With Poland’s refusal to extradite Roman Polanski for his decades-old rape charge/conviction, this topic just feels that much more…icky. It’s raw and disgusting because of how the two situations try to explain away monstrous behavior by claiming the perpetrator was an artist of renown. In Polanski’s case, his art outweighed his obligation to stand accountable for his crimes. In this other – involving director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando – it is that the abuse of an actress was justified by the quality of the art it produced. Be warned.
I have never seen Last Tango in Paris. It’s just one of those films that escaped my interest over the years. I’ve heard the Brando “Get da buttuh” jokes over the years and associated them with the movie. Usually the line goes along with a “locker room” joke about anal rape or being pushed into performing an unpopular task at work. It was always part of the noise of pop culture references throughout my life.
I cannot comment on the film. However, I ran across an article in Variety where the director of the film, Bernardo Bertolucci, felt the need to defend himself against the firestorm of press resulting from his admission that one of his actors was unaware and did not consent to elements of a scene depicting a violent assault.
I will also limit my comments to the director’s own defense.
The story goes that Bertolucci and Brando were having breakfast together before shooting a very important – and graphic – scene of violence between Brando and the late actress Maria Schneider.
The creepy explanation comes from Bertolucci himself, from a Variety article:
“We were having, with Marlon [Brando], breakfast on the floor of the flat where I was shooting,” he said. “There was a baguette, there was butter and we looked at each other and, without saying anything, we knew what we wanted.”
They knew what they wanted. A creative epiphany!
Of course, if they had brought Schneider into the discussion and said, “Hey, we want to use a stick of butter on your butt in this scene to make it more graphic” this would be a different story. The actress could have said, “hells, no” or “Sure, let’s make this work.” However, to explain himself, Bertolucci wrapped himself in the pixie dust of “ART”:
“I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage,” he said. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for her whole life.” (Emphasis mine)
In other words, in order to get the best images for the film, the director (and actor) chose a course of action that denied consent to another actor. Further, it intentionally caused rage and humiliation in a sexual act constructed on the concept of control.
Yes, Bernie. That’s rape. You and Brando conspired to rape someone for art. At BEST, what you did could be argued down to sexual assault or battery.
Here’s the mindset that sits at odds with me. Yes, actors are supposed to enter uncomfortable, sometimes horrifying parts of themselves to find their performance. Sometimes a director and other actors will collaborate to find the right motivation and feelings to make a scene work. That’s part of the process. Sometimes, like in the opening sequence of Jaws circumstances just happen which result in the perfect moment captured on film (when the actress is pulled underwater, she was pulled so hard it injured her. Spielberg went on to use the genuine expression of pain and fear in the final cut.)
But to engineer a violation of an actor’s body and her trust for the purpose of creating art – that’s unacceptable. In a scene of violence, trust is essential. Acting is the channeling of something real into a false situation. As a result, Schneider never spoke to Brando or Bertolucci again. In interviews before her death she admitted to feeling violated and even “kind of raped” by the situation.
None of this really ignited any blowback against the director or Brando until recently when the director defended his decision while wrapping himself in the sorrow of their collective sacrifice for art.
But there was blowback. A little late because the tabloids didn’t really care when Schneider made her statement on the subject or when she died or even a few years ago when Berttolucci made his sad admission to a film magazine. FINALLY, instead of the “Oh, they went to insane lengths for authenticity by assaulting the actress. How sad” response from most people, people suddenly switched gears to ask “You fuckers did WHAT, now?”
In Variety online, Bertolucci recently responded to criticism of the late Marlon Brando and himself thusly (again reported in variety.com)…
“I specified, but perhaps I was not clear, that I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we would have used butter,” he noted. “We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter]. That is where the misunderstanding lies.
Yeah, no, Bernie. The point: You have missed her.
You and Brando “knew what we wanted” which was to surprise the actress by deviating from the plan expressly to evoke REAL rage and humiliation.” You betrayed her trust and that essential bond of safety that all actors should have between one another (and all PEOPLE should really have between one another). You denied a 19-year-old woman the right of consent or control over her own body. She knew the scene and agreed to participate, but when you denied her the right to control the scene as an actress, she became a human being being controlled. When she lost control of her own body and what was done to it, you were an accomplice to Brando’s sexual assault. Worse, you immortalized it in film.
That’s what people are upset about, Bernie.
Sure, you felt “sad” about this because Schneider hated you for it. Your reflection on the film has always been one of sadness and regret for a lost friendship, not one where you acknowledge her feelings or your culpability about the incident. As though this kind of violation is a legitimate means to accomplish the creation of a film.
Fuck you, Bernie. Fuck you, Brando. Fuck you, Polanski. They hold themselves as priests and their priesthood of entertainment shuffles them away to new places when bad things happen. But they aren’t. They work a job just like us. They are accountable just like us.
Art can come at a sacrifice, sure. But it is the artists RIGHT to choose what sacrifices they make, no one else’s.