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Sexual Assault Scene In 'Last Tango In Paris' Clouds Bertolucci's Career


Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci is being remembered this week as a pioneer in his industry. He died of cancer yesterday at the age of 77. Perhaps most famous for his Oscar-winning blockbuster, "The Last Emperor," he is likely most infamous for an