It would be Bertolucci’s last public controversy over a film that had caused controversy for years. The director died Monday at age 77 at his house in Rome, his press office confirmed to the Associated Press.
Bertolucci had long earned critical acclaim, including a lifetime achievement award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. His 1987 epic, “The Last Emperor,” won nine Oscars, and he took home awards for best director and best adapted screenplay.
But Bertolucci became internationally known with 1972′s “Last Tango in Paris,” about a widowed middle-aged businessman and his anonymous affair with young Parisian woman. The film’s graphic depiction of sex sparked protests and bans in several countries. It also earned Oscar nominations and critical accolades.
In 2016, as Hollywood was increasingly grappling with questions of sexism and representation, a three-year-old clip of Bertolucci from a press tour earned renewed scrutiny. In it, Bertolucci described how he and Brando had come up with the idea to use the butter in the scripted rape scene, but did not tell Schneider “what was going on, because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.”
Schneider, who died in 2011 after a long battle with cancer, told the Daily Mail in 2007 the scene “wasn’t in the original script”; Brando had come up with the idea, and she was told only right before they had to film that part. “I was so angry,” she said.
“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,” she said. “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.”
She added: “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.”
Bertolucci responded to the renewed controversy soon after, saying in a statement in Italian that it was based on “a ridiculous misunderstanding,” Variety reported.
“I specified, but perhaps I was not clear, that I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we would have used butter,” Bertolucci said of the 2013 clip. “We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter]. That is where the misunderstanding lies.”
He said Schneider knew about “the violence” in the script and that “the only novelty was the idea of the butter.”
After El Mundo de Alycia posted the clip on YouTube, Spanish-language outlets picked up the story. English-language sites soon followed suit, starting with Elle’s “Bertolucci Admits He Conspired to Shoot a Non-Consensual Rape Scene in ‘Last Tango in Paris.’” The renewed attention drew outrage on social media from Hollywood actors and directors.
“Inexcusable. As a director, I can barely fathom this,” director Ava DuVernay tweeted. “As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.”
“Wow. I will never look at this film, Bertolucci or Brando the same way again,” actor Chris Evans tweeted. “This is beyond disgusting. I feel rage.”
Actress Anna Kendrick responded to Evans’s shock by pointing out Schneider talked about this years ago. “I used to get eye-rolls when I brought it up to people (aka dudes),” she tweeted, adding she is not surprised the actress’s comments were not widely known.
Bertolucci said Schneider hated him for years, especially given how “the sequence of the butter” — the most well-known scene in the critically acclaimed movie — came to be:
It was in the script that he had to rape her in a way. And we were having with Marlon breakfast on the floor of the flat where we were shooting. And there was a baguette and there was butter, and we looked at each other and without saying anything, we knew what we wanted. But, I’ve 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. I wanted her to react humiliated, if it goes on, she shouts, “No, no!” And I think that she hated me, and also Marlon, because we didn’t tell her, and there was that detail of the butter used as a lubricant, and I still feel very guilty for that.
El Mundo de Alycia said in a statement accompanying the video that Bertolucci’s comments “had practically no repercussions” on social media or elsewhere despite being publicly available for years. The organization’s statement continued, asking “how is it possible a case as serious as this” has not been broadcast widely, affected public opinion and been roundly denounced.
The “Last Tango” controversy took place almost a year before the public’s mass reckoning with sexual misconduct, when dozens of women would come forward to accuse film mogul Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault (he denies the allegations).
But the treatment of women in Hollywood on set or by famous men had already been receiving more attention. In 2014, a viral joke about Bill Cosby being accused of rape brought the allegations back into the spotlight, and more women came forward publicly. Cosby has since been convicted of sexual assault.
Since then, cultural observers have revisited older movies and shows, seeing their depiction of sexual relationships in a new light.
In its day, “Last Tango in Paris” was notorious, earning an X rating in the United States. But critics and Hollywood at large praised the movie, depicting it as an erotic drama and giving it considerable buzz. Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Oscars. Schneider was snubbed.
Brando has also said he had a particularly humiliating time filming the movie, albeit for totally different reasons. In his 1994 autobiography, he wrote it was particularly cold during the filming of a full-frontal nude scene, and his “body went into full retreat,” referring to the size of his penis.
“I was humiliated, but not ready to surrender yet,” he wrote. After an hour, the crew gave up, and the scene was cut. Brando described it as “one of the more embarrassing experiences of my professional career.”
The director also wanted Brando and Schneider to actually have sex, the actor wrote; both have said they simulated the scenes.
Decades later, Schneider was not quiet about her treatment during the film’s production. She publicly said she felt used by the director, telling Premiere magazine in 2000, “You have to understand what kind of world Bertolucci is in. He was in love with Marlon. The part I play was written for a boy! That’s why the butter, the sodomization, the gag. …”
The actress also said she had a friendship with Brando and that their interaction was the best part of making the movie.
Schneider said she struggled with the unexpected fame and intense public interest in her after the movie, using drugs as an escape and attempting suicide.
In her Daily Mail interview, she said Bertolucci was “very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me. Some mornings on set he would be very nice and say hello and on other days, he wouldn’t say anything at all.”
“I was too young to know better,” she added. “Marlon later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt.”