A Dark, Tangled "Tango": Brando, Bertolucci and the Question of an Actor's Consent

6 TOWN Last Tango in Paris
Courtesy Everett Collection

French actress Maria Schneider, best known for starring opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” (1972) at age 19, died Feb. 3 in Paris after a long battle with cancer. She was 58. 

An art-house sensation that opened amid the height of "porno chic," the 1972 film 'Last Tango in Paris' caused an international uproar. Now, 44 years later, major Hollywood figures like Jessica Chastain and Ava DuVernay are suggesting the director and 'Godfather' star are guilty of raping a young Maria Schneider.

 In 1972, Pauline Kael, the influential New Yorker movie critic, wrote in her rave review of Last Tango in Paris that the film "is a movie people will be arguing about for as long as there are movies." Based on the events of the past week, she appears to have been right.

Tango was thrust back into the limelight in the most haphazard of ways, with a 2013 interview on Dutch television with its director, Bernardo Bertolucci, resurfacing on YouTube. A Yahoo! Movies writer spotted the clip and interpreted Bertolucci as having admitted to conspiring with the film's star, Marlon Brando, to spring a nonconsensual anal rape scene on Maria Schneider, Brando's then-19-year-old co-star. The scene in question already had earned a place in cinematic infamy for its unforgettable use of butter as a lubricant.

Multiple outlets picked up the item as news. Twitter was quick to condemn Bertolucci and Brando and called for everything short of burning the negative. Several movie stars and major Hollywood figures were among the torch-wielders. Chris Evans: "This is beyond disgusting." Ava DuVernay: "I am horrified." Jessica Chastain: "I feel sick."

Bertolucci, 76, has since responded, calling the backlash a "ridiculous misunderstanding ... I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we [decided to use] butter." As for Schneider being unaware that the scene involved forced sodomy on her, Bertolucci stressed: "That is false!"  

When the film premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 1972, Deep Throat, the XXX release that ushered in the "porno chic" revolution, already had been playing in theaters for eight weeks. Which is to say Tango arrived at the beginning of what would become the most sexually adventurous period in American history — the pre-AIDS 1970s. But Deep Throat was pornography. Tango, despite its X-rating, was a European art-house film — albeit one with tremendous crossover potential. That's because it starred Brando, the world's most revered and enigmatic movie star, fresh off the success of The Godfather, which opened in March of that year. 

The film, about a depressed widower named Paul who embarks upon an anonymous and chatty psychosexual odyssey with a young Parisian woman named Jeanne, was hugely controversial when it opened in the U.S. The Village Voice reported walkouts and "vomiting by well-dressed wives" of film festival board members.

Despite providing plenty to which the faint-hearted might object — including a sequence in which Brando, in one of many profane improvised soliloquies, demands that Schneider stick her fingers in his anus (and she does) — the butter scene served as the flashpoint for most of the outrage, just as it does today.

A New Jersey campaign to ban the film failed, resulting in hundreds of protesters shouting things like "perverts" and "homos" outside a theater in Montclair; a screening there was later evacuated due to a bomb threat. Chile, Brazil, Portugal, Spain and South Korea banned the film entirely. And in Bertolucci's native Italy, he and producer Alberto Grimaldi were slapped with three-month suspended jail sentences on obscenity charges.

The controversy only served to sell tickets in the States. The movie cost a little more than $1 million to make, but grossed $36 million domestically ($208 million today). It also was nominated for two Academy Awards — for Bertolucci and Brando. 

The woman at the center of all this is no longer with us to provide further clarification. Schneider died of cancer in 2011 at age 58, just six months after being inducted into the Order of Arts and Letters in July 2010, France's highest cultural distinction. (She wore a fetching blue tweed coat to her final public appearance, but her looks — unkempt gray hair, her face drawn and wrinkled — drew unkind remarks.)

But Schneider had offered plenty of clues throughout her life that her experience of filming Tango, if not constituting outright rape, left her psychologically scarred. Bertolucci himself acknowledged as much in the resurfaced interview, admitting guilt over some of the things he did to elicit the performance from her, adding that she never forgave him for it. 

She was born in 1952 to French cinematic royalty — her father was movie star Daniel Gelin, who never acknowledged his relationship to her. Her rebuffed mother, model Marie-Christine Schneider, moved Maria to the German border and raised her there. Maria left home at age 15 after a fight with her mother and, as film critic Richard Corliss once wrote, "spent her teens vagabonding through Montparnasse and Marrakech, living in communes, taking men and women as lovers."

