Acting demands the approximation of emotion, but sometimes the ask is a bit grander. It’s high art to trick or coax us all into thinking that the person on-screen and in tears is mourning the loss of their best friend as the music swells. To gain an edge in pursuit of that endeavor, filmmakers push their actors right up to the line. Physical and emotional limits are tested.
Filmmaking can be an extreme experiment and the praise flows like wine when we all see how far people are willing to go to accomplish that which is a whisp away from being really real. But there is a line. You wouldn’t actually kill someone’s friend to bring out that real emotion. To do that wouldn’t be art, it would be deranged and criminal. Among other things.
Last Tango In Paris is considered, by many, to be an erotic classic. The film, which was written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, stars a middle-aged Marlon Brando and a 19-year-old then unknown French actress by the name of Maria Schneider. The two actors engaged in a passionate on-screen affair, but despite rumors to the contrary, the sex was not real. “There was no attraction between us. For me, he was more like a father figure and I a daughter,” said Schneider in a 2007 interview with The Daily Mail.
In that same interview, Schneider spoke out about being made to feel uncomfortable by Bertolucci and Brando, specifically during the filming of an infamous sex scene where Brando’s character uses a stick of butter as a lubricant. The scene, which Schneider said was concocted by Brando, was not in the script and she said she wasn’t told about it until just prior to filming.
“I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
Schneider, who died in 2011, also described a phase of her life in the mid to late ’70s that was lost to drugs, which she turned to as an antidote to the pressures of the fame she found after the film and her rise as a sex symbol. She survived multiple overdoses but got clean in 1980.
Bertolucci, in a freshly discovered video of a Q&A at the 2013 La Cinémathèque française in Paris (via Yahoo), admits that he feels “guilty” over how he treated Schneider and says that he didn’t tell her about how the butter would be used before filming. He also said that he doesn’t “regret” filming the scene in that way.
“To obtain something I think you have to be completely free. I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation her rage, I wanted her to Maria to feel – not to act – the rage and humiliation.”
Those that appreciate music, film, television, literature, and other art are often asked to separate that art from its flawed creators due to heinous deeds that those creators are accused of off-camera. And so many of us do, specifically with Bertolucci contemporaries like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and present-day actor Casey Affleck, who is under fire for past sexual harassment allegations while simultaneously drawing rave reviews and Oscar buzz for his performance in Manchester By The Sea.
Is there really any way to separate Last Tango In Paris from what Bertolucci has confessed to, though? His misdeeds are right there on screen, seen in the real tears of a young woman who is being exploited by a filmmaker who pushed aside the natural rules of drama and human decency.
To continue to hold this film up as a classic feels, itself, like an exploitation now. There isn’t an asterisk big enough or denial strong enough. And while the loss of Bertolucci’s legacy is nowhere near as harsh an experience as Schneider endured, it will have to suffice.