Friday 20 September 2019

Brando, Bertolucci and a very ugly truth

No consent: Brando and Schneider in Last Tango in Paris
No consent: Brando and Schneider in Last Tango in Paris

Marlon Brando may be dead 12 years, but this week, the big man was back in the news, and for all the wrong reasons. Nasty rumours had long been circulating about the goings-on on the set of Last Tango in Paris, Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial 1972 movie which is either a deeply personal art-house musing or a porno in sheep's clothing, depending on who you ask.

The pendulum seemed to swing damningly towards porno when a 2013 interview surfaced last weekend in which Bertolucci admitted that the film's famous 'butter rape' scene was enacted without actress Maria Schneider's prior knowledge or consent. That moment, in which Brando's character uses a stick of butter he happens to have on his person to rape his young lover, played by Schneider, has always been a source of sniggers and bad jokes, as most people assumed she was acting.

But Schneider, who died in 2011 at the age of just 58, had long maintained that she'd felt "humiliated" and "a little raped" after the shoot. Not many believed her, but it seems they should have, because it's emerged that Bertolucci never told her what was about to happen, nor asked her permission.

Addressing a crowd at an event in the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in 2013, the Italian director explained that "the sequence of the butter is an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting". Schneider was not to be given prior warning because he "wanted her reaction as a girl, not an actress".

Bertolucci added: "I think she hated me and also Marlon because we didn't tell her that there was that detail of the butter used as lubricant." And while he admitted that not telling her in advance what would happen was "horrible", he had absolutely no regrets about how he directed the scene.

Later in the week the director released a statement in response to the resurfacing of the old interview, insisting that it had been a "ridiculous misunderstanding".

"We wanted her spontaneous reaction to this improper use (of the butter). The misunderstanding arises from this. People thought, and think, that Maria was not informed of the violence she was to suffer (in the scene). False!" he said. "It is both consoling and distressing that anyone could be so naive to believe that what happens on the cinema screen actually takes place."

Many contemporary Hollywood stars rushed to condemn the 76-year-old Italian, with Jessica Chastain, Chris Evans and Anna Kendrick among those expressing outrage and even suggesting Bertolucci should be arrested. And perhaps understandably, as the episode can still be seen as an example of male directors and actors taking advantage of young actresses in the 1970s.

At the time Last Tango was filmed, Brando was 48, and Schneider just 19. But it ought to be added that while Bertolucci has happily implicated Brando in his scandalous recollection, Marlon also felt "raped and humiliated" by the film, and refused to speak to Bertolucci for 15 years.

Even before this shocking revelation, it's always been a hard film to like, or comfortably categorise, and while Last Tango had its champions, I'm not a fan and have always wondered why Brando agreed to do it, especially at the precise moment when his star had been suddenly resurrected.

By the early 1970s, Brando's film career had effectively stalled, and his reputation for being difficult and unreliable meant that few producers wanted anything to do with him. Francis Coppola fought hard to persuade Robert Evans and Paramount to agree to the casting of Brando in The Godfather, and his extraordinary portrayal of Mafia boss Vito Corleone won him an Oscar and became the stuff of legend.

The scene seemed set for a spectacular career revival, as at 48, Brando was still young enough to thrive once again as a Hollywood leading man. Instead, he travelled to Paris to begin work on a very different kind of film.

In 1972, Bertolucci was a coming force in Italian cinema, a brash 32-year-old who had cut his teeth working as an assistant director with the great Pier Paolo Pasolini. His early films had louche overtones, and Last Tango in Paris was inspired by his own sexual fantasies, and in particular the idea of meeting a woman in the street and having sex with her, without ever discovering anything about her.

Bertolucci had originally intended to cast the French actress Dominique Sanda, with whom he'd developed the story, as his heroine - if that's the right word. But she was pregnant by the time the shoot was due to start, so the little-known Schneider replaced her. Jean-Louis Trintignant was Bertolucci's original choice to play Paul, but wisely withdrew. So Marlon was approached, and surprised everyone by saying yes.

