Bertolucci, Brando, and Separating the Art from the Artist
Trigger warning for graphic discussion of sexual assault and rape.
I’m sure that, by now, you’ve been made aware of an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci; while it was recorded in 2013, his comments regarding the conception and shooting of an infamous scene in what is, arguably, his most famous and popular movie, Last Tango in Paris. In the scene, Paul (played by Marlon Brando) forces himself on his much younger lover Jeanne (Maria Schneider) using a stick of butter as lubricant Bertolucci had this to say about the encounter;
“[It was] an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting…But, I mean, in a way horrible to Maria because I didn’t tell her what was going on because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress…I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and the humiliation.”
Schneider, who died several years ago and was nineteen at the time of the film’s shooting, also talked about the incident in an interview in 2007-“I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that…Marlon said to me, ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,’ but 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 by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
So, obviously, what is being described here is a sexual assault, a truly despicable act of violence against a young woman because her director didn’t trust her to convincingly act the emotions he wanted from her. It’s disgusting, on the part of both Brando and Bertolucci, and it raises the question once again- where do we separate the artist from their art?
Now, I’ve written on this topic before- everyone has their own opinion on where an artist crosses the line, when their art becomes sullied by what they do off-screen. But that’s not the issue here- Bertolluci and Brando’s heinous acts aren’t off-screen. With only one take, we can assume that the take we see in Last Tango in Paris is the real assault of Maria Schneider. The questions becomes, when the acts of awfulness are actually a part of the artist’s work, should we consume the art that contains it?
Because we’re not just talking about a one-off case here; the cult director Alejandro Jodorowsky, in his book El Topo, spoke in horrifying detail about the time he raped an actress as part of a scene until she screamed; on the less specifically sexual side of the scale, Stanely Kubrick famously tortured Shelley Duvall to get the performance he wanted out of her The Shining, while Alfred Hitchcock forced Tippi Hedren to endure getting swarmed by a pile of birds on-camera, despite her noted fear of the creatures. Even Dustin Hoffman reportedly hit Meryl Streep in the face and taunted her with comments about her recently-deceased partner on the set of Kramer vs Kramer to get her into the mindset he believed she required to perform the role. This isn’t like the case of Roman Polanski, whose blatant wrongdoings took place far from the sets of his movies; these are acts of awfulness arguably happened directly because of these films being made, and became an intrinsic part of the final product in some way or another.
I think it’s relatively easy to draw the line in the case of the recently-revived Bertolucci/Schneider awfulness, because to watch that film is to observe an actual sexual assault taking place- and dressed up as part of a movie about an ageing man’s libido, to add insult to injury. But when it comes to stories of abuse that is more negligible, that happened off-screen but as part of production, it’s harder to know where to draw the line. If the cast member involved is fine with it happening, do we just move on? Or is it a question of what we, ourselves, find morally acceptable or not? And, when it comes down to it, do we have a say in the way artists make art?
Well, of course not; I couldn’t have stormed on to the set of Last Tango in Paris and demand it be shut down because of what was happening there-even though it was a crime, it would have been unlikely to be recognised as one at the time. We do not get to choose the methods by which the people who create the art we consume think it best to create it. But when we support art that contains or is a product of these deeply unsettling methods, we are not just supporting the artist who made them, but the very act of them themselves.
Watching that Last Tango in Paris scene, and seeing it as anything other than what it is- a woman’s sexual assault, caught on camera- condones the act in some way by refusing to see it for what it is. Other cases come down to our own personal standards, but I think it’s worth questioning not just who makes our art- but how it is made, too, and whether the end, in many of the cases I brought up above, can ever really justify the means