Bernardo Bertolucci's Tone-Deaf Attack on Ridley Scott

Courtesy Everett Collection
'Last Tango in Paris'

You’d think the director would have learned to keep quiet after being blasted by his 'Last Tango' star. Now he’s gone and done it again.

In late 1972, the 31-year-old Bernardo Bertolucci unleashed his most controversial movie on the world. The picture was Last Tango in Paris and it caused a sensation. Critics raved about the story of a middle-aged American expatriate and his anonymous sexual encounters with a gorgeous young Frenchwoman. “[Last Tango] is one of the great emotional experiences of our time,” wrote Roger Ebert. “It’s a movie that exists so resolutely on the level of emotion, indeed, that possibly only Marlon Brando, of all living actors, could have played its lead. Who else can act so brutally and imply such vulnerability and need? For the movie is about need; about the terrible hunger that its hero, Paul, feels for the touch of another human heart.”

I remember hearing about the film, growing up in a small town outside London, and dying to see it. Which simply wasn’t possible. Not just because, as a 13-year-old, I would never have been allowed in the theater, but because the ultra-conservative British censorship board had slapped an X rating on the picture, which meant most legitimate theaters couldn’t even play it. So I had to bide my time a few years until I took the train and boat to Paris, where I saw it in one of the hundreds of tiny theaters that then eked out a living on the Left Bank. Is it surprising, given those circumstances, that I fell in love with the film, just as I did with its astonishing leading lady, Maria Schneider?

Schneider was brand-new to the screen and a complete mystery to audiences. Later, I learned she’d done some early work in France; that she was the daughter of a distinguished French actor, Daniel Gelin, who’d refused to acknowledge her; and that at one point she’d been wandering the streets of Paris, living in a no man’s land between bohemianness and homelessness, when Brigitte Bardot befriended her and became an early mentor. But at that point, all I and anyone else could think of was the magical 19-year-old who held the screen as rivetingly as her co-star.

I thought then what a wonderful experience this must have been for her, what an amazing chapter to go through at a pivotal point in her life. It never occurred to me that there were things she did in the film that she might have regretted, that as a young woman on the brink of adulthood, she may have been pressured to perform scenes that a more mature woman would have said no to.

I’m talking, of course, about the full-frontal nudity that was massively more shocking then than it is today. And not just the nudity, but a sex sequence in which Brando’s character, Paul, sodomizes Jeanne (Schneider), with the help of a dollop of butter. That was the most talked-about scene of the year, maybe of the decade. It was the scene that nobody would ever allow Schneider to forget, not then, nor at any point in her too-brief life, before her death from breast cancer in 2011 at age 58.

On the few occasions when Schneider spoke about Last Tango as the years went by, she was open about how much she hated it, and about her resentment toward Bertolucci for the methods he chose to get her to do it.

“He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me,” she said, adding that she was not aware the sodomy scene was going to be shot until moments before it filmed. “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. 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 apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”

When I first heard those remarks, I didn’t think too much about them. That was years before the #MeToo movement, and I, just like too many of my peers, was conditioned to accept the White Male Establishment’s prevailing worldview.

There were other reasons, too. Schneider, who went on to deliver an even more sensational performance opposite Jack Nicholson in Michelangelo Antonioni’s haunting 1975 drama The Passenger, had quickly flamed out. There were rumors that she was impossible to work with, a no-show, often high on drugs. When a third mega-director, Luis Bunuel, fired her from his last film, 1977’s That Obscure Object of Desire — replacing her with not one actress but two, in a brazen act of imagination — Schneider’s career plummeted. She was only 25 years old. Sure, she would work again, but nothing she ever did reached her early films’ brilliance, and no performance of hers (certainly that I’ve seen) rose to the same level of transcendence.

Knowing her reputation, it was easy for me to dismiss her allegations about Last Tango. But then I started to consider some other unsavory things about Bertolucci. I remembered a scene in the 1976 epic 1900, when Burt Lancaster tries to get a young girl to masturbate him — without any hint that this is terribly, terribly wrong. And I began to wonder if it wasn’t Schneider who was the problem so much as Bertolucci himself.

Then, this weekend, the maestro surpassed himself in an interview at the Bari film festival. The interview couldn’t have been better timed, coinciding with the festival’s presentation of a restored version of Last Tango. There, out of the blue, Bertolucci lobbed a volley over Ridley Scott’s bow. “When I learned that Ridley Scott had agreed to eliminate the scenes of All the Money in the World in which Kevin Spacey was playing, I sent a message to editor Pietro Scalia to tell Scott that he should be ashamed,” said Bertolucci. “And then I immediately wanted to make a film with Spacey.”

If Bertolucci had made the argument that someone should be presumed innocent until proved guilty, I might have forgiven him. If he’d cogently laid forth his beliefs, at least I would have heard him out. But his remarks were appalling for two reasons.

First, Spacey has never proclaimed his innocence. Faced with accusations that he attempted to molest an underage boy, he offered a vague acknowledgement on Twitter, saying that, while he didn’t remember the incident, he owed actor Anthony Rapp “the sincerest apology for what would have been deeply inappropriate drunken behavior.” Multiple other allegations — none denied — have followed. Given this, it’s hard to blame Scott for replacing the actor, especially knowing he had a fiscal responsibility to the production company and studio that backed him, as well as a responsibility to his own code of ethics.

Second — and far more important — Bertolucci lashes out at Scott as if he’s the villain, completely ignoring the alleged crime the man has perpetrated. To say he’s ashamed of Scott, without saying he’s also ashamed of Spacey, is such a purblind distortion it makes you wonder when the director went wrong. It’s not Scott but Bertolucci who ought to feel ashamed.

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