When a 2013 interview with Last Tango in Paris director Bernardo Bertolucci resurfaced last week, comments he made regarding the infamous 'butter rape scene' went viral, sparking outrage within Hollywood and across the internet. It was revealed that #Bertolucci and a then 48-year-old Marlon Brando planned the traumatic scene and use of a foreign substance without the consent of the movie's 19-year-old star, Maria Schneider.
Much of #Hollywood was appalled by the comments, even more so when Bertolucci tried to insist that Schneider was well aware of the scene, except the "novelty idea" of penetration by butter. Stars such as Jessica Chastain, #ChrisEvans and Evan Rachel Wood all took to Twitter to express their disgust after the story broke last weekend:
While it's encouraging that modern Hollywood has reacted with such revulsion, it's also discouraging that it has taken this long to garner such a response to the treatment of women in Hollywood — not just to Last Tango In Paris, but to many movies considered classics today.
Drawing The Line Between Art and Abuse
As a director, you are in a unique position of power. You are the single controlling force on set, and its usually down to you whether a movie soars or pans. The control you have over your actors also requires a level of trust, and this is where Bertolucci and Brando crossed the line. In his recent statement, Bertolucci mentions something very revealing:
I specified, but perhaps I was not clear, that I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we would have used butter. We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter].
Here lies one of the major issues of this story — there is a very, very fine line between pushing actors to achieve their potential, and abusing your actors to provoke a "real" on-camera response. The contract of trust between directors and particularly actresses, has been repeatedly broken throughout the history of cinema.
One of the earliest documented examples of this was Alfred Hitchcock's turbulent relationship with Marnie and The Birds star Tippi Hedren, who he assaulted both off and on set. Hitchcock reportedly installed a door between his office and her dressing room, and during the famous phone booth scene almost blinded Hedren when the 'shatterproof' class turned out not to be shatterproof at all.
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Actress Shelley Duvall was bullied to the point of despair by Stanley Kubrick on the set of The Shining. While the abuse can clearly be seen in BTS footage from the movie, the directors actions are only now called to light after Duvall's heartbreaking reappearance on Dr. Phil. It's also worth mentioning that male actors have also been victims of directorial abuse; Francis Ford Coppola's directorial tactics drove Martin Sheen to the edge of insanity during the Vietnam epic Apocalypse, Now. There are also allegations of intense shooting conditions and abuse from the sets of The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and Singing in the Rain.
And it's not just the classics. The French stars of sapphic arthouse classic Blue is the Warmest Color spoke out about the gruelling conditions they were subjected to by director Abdellatif Kechiche while shooting — which included 10 long days filming that infamous 8-minute sex scene. Both actresses were highly praised for their realistic portrayal of love and heartbreak, which many attribute to Kechiche's tough work ethic on set.
Charlotte Gainsbourg is one of several actresses who have been pushed to the limits by Lars Von Trier (Antichrist, Nymphomaniac) — Gainsbourg particularly cites Nymphomaniac's explicit nature as "humiliating" but "necessary" to realise Lars' vision of the film.
It's Just Not Good Enough
This is a good time to point out that many 'tough' directors do ask a lot from their actors — emotionally and sometimes physically. But there is a level of trust there which ultimately protects the integrity of production, and most of the time the actor understands what they are signing up for — but not always.
This is the saddest thing about the Last Tango In Paris scandal. Both the overtly sexual nature of the scene, and that we're only just taking notice. Maria Schneider — who sadly passed away in 2011 — spoke openly about "feeling raped" during that scene, but no one took any notice until Bertolucci's 2013 interview. There is a huge culture of suspicion surrounding women's testimonies, especially when it comes to rape and abuse, and Schneider's experience is, sadly, one of many.
A movie set works the same way as any other working environment, and dolling it up and calling it 'art' is no longer an excuse for sexual, emotional or physical assault — no matter how many iconic movies you have made. Most disturbing of all is that nothing will come of Bertolucci's confession, or the testimonials from the hundreds of actors who have gone through hell and back in the name of 'classic' cinema. We need to do better by our actors, so let's hope Schneider's experience and the Hollywood fallout can signal a change in the way we view some of these directors — and rather than reward them, perhaps we can hold them accountable.
Were you shocked to learn about Maria Schneider's experience in Last Tango in Paris? Let us know in the comments.