She settled in Paris, where she met Brigitte Bardot while working as an extra on a film set. Bardot, who acted opposite Schneider's father in 1956's Mademoiselle Striptease, saw a bit of herself in the young actress and took her under her wing. Schneider soon signed with the William Morris Agency and was surrounded by the movers and shakers of the French film industry. 

She was not Bertolucci's first choice to play Jeanne, which was Dominique Sanda, who starred in his previous film, The Conformist. But when Sanda became pregnant, Bertolucci spotted a friend of hers in a photo — "Poutish. Baby-faced. Dark-eyed. Sensual," a 1973 New York Times profile noted — and asked if she would come in to meet with him. Schneider impressed the director with her audition, in which she became increasingly at ease the less clothing she had on. She got the part.

Regarding the butter scene, Schneider in a 2007 interview said the rape was simulated, but still left her traumatized. Still, she said she had some forewarning. "They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry," she said. "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. ... Marlon said to me: 'Maria, don't worry, it's just a movie,' but 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."

Schneider made no such allegations at the time of the film's release. In interviews, she came across as uncommonly forthright (she spoke openly of her own bisexuality and drug use) and invigorated by the controversy. "I want to try things, I want to know things,” she told the Times in 1973. “I've tried heroin about four times, but I throw up when I take it. It made me very negative: I can't hear music any more or I can't make love when I take it. Cocaine is exciting in the beginning, but it's nothing. You want to sleep, you're boring. Now all I do is smoke pot. I love to prepare it. Want some?”

Of Brando, she said, "No, we didn't make love. It was a very paternalistic thing, and a good friendship. I wasn't excited by him, although my friends told me I should be, and don't think he was excited by me. He's old, almost 50 you know, and he's flabby, and he has a big [she gestures to indicate a pot belly]. And he was very uptight about it. He had a little complex, and he kept pulling curtains whenever he changed clothes. And he feels old. All the time he was watching his makeup. And he is very lazy and very slow, and I love him. He's got beautiful eyes and a beautiful mind.”

And as for Bertolucci, she said she never once "got the feeling of voyeurism that I got with Vadim." (Her first major role was in Roger Vadim's Helle.) "With Bertolucci, not at all. He's quite clever and more free and he's very young." (Bertolucci was 31 at the time.) "The whole team was very frank and open," she added.

Whatever her experience on-set, Tango instantly minted Schneider an art-house superstar. Her measly $4,000 fee ($23,000 today — and she later complained that Bertolucci and Brando reaped millions off the film's popularity) jumped to $40,000 for her follow-up, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975), in which she starred opposite Jack Nicholson. 

Her drug use grew more hardcore throughout the 1970s, during which she was a fixture on the punk rock scene. (Several online photos of Schneider snapped in 1977 could have been been taken last week in Williamsburg.) Her wild lifestyle and increasingly erratic behavior hampered her acting career. Bertolucci revoked an offer for her to appear in 1900. In 1976, she was offered the lead in Caligula, Bob Guccione's "erotic historical drama," but was fired after she refused to perform nude. She nearly suffered a fatal overdose. She had a nervous breakdown. She attempted suicide. 

"I have lost seven years of my life and I regret it bitterly," she said in 2001 of her darkest addiction years. "I started using drugs when I became famous. I did not like the celebrity, and especially the image full of innuendo, naughty, that people had of me after Last Tango. In addition, I had no family behind me, who protect you. I had no bodyguard like Sharon Stone, and so I was very exposed. I suffered abuse. People who come up to tell you unpleasant things on planes."

She credits a "guardian angel" for helping her kick her deadly habits in the 1980s, but refused to identify who that was. It easily could have been Pia Almadio, Schneider's steady romantic partner since that decade, who at her funeral said, "Ciao bella, ciao Maria." Whomever it was, it allowed Schneider to not only survive until 2011 but to produce quite a canon of work. Her IMDb page lists more than 50 acting credits, the most recent coming three years before her death.

And while she did not live to hear herself eulogized by some of the greats of French culture at her memorial, she did, six months prior, hear the words of Frederic Mitterand, her co-star in Jacques Rivette's Merry Go Round (1977) and France's minister of culture from 2009 to 2012:

"At just 20," he said, "Last Tango in Paris was for you your first waltz in this brilliant world — too brilliant, perhaps ... Alongside the great Marlon Brando, you have dared to violate the proprieties of the time, and you deserved an Oscar nomination."