'Last Tango in Paris' controversy blown out of proportion, with Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider long dead

Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris,Tub Scene
Maria Schneider and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris
Bernardo Bertolucci’s confession in a recently surfaced video that he hadn’t taken Maria Schneider into confidence while shooting the infamous rape scene involving her and Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris has become a subject of widespread outrage with both celebrities and commoners censuring Bertolucci for his callous treatment of Schneider who was only 19 at the time. “To all the people that love this film- you're watching a 19 yr old get raped by a 48 yr old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick,tweeted Hollywood actress Jessica Chastain. Chris Evans tweeted: “Wow. I will never look at this film, Bertolucci or Brando the same way again. This is beyond disgusting. I feel rage.” The video clip featuring Bertolucci’s confession is from an event held at La Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 2013. “The sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting," Bertolucci admits in the video. He further says: “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.” 

Last Tango in Paris revolves around the lives of two lonely people residing in Paris: Paul, a recently widowed, middle-aged American businessman, and Jeanne, a young, voluptuous, soon-to-be-married Parisian girl. The two accidentally meet up in an empty apartment available for rent and a steamy affair ensues between the two on strictly anonymous basis. While Paul sees Jeanne as a vessel to release his frustration, Jeanne finds in Paul a passionate lover which her effeminate fiancé could never become.  Here is how Maria Schneider, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 58, had summed up her experience of working with Bertolucci in a 2007 interview: “I think Bertolucci is over-rated and he never really made anything after Last Tango in Paris that had the same impact. He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself… I was too young to know better. I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol - I wanted to be recognized as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.” Although, there is no denying that Bertolucci pushed both Brando and Schneider much beyond what most directors would dare to go, it is also true that Last Tango in Paris fetched Schneider instant international recognition.
Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place, Gloria Grahame
Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place
As for Brando, he was going through a very difficult phase in his career at the time as many producers considered him un-bankable. He hadn’t appeared in any box office hit since the 1958 film The Young Lions. Also, the critics had become contemptuous of his work. But, Brando’s singular performances in Last Tango in Paris and The Godfather silenced his critics once and for all. Brando’s portrayal of a widower in Last Tango in Paris is often described as an archetype of wounded masculinity in cinema. Director Ang Lee actually made Tony Chiu Wai Leung study Brando’s performance (along with the performances of Humphrey Bogart in In a Lonely Place and Richard Burton in Equus) to help him prepare for the character of Mr. Yee in Lust, Caution (2007). In Last Tango in Paris, Bertolucci merely uses his characters a means to foray into unexplored realms of human psyche. He unflinchingly projects them as objects of desire, disgust and depravity. While we may not approve of it, all Bertolucci was trying to achieve was to express himself as an artist. It is the same artistic freedom that drove artists like Vincent van Gogh and Marquis de Sade. Bertolucci's penchant for art is limitless and he uses it to full effect to give Last Tango in Paris an aesthetic feel while simultaneously catering to the movie's explorative, earthy, and unconventionally bold motifs. Bertolucci’s decision to shoot the rape sequence without Schneider’s consent was certainly unethical but to describe it as rape is outrageous. While many who have seen the film believe that the sex scenes between Brando and Schneider were for real, Schneider herself had refuted the claim categorically: “Not at all. There was no attraction between us. For me, he was more like a father figure and I a daughter. He gave me advice about the movie industry. We stayed friends until the end… Undoubtedly, my best experience about making the film was my encounter with Marlon.”
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs
Ever since Bertolucci’s confession video surfaced everybody is condemning him and Brando for sexually assaulting Maria Schneider. But, the fact of the matter is that Schneider was never really physically assaulted. Tricking an actor to elicit a certain response is certainly not uncommon to the film business. Consider the unscripted scene from Deer Hunter wherein Christopher Walken spits in Robert De Niro’s face leaving De Niro enraged to the delight of director Michael Cimino. The performance earned Walken an Academy Award. Or, try to remember the death scene involving Alan Rickman in Die Hard wherein director John McTiernan dropped Rickman on the count of two instead of three to elicit a reaction of genuine shock from the actor. No one can forget the chilling first encounter between Hannibal Lecter and Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs. While the shooting of the very scene, Anthony Hopkins actually improvised and mocked Jodie Foster’s southern accent to elicit a horrified reaction that was genuine. Although, Foster initially felt personally attacked but later thanked Hopkins. Both the actors bagged Academy Awards for their respective portrayals in the film.
