It is one of the most controversial movies in modern cinematic history and last weekend, it added a very unpleasant layer to its infamy; one that threatens its very legacy. The critically acclaimed Last Tango In Paris (1972) managed two Academy award nominations and has been described as an “art house landmark” and “a boundary-breaking meditation on 20th-century loneliness and sexual politics” among others. But it was also X-rated and had been banned in Chile and Spain for its explicit sex scenes between Marlon Brando (then 48) and the then 19-year-old French actress Maria Schneider.
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One in particular remains controversial to this day: a scene where Brando’s character Paul, a widower, sexually assaults Joanne (Schneider), the object of his sexual obsession.
A video of a 2013 interview, which resurfaced last week, has director Bernardo Bertolucci admitting that the actress wasn’t informed of the scene as he “wanted her to react humiliated.” Bertolucci says that he and Brando colluded, taking the actress by surprise with the scene so that they would get her “reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” In effect, the director and the co-star didn’t get Schneider’s consent for a rape scene.
The comments predictably set off a online firestorm, with celebrities among those calling for the director to be stripped of his awards or to be prosecuted.
“All copies of this film should be destroyed immediately. It contains an actual rape and sexual assault. #disgusting #disgrace,” tweeted The Office actress Jenna Fischer. “This is beyond disgusting. I feel rage,” Captain America star Chris Evans tweeted.
Others on Twitter wondered why it took so long for the outrage, particularly because Schneider had talked about it years ago. In a 2007 interview to Daily Mail, Schneider had said that she felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertolucci. “[D]uring 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,” she had said.
Writing in The Guardian, Melissa Silverstein says that Hollywood treats women much as the way society does in that it’s a common theme to disbelieve women who say they are sexually assaulted. She points out that it took over 50 women to come forward for the world to believe that comedian Bill Cosby was a ‘rapist’. “People (even our best and most feminist actresses) still have no problem working with Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, and others whom the world knows have multiple issues with women,” she writes in a piece titled ‘Hollywood’s rape culture is a reflection of our culture’.
In The Sydney Morning Herald, Ruby Hamad says that Schneider’s abuse is just the tip of the iceberg and lists out other instances where Hollywood actresses were subjected to improper behaviour by directors for the “sake of art.” “Bertolucci was in his 30s at the time of filming, and the idea of two older, powerful, and famous men conspiring to not only humiliate a teenage woman, but to commit this degradation to film and call it art (both men were nominated for Oscars that year), is not only infuriating, it is indicative of the abuse of power that is prevalent and tolerated in the industry,” she writes.
Hamad points out that Shelly Duvall went through trauma on the set of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, with the actress saying she had to spend “12 hours a day crying” for nine months. Kubrick, Hamad says, isolated Duvall from the cast and crew and, according to Kubrick’s daughter Vivian, demanded no one feel sympathy for her. Other women to be abused or deceived by their directors, Hamad says, include Tippi Hedren in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds where, in “one scene he — without informing her until the last moment — substituted the mechanical birds that had been used as props for the real thing. In the film’s attic scene, Hedren is attacked and genuinely injured by live birds.” Hitchcock “put me in a mental prison,” Headren had said and in her memoir released this year, had also accused him of sexually assaulting her.
To be fair, however, as Schneider herself stated in 2007, the scene was simulated. She was not actually penetrated on-screen despite the current general impression that she was. But as James S Murphy writes in The Vanity Fair that going by what the scene depicts — and if it was done without Schneider’s consent — Brando would have “committed what is considered sexual assault in most jurisdictions”.
The view is echoed by Nico Lang, who also attempts to deconstruct if what occurred amounted to rape.
Writing in The Salon, Lang cedes that since the on-screen sex was all simulated, the answer to that question is fuzzy but adds that Schneider’s feelings were absolutely real. “Schneider’s director manipulated her into acting a scene that shows her being sexually humiliated, which amounts to a particularly flagrant case of sexual harassment. Schneider has said that she ‘should have called [her] lawyer or her agent’ but didn’t because she was so young and felt like she had to do what she was told,” Lang writes. She also notes that when the incident occurred in 1972, it would’ve been difficult for Schneider to speak up as sexual harassment hadn’t yet become part of public discourse. According to Lang, the phrase only made its first appearance in academic literature two years later in 1974, when MIT researcher Mary P Rowe mentioned it in a report on sexism at the workplace. Lang adds that the US Supreme Court only ruled that sexual harassment was illegal in 1986, when gender-based workplace abuse was deemed a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But the sexual assault scene, The Guardian’s Silverstein says, scarred the actress, who attempted suicide and struggled with drug addiction before her eventual death from cancer in 2011. For one, she refused to appear nude on screen again. “If you read what happened to Schneider after her rape, the suicide attempts and drug problems which were attributed at the time to the onslaught of fame, in hindsight we can see that this woman had PTSD (something that is common with rape survivors) because she had to cover up her own assault and it tortured her for the rest of her life,” Silverstein writes.
It is this suffering that the actress had to endure — she famously never spoke to Bertolucci again — that has commentators like Cesar Albarran Torres and Dan Golding calling for a reassessment of the movie’s legacy. In a piece in The Conversation titled, ‘Why we should no longer consider Last Tango in Paris ‘a classic’’, the duo say that it would now be “impossible to rewatch the movie without the air of a snuff piece about it.” “As viewers, we are witnessing actual abuse. It is difficult to imagine a way around that,” they say. “Film scholars must carefully consider the kinds of stories we tell about its history and achievements. Nor should women be left to critique the industry’s gender politics alone — one reason why we, as two men, feel the need to write this article,” they add.
Torres and Golding say films are often overlooked for inherent flaws for the sake of art. For instance, they say, DW Griffith’s, The Birth of a Nation (1915), “still holds a place in many film scholars’ lists of the all-time greats for its technical and aesthetic achievements,” despite the movie being accused of being racist and “widely thought to have spearheaded the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.”
“This should not be allowed to happen with Last Tango in Paris. We should not revere artistic achievement over the genuine suffering of others,” they say and slam the culture in Hollywood where directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, both allegedly perpetrators of sexual abuse, are allowed to “assert their technical craft over young women and be lauded for their artistry as a result.”
“The fact that both Schneider and Brando are dead is irrelevant. In a sociopolitical climate in which elected world leaders can brag about sexual assault without real repercussions, where women are routinely locked out of the film industry and where gendered online abuse is routine, this case should not go unacknowledged,” they say.