“This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made,” gushed the critic Pauline Kael about Last Tango in Paris in 1972. The anonymous sex between Paul (Marlon Brando) and Jeanne (Maria Schneider) is “a battle of unequally matched partners, asserting whatever dominance they can”.
Now we know just how unmatched they were. Brando was 48, a fading star – The Godfather had been made but hadn’t yet been released when he filmed Last Tango – yet still a powerful Hollywood player, who accepted part of the film’s profits in return for lending his mystique to such a small project. Schneider was just 19.
The plot was cooked up by Brando and the director Bernardo Bertolucci, who spent weeks telling each other their life stories and sexual fantasies before production started. Yet Schneider was not treated like a valued collaborator. In a 2013 interview that has recently resurfaced, Bertolucci revealed that she was not even told about Brando’s use of butter as a lubricant in a rape scene before shooting it. He wanted her reaction “as a girl, not as an actress”. He said he felt guilty, but did not regret his decision. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for her whole life.”
Yes, funny that. Who could have predicted that a teenager, humiliated on camera by two older men, would not come to realise that her pain was a price worth paying for their grand artistic vision?
Contemptuous misogyny twists through Bertolucci’s words. He is saying, in essence, that he didn’t think that Schneider was good enough to act humiliated; that women’s real trauma has an aesthetic quality that cannot be replicated. The film is not kind to Brando’s Paul, who is presented as an ageing man, discovering the limits of masculine dominance – but Brando was trusted to fake these emotions. He was treated as an artist. Schneider was a prop.
This is what feminists mean when we talk about the male gaze – the often invisible way in which art reproduces men’s point of view. It is hard to imagine that a female director and female star have ever collaborated on a film in which a man was humiliated in this way (unless Pierce Brosnan had no idea that he couldn’t sing until after the reviews for Mamma Mia! came out).
According to the podcast You Must Remember This, Brando filmed a full-frontal nude scene for the film but the flat was so cold that his penis looked like (as he described it) “a peanut”. Bertolucci kindly cut the scene. The podcast also reveals that, because of Last Tango’s success, Bertolucci has frequently been presented with gifts of butter by the film’s adoring fans, which is one of the most casually creepy things I’ve ever heard: “Hey, dude, loved that rape scene!” It’s like giving Dustin Hoffman a commemorative dentist’s drill.
The scene haunted Schneider. She vowed not to film another nude role, telling the Daily Mail in 2007: “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 apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
The truth is that Bertolucci and Brando behaved as they did because they could. Their industry valued them: one for his artistic vision and the other for his star status. Schneider was just a resource. She was interchangeable flesh. Who cares if she was used up, burned out in the process?
Hollywood history is full of such incidents, but the same power structure that makes them possible also prevents them from becoming public. Actors are freelancers; a few can act like divas and demand whatever and whoever they want. But not many, and often not for long. Who can afford to alienate potential employers?
Nonetheless, more people are speaking out. In a recent Variety special on women in film, Ashley Judd said that she was sexually harassed by a film mogul in 1997. Rose McGowan said she was fired by her agent for querying a casting call for an Adam Sandler movie that asked actresses to wear push-up bras. Jennifer Lawrence, one of the most bankable actresses in Hollywood, has been similarly outspoken. She said that she now asks for higher fees after learning, during the Sony hack, “how much less I was being paid than the lucky people with dicks”.
A few years ago, Sharon Stone said that she had been practically tricked into shooting the “leg-crossing” scene in Basic Instinct, after the director, Paul Verhoeven, said he wanted to create the impression that she wasn’t wearing underwear – so she needed to take hers off. She says that Verhoeven assured her that there would be only “innuendo”. Stone discovered the deception when she first saw the film, surrounded by people in a crowded cinema. She said that she, too, would have kept the scene in the film but: “I would have had the courtesy to show it to my actor.”
For me, the litany of these incidents is unsurprising. Some men find inequalities of money and power erotic: they relieve them of the pretence of treating women like people. This roll-call shows why it is stupid to dismiss feminism as “identity politics”, or as a distraction from issues of class and economics. The stories are all about economics, because women’s bodies are commodities. Verhoeven calculated that his film would make more money – and he would be more admired by his peers – if audiences got to see Sharon Stone’s crotch. That was apparently worth more to him than treating her with respect and risking her saying no.
There is another villain here: the audience. Do we want to hear stories like Schneider’s? Or even acknowledge how deeply unsexy it is to film a sex scene? Of course not. We want movies to be “powerfully erotic”, and nothing ruins that fantasy like the mundane reality of sexism.
This article appears in the 06 Dec 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump