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The ‘Last Tango’ Fiasco

A 40-year-old controversy reignited earlier this month with accusations of sexual assault on the set of ‘Last Tango in Paris.’ Here’s how the internet mangled a sensitive incident into salacious clickbait.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Last weekend, at a party, someone brought up Last Tango in Paris. The 1972 movie had been a topic of discussion and outrage on the internet all week, since an old interview with the Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci had recently resurfaced and gone viral. In the clip, recorded in 2013 at the Cinémathèque Française, Bertolucci discusses his dubious method of directing his lead actress Maria Schneider, who was 19 when the movie was made and relatively unknown, especially compared with her male costar, then-48-year-old Marlon Brando. Bertolucci talked about the film’s most infamous moment, a scene in which Brando’s character anally rapes Schneider’s character using butter as a lubricant.

“In the sequence of the butter,” Bertolucci recalled in the video, “it’s an idea that I had with Marlon in the morning before shooting it, but I’d been 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. … And I think that she hated me and also Marlon, because we didn’t tell her that detail of the butter used as a lubricant.”

Schneider died of cancer in 2011, but a few years before, she’d commented on the matter in a Daily Mail profile. “That scene wasn’t in the original script,” she said. “The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea. They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry. … 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.”

I’d seen the film several times, and I was aware of both Schneider’s and Bertolucci’s comments before their recent viral resurgence. (They are, for one thing, discussed in a 2014 episode of the Hollywood podcast You Must Remember This.) The friend I was discussing it with had never seen the film, and she talked about the scene as though Bertolucci had filmed Schneider being forcibly penetrated by Brando and included it in the final cut. (To be clear, the scene depicts a rape, but no actual intercourse occurred while it was being filmed.) This assumption is horrifying and, thankfully, not true, though I completely understand why my friend would have thought this.

The story had traveled around the internet wildly and sensationally — as most things that travel around the internet do — and with a well-intentioned but sometimes hazy approach to the facts. One of the most widely shared stories was posted on Elle’s website, headlined “Bertolucci Admits He Conspired to Shoot a Non-Consensual Rape Scene in ‘Last Tango in Paris.’” It was shared by celebrities and laypeople alike; the actress Jessica Chastain tweeted a link to it. “To all the people that love this film,” she wrote, “you’re watching a 19yr old get raped by a 48yr old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick.” The Office actress Jenna Fischer linked to Chastain’s tweet and took it a step further: “All copies of this film should be destroyed immediately. It contains an actual rape and sexual assault. #disgusting #disgrace.” Chris Evans tweeted, of Bertolucci and Brando, “They should be in jail.”

A day after the Elle story, Time tweeted to its more than 12 million followers, “‘Last Tango in Paris’ director admits controversial butter rape scene was really rape.” Time later added an update to the story (“The original headline on this story implied that intercourse took place between the two actors…Schneider, who died in 2011, had previously said that she ‘felt a little raped’ shooting the scene, but accounts by Schneider, Bertolucci, and Brando, who died in 2004, maintain no intercourse took place during filming”), but not the original tweet, which was retweeted more than 300 times and counting.

Even before my friend brought it up, I’d been struggling with this story and the way it traveled across the internet. My feelings seemed a little too gray for the black-and-white shouting match of the digital sphere: I was both angry about the all-too-common manipulations that a young woman endured on the set of a male-helmed film, but also disturbed by the game of social-media telephone that so quickly made many people believe that they were watching an actress be, in the salacious phrasing of Time’s tweet, “really rape[d].”

I told my friend the facts as best I knew them. She felt, when I was done, much the way I did: some complicated swirl of anger at Bertolucci’s barbarousness, relief that the truth wasn’t quite as brutal as we’d first imagined, and a bit deceived by the viral machinations of the internet. She asked me to find out more.

In late November, an employee of the Spanish human-rights nonprofit El Mundo de Alycia was browsing YouTube, doing some research for a video that the organization was making for International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. This person came across the 2013 Bertolucci interview, which took place after a repertory screening of the film, which is not nearly as well known as it once was, but still considered an art-house classic. Last Tango tells the story of a middle-aged American man and a young French girl who meet for anonymous sex in an abandoned Parisian apartment, on the condition that they will not share any personal details about themselves, least of all names. A succès de scandale at the time of its release, Last Tango’s graphic sex scenes and blasé nudity prompted an obscenity trial in Italy. (Bertolucci lost the original trial, but was cleared by Italy’s high court; his eventual victory was considered a pivotal victory against censorship in film.) Stateside, the film received a buzz-generating X rating. It was nominated for two Oscars and for a time was United Artist’s highest-grossing picture. In a famous rave review, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael called it “the most powerfully erotic movie ever made.”

On November 23, El Mundo de Alycia posted an un-bylined Spanish-language article that explained why the nonprofit believed the story of Schneider’s treatment on the film set deserved to be revisited now. “With this video and to mark the day against gender violence,” they wrote (in The Ringer’s translation), “we intend to make known the abuses that many young actresses suffer from some directors and actors, protected by fame, as was the case for Maria Schneider… If you also think that Bertolucci and Marlon Brando should have been condemned publicly and legally, share the video so that the truth is known about the dramatic story of Maria Schneider.” They recut the Bertolucci video and included it in the article, adding Spanish subtitles and giving it the rather shocking, eye-catching title “Bertolucci sobre Maria Schneider/Bertolucci admits rape scene was non-consensual.”

To call this a “non-consensual” “rape scene” is to make a loaded, slippery argument, especially when you consider that it comes from a Spanish website translating its headline into English. The adjective was clearly chosen to echo the scene’s sexual nature, to make the accusation bold enough to be shared. There should be increased sensitivity in the matter of a violent sex scene. But this phrasing could be — and in the case of some stories that followed this was — misleading.

The video gained some traction on Spanish websites, but it did not cross over to English-language media organizations until about a week later, when Tom Butler, an editor at Yahoo Movies UK, stumbled upon it. “I first became aware of the video through Twitter,” he told me this week via email. “Someone tweeted that they’d heard some worrying things about Bertolucci and Brando related to Last Tango in Paris.”

Butler searched for a story via Google, found El Mundo de Alycia’s post, and used Google Translate to read it. “I worked hard to be careful with the wording to make sure we stuck to the facts,” Butler said, “to make sure we handled it sensitively, and also to ensure we weren’t being libelous. I also subsequently removed an image of the scene from the article after consideration [of] victims of sexual abuse who may have wanted to read the story itself.”

On November 30, Yahoo UK’s movie vertical ran the story with the headline “Bertolucci admits infamous Last Tango ‘butter’ rape scene was non-consensual.” This is almost identical to the wording of El Mundo de Alycia’s video (“Bertolucci sobre Maria Schneider/Bertolucci admits rape scene was non-consensual”), and it set the tone for the headlines of most of the subsequent English-language publications that picked it up.

The story gained traction in the U.S. during the first week of December, when it was reported on by such outlets as Variety, Vulture, and the aforementioned Elle. Newsweek ran an op-ed by a freelance writer and activist who called for a boycott of the film and wrote, inaccurately, of Schneider’s “experience of being anally penetrated by a stick of butter without her consent.”

These are uncomfortable details to parse, but in this case they’re incredibly important. When we dilute or become cavalier about the definition of rape, we disrespect the experiences of rape survivors and the horrors they have lived through. So many survivors also endure the pain of skeptics who discredit their experiences, and I do not wish to do that to Schneider. I acknowledge her trauma. But when Schneider said she felt “a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,” she was using the word as a metaphor, as a way of describing a feeling of violation and intrusion. In another, less widely quoted interview she gave a year prior, she said that Brando “felt raped and manipulated by [the film],” too. It’s more cut-and-dried in that particular instance. She is, rather, using that word to evocatively describe his feelings of violation and exposure. “Marlon was shy about his body,” she says elsewhere in the Daily Mail piece, “but nudity wasn’t a problem for me in those days as I thought it was beautiful.”

As a young woman who was much less famous than her male costar, Schneider certainly had less power on the set than Brando did. Brando and Bertolucci’s decision to use the butter in that scene is no small thing; it became the most infamous detail of Last Tango, the one thing people who haven’t seen the film seem to know about it, and something people asked Schneider about for the rest of her life. When you watch that scene, then, you are watching an actress’s trust being breached, but not necessarily in the way the headlines imply. It is possible to acknowledge and honor Schneider’s trauma while still knowing that.