Last Tango's story was simple, though pretentious. Brando was Paul, an American hotel-owner who has come to Paris to mourn the death of his wife. Wounded, and brooding, he's gone to view an apartment he's thinking of renting when he meets a young Parisienne called Jeanne.

Despite their age difference, their mutual attraction is instant. So after Paul has rented the apartment they begin meeting there for regular and strenuous sessions of anonymous sex. Paul insists they never exchange any personal information, even names, but one day, Jeanne turns up to find he's packed up, and gone.

They meet later, on the street, and Paul says he wants to rekindle their relationship, and tells her the story of his wife. But the more he talks, the less interest she has in him, and things are bound for a dramatic conclusion.

Bertolucci's direction was apparently inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon, and in fairness, the street scenes in particular are very nicely handled. He wanted Brando's Paul to look like the meaty, corpulent figures Bacon painted, but Brando avoided any full-frontal nude scenes, which he later explained was down to the fact his "penis shrank to the size of a peanut on set". Schneider would not be afforded any such privileges.

As was his wont, Brando either could not, or would not, memorise his lines, and they were taped to props around the set, causing a nightmare for Bertolucci's cameraman. According to Schneider, Brando's lines were also taped to her naked body: Bertolucci would later claim that Marlon had asked if he could "write lines on Maria's rear end", a grotesque request the director apparently rejected.

But far worse indignities would be inflicted on Schneider during that infamous butter scene. It begins almost hilariously, with Brando telling her to "go get the butter" - he had insisted on rewriting his dialogue, and the results weren't pretty. What happened next would haunt Schneider for the rest of her life.

In 2007, she told a Daily Mail journalist: "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."

That moment, always hard to watch, now seems even more unsettling.

"After the scene," Schneider recalled, "Marlon didn't console me, or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take."

The idea that the 19-year-old Schneider was merely a pawn in Bertolucci and Brando's game is especially disturbing when one considers what happened to her afterwards.

Later in life, Schneider would say that Last Tango in Paris had ruined her life, and describe Bertolucci as a "gangster and a pimp". Certainly, nothing seemed to go right for her after it. Though she did land the odd decent role, for instance opposite Jack Nicholson in Michelangelo Antonioni's Passenger, she complained of being typecast as a sex symbol, and in 1974 came out as bisexual.

She became addicted to drugs, leading to a series of overdoses, and at one point attempted suicide. In 1976, understandably complexed about being asked once again to appear nude in graphic sex scenes, she abandoned the set of Tinto Brass's Caligula (another porno posing as a serious drama) and checked herself into a mental hospital.

She worked only fitfully through the 1980s, but seemed to find some measure of personal contentment away from the limelight. She died of cancer in 2011, at the age of 58, and her ashes were scattered at the foot of the Rock of the Virgin in Biarritz, according to her last wishes.

She'd maintained a friendship with Brando while he was alive, but always kept her distance from Bertolucci. After her death, he commented that her passing had "come too soon, before I could hold her again tenderly, and tell her that I felt connected to her as on the first day, and for once, to ask her to forgive me".

Hollow words from a man who had so abjectly failed to protect a young actress in his care.

Brando after Bertolucci

If his performance in The Godfather spectacularly revived Marlon Brando's film career, Last Tango initiated its long, slow decline. After making it, he commented privately that he "wasn't ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie", and certainly his subsequent efforts seemed less whole-hearted, and motivated more by money than art. He sorely tested the patience of his friend Jack Nicholson on the set of their 1976 western Missouri Breaks, ignoring the script and delivering a bizarre and histrionic performance.

He demanded $3.7m for his five-minute turn as Jor-El in Superman (1978), and later sued the studio because he felt he was also due some of the film's profits. Francis Coppola hired Brando to play the reclusive maniac Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, but was horrified when Marlon turned up in the Philippines very overweight and with his head shaved. He hadn't learnt his lines and ended up muttering a good many of them, but thanks to Coppola's skill, he just about got away with it. But that would be Brando's last important screen performance. He only made two films in the 1980s, appeared in little of note in the 1990s, and was more or less a total recluse by the time he died, in 2004.

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