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The story was hiding in plain sight for years, and may have been staple for Hollywood gossip for decades. It was even on the record. In a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail, Maria Schneider, the French actress whose career was made by her performance opposite Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris, revealed that she was not informed in advance of her role in the world’s most famous sex scene. The enacted rape, popularly known as “the butter scene”, was reality cinema. To put it bluntly, it was rape. The fact that the actress was debuting on the world stage aged 19 while Brando was a superstar pushing 50 makes it look even worse.
However, the story has made international headlines only now, when a 2013 video resurfaced, in which Last Tango director Bernardo Bertolucci defended his decision to keep the scene a secret from Schneider because he had “wanted her reaction as a girl, not an actress”. Why did this admission of rape aforethought elicit a global storm of fear and loathing when the actress’s account did not? It is particularly surprising since Schneider’s interview was very newsy — it coincided with the release of a 35th anniversary edition of the film, which had first appeared in 1972. But it is Bertolucci’s video which serves as the peg for agitated round-ups of the long tradition of exploitative sex in Hollywood.
Social media may have made a difference. In 2007, Twitter was a newborn and Facebook was yet to become an alternative news channel. Viral stories did exist but they spread at subsonic speeds, giving people time to reflect. The hive mind was not as easily infected with the knee-jerk moral outrage which social media is so good at amplifying. Last Tango was sensational by design, and the revelation that it stooped to rape should not really surprise.