wasn't allowed to fake them. A shame she had to be kept ignorant of what two men over twice her age had decided they'd do to her body, purely in order for them to get the authentic humiliation and true powerlessness they wanted to see on screen. A shame she had to experience some of the abject horror of real rape, if not the physical act of penetration. This, it is apparently still felt by the director, was preferable to just letting her do her job. Brando was actor enough to rape a woman convincingly. But better to dupe his female co-star like some performing chimp that needs a wrangler waving a treat behind the camera. One can justifiably assume this wouldn’t happen to a male actor, that Joe Pesci wasn’t actually jumped unexpectedly in a darkened room in order to increase authenticity for his execution scene in Goodfellas. That an unwitting Ving Rhames didn’t need to be touched on the anus and assaulted to make his own rape scene in Pulp Fiction seem real. And yet it was felt that Schneider shouldn’t be trusted to act, or be privy to the creative process, only unwittingly to submit her body to male artistic whims.
The public is largely unflustered by Rose McGowan’s claims that she was raped by a filmmaker, and Thandie Newton’s revelation that another filmed her in a state of undress, then circulated the tape among his pals for their sexual entertainment
It is a small mercy that Bertolucci got what he needed in one take. In real life, Schneider found it harder to call it a wrap. She claimed years later that she felt “a little raped” by both actor and director. Anecdote bears this out. Following the film, there was a suicide attempt. The actress refused to appear nude again, checking herself into a mental facility rather than film a sex scene in the film Caligula. Her life post-Last Tango was mired in addiction, depression and other mental health problems. Bertolucci himself admits she never spoke to him again and hated him “for the rest of her life” (she died in 2011). We’ll never know the full impact of Schneider’s unplanned day at the office, but one could fairly assume from her classic symptoms and account that she suffered from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder – common in victims of rape.
Bertolucci told Italy’s ANSA news agency that in hindsight, he wished he could have apologised to her. “Maria accused me of having robbed her of her youth and only today am I wondering whether there wasn’t some truth to that,” he said. He acknowledges that he feels some guilt but nonetheless, says he has no regrets about the butter scene. Because it became legend, pushing the boundaries of cinema and changing the art form forever. Had she not been so convincingly terrified, humiliated and reduced to ignored tears then perhaps Last Tango in Paris might not have become so iconic. What was one teenager but collateral damage in the pursuit of great art?
This feeling of art trumping humanity is a pervasive one in Hollywood, where hundreds of high profile signatures (hello, Natalie Portman, Harrison Ford and Emma Thompson?) made up a petition to allow director Roman Polanski, who admitted in court that he’d photographed a 13-year-old child half naked, drugged her and anally raped her, to safely return to America, where he was convicted (he absconded to Europe ahead of sentencing when a judge overturned his plea bargain). Just as Whoopi Goldberg claimed Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old child “wasn’t rape-rape” and leagues of stars declared the auteur a culturally important filmmaker who should be allowed to roam and shoot with impunity, now we see online commenters stick up for Bernardo Bertolucci and the late Marlon Brando, two extraordinarily gifted members of the Hollywood elite, while Schneider gets a shocking amount of flak. Likewise, the public is largely unflustered by Rose McGowan’s claims that she was raped by a filmmaker, and Thandie Newton’s revelation that another filmed her in a state of undress, ostensibly for a film role, then circulated the tape among his pals for their sexual entertainment. This is the film industry, after all, not real life.
In the eyes of Hollywood and the cinema-going public, the degree of separation afforded by a camera and boom mic makes these men artists, not criminals. The perceived quality of their art makes them geniuses, not misogynists. Their complexity, passion and intelligence means they will never be judged like some scumbag feeling up women on the bus, or some playground-stalking lowlife Bertolucci’s defenders would cheerfully spit on. Meanwhile, this weekend saw a run on Last Tango in Paris, and at time of writing, YouTube figures soar and Amazon has sold out.
Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando just didn’t want to see Schneider “the actress”, the former says. They wanted to see Maria “the girl”. And to that extent it worked, because I no longer see the actress. Now I see the girl – the terrified, humiliated, violated, begging, crying girl. But I also no longer see a great actor and talented director. I see two loathsome, duplicitous, callous abusers, devoid of artistic imagination, whose once-celebrated film has less in common with great art than it does with seized tapes in a Scotland Yard vault. Their masterpiece is mere misogyny, their legacy, a woman’s lifelong suffering. We owe it to Maria Schneider to hit the stop button.