Schneider’s story is, unfortunately, one in a long history of male directors exploiting and manipulating actresses to various degrees — so much so that earlier this year, Salon ran a list of “5 sadistic male directors who treat their actors like garbage.” There are plenty more they left off: As she writes in her recent memoir, Tippi, Alfred Hitchcock sexually harassed Tippi Hedren on the set of The Birds and assaulted her in her dressing room during the filming of Marnie. Stanley Kubrick was notoriously controlling of most of his actors, and Shelley Duvall in particular (after wrapping The Shining, she recalled that working with him on the 13-month shoot was “almost unbearable”). In 2013, Léa Seydoux spoke out against the methods of her Blue Is the Warmest Color director Abdellatif Kechiche, saying of the film’s sex scenes, “Of course it was kind of humiliating sometimes, I was feeling like a prostitute.”

We are, mercifully, living in a moment when sexual violence is taken seriously, at least in the court of public opinion. The internet has ushered in the rise of call-out culture. These types of stories about abuses of power and sexual violence that used to be hush-hush are now quickly becoming the topics of national conversation: Old accusations against Bill Cosby and Woody Allen have recently been revisited. The internet has become a space where many victims of sexual assault feel more comfortable sharing their experiences than they might have before, and it has also helped people who previously would not have had access to the more academic concepts of feminism understand the basic, systemic dynamics of rape culture (a phrase that’s recently become a kind of online buzzword). This is, unquestionably, a good thing — a step in the direction toward making the world a safer, fairer, and more welcoming place for women.

But the internet is also a capitalist marketplace, so along with this positive change comes an uncomfortable and quintessentially American byproduct: These stories are now for sale. Once it reached the English-speaking world, the Bertolucci story was phrased and packaged in a way that deliberately maximized its outrage value and viral potential. This included, but was not limited to: the use of the loaded, somewhat misleading phrase “non-consensual rape scene”; the exclusion of any complicating details (such as Brando’s feelings of violation); and the crusader’s tone in which most of these stories and tweets were composed (such as Jenna Fischer insisting that “all copies of this film should be destroyed immediately”).

An uncomfortable truth of the internet is that “rape” is a word that gets clicks — and not just the skeezy, perverse kind of clicks, but also a more well-intentioned, liberal-vigilante kind, too. While researching this piece, I was dismayed by how often I would finish reading one of these articles only to have a publication presume I was interested in reading another topical story about rape. A sidebar to the Newsweek op-ed, for example, suggested that I might also want to read stories about why “Nate Parker Won’t Apologize for Historic Rape Case,” “Melania Trump’s Take on Sexual Assault Is Dangerous,” and “Why ‘Planet Earth II’ ‘Rape’ Shocked So Many Viewers.” I was curious, in that last headline, why “rape” was in quotes, but not curious enough to click on it.

Now more than ever, there’s an imperative to be vigilant in discerning the whole truth about what we read on the internet. The lucrative business of so-called “fake news,” we’ve learned in recent months, probably played a momentous role in determining the outcome of our presidential election. This is a time to be separating facts from half-truths and questioning stories that have been designed to reinforce our existing outrage and preconceived narratives. This is easy to do when a story is coming from the opposing side of your political beliefs, but that is not the only direction from which these misunderstandings come. A story can be both well-intentioned and misleading.

Although I am troubled by the sensationalized tone and breezy attitude toward facts in the coverage by some high-profile American outlets, I do agree with the spirit of El Mundo de Alycia’s original post. “Regrettably,” it wrote, “it is a clear example of the gender violence to which women are subjected daily, without any consequences.” The group’s mission was to shed light on the power dynamics that lead to a situation like Schneider’s, and to connect it to the experiences of everyday women.

I reached out to El Mundo de Alycia via Facebook, and when I asked how the organization felt about how the story had traveled, I received an impassioned but measured response. The organization, which identifies as a “team/collective” and declined to attribute its comments to any particular member, quoted another article from the Spanish website Cine Premiere (and which we’re translating): “Schneider said in the 2007 interview that the tears she cried in this scene were real and Bertolucci admitted that she ‘hated him always.’ This would line up with the concept of sexual violence offered in the World Report on Violence and Health of the World Health Organization. The said definition includes not only rape, but any sexual act committed without consent (physically violent or not) that harms the physical or moral integrity, including humiliation, insinuations, manipulation, etc. … The controversy is whether Bertolucci filmed real suffering or not.”

It’s a compelling idea, but a line that might be impossible to draw in practice — how does an actor or a director separate “real suffering” from fake suffering? It’s a conversation worth having, but it’s tricky, subjective, and full of gray areas. Unfortunately, in the viral age, gray doesn’t show up that well on the internet.