Maria Schneider, Marlon Brando, cuddling up, Last Tango in Paris
A Still from Last Tango in Paris
Although, the aforementioned scene from Last Tango in Paris was unscripted, it wasn’t that Bertolucci and Brando improvised on the spot as was confirmed by Schneider: “That scene wasn't in the original script… 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.” She could have protested and asked to stop the shooting or pressed for legal charges. Maybe, at a 19 year old, she was not ready for dealing with scenes of such high intensity. One thing, however, is certain. She was not equipped to deal with the instant stardom that Last Tango in Paris provided her. “To be suddenly famous all over the world was frightening. I didn't have bodyguards like they do today. People thought I was just like my character and I would make up stories for the press, but that wasn't me… I didn't enjoy being famous at all and drugs were my escape. I took pills to try and commit suicide but I survived because God decided it wasn't the time for me to go,” rued Schneider. Many countries banned Last Tango in Paris, deeming its content pornographical. More than what she went through during the filming of Bertolucci’s film, it was the response that made it worse for Schneider. A young French actress who earlier used to think “nudity was beautiful" suddenly decided never to go nude in a film.
Maria Schneider and Jack Nicholson in The Passenger 
People who are creating furor about how brutally Bertolucci treated Schneider ought to consider the cruelty that certain directors like Fritz Lang inflicted on their actors. They ought to take cognizance of how inhuman the studio bosses have been to the screenwriters. They ought to consider the exploitation that the movie extras have to deal with. They ought to be mindful of the brutality with which the world has treated some of the greatest artists who have ever lived. This particular instance involving Maria Schneider was certainly unethical but one cannot deny the fact that it was her decision to stay back and complete the movie when she could have walked away. Ultimately, the movie did help her establish her career and she went on to star in films like Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger. With both Brando and Schneider long dead, the recent controversy surrounding Last Tango in Paris seems to be blown out of proportion and comes across as some desperate attempt to garner publicity. It’s befuddling to learn that even those haven’t watched Last Tango in Paris or haven’t got a clue about what it really deals are a part of the protest. Maybe, they are seeing it as a means to vent out their pent up anger. To quote the mad prophet Howard Beale from Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976): “I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.” Those who are describing it sexual assault really need to go back to what Schneider had originally said: “That scene wasn’t in the original script...They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry... 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 Bertolucci.” She had further added: “I was so young and relatively inexperienced and I didn't understand all of the film's sexual content. I had a bit of a bad feeling about it all.” The bottom line remains that nothing that happened during the shoot was for real. It was all constructed through some clever camera tricks and convincing performances. 
The infmaous scene involving Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider from Last Tango in Paris
As Schneider matured as an actress she became more accepting of her swell work in Last Tango in Paris: “Now, though, I can look at the film and like my work in it.” But, perhaps, she could never come to terms with the movie’s reference to butter as a lubricant. “I like to see friends and go to the market and cook. But I never use butter to cook anymore… only olive oil," Schneider had quipped laughingly. On a serious note, not many in showbizz can cope with the high calories that butter contain. With almost four decades after its release Last Tango in Paris continues to serve as an unforgettable requiem for solitude as well as unrequited love that dares to expose the dark, ugly, and bestial side of humanity. The movie certainly wouldn't have been the same without Schneider in it. 

(Update: Since this article was published, some on Twitter have observed that even if Brando penetrated Schneider with butter without her consent, that would also be sexual assault. However, neither Bertolucci nor Schneider has said that it occurred.)

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A detailed analysis of Last Tango in Paris can be read here.

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  1. I am shocked that you actually think this and someone thought it was okay to print it. She could have walked away?! That's equivalent to saying she should not have gone out at night, she should not have worn those clothes etc etc. Women cannot be used by men for art, for the greater good, or for anything, because you cannot abuse your power and then say you could have resisted.
    This is a shameful defence of a warped attitude towards women. Shocking and disgraceful!

    1. That's what happens these days. We just close our minds and are too rigid to see other views and opinions!

  2. Wow... you actually compared 'spitting' and 'mocking accent' with sexual assault/consent. Just wow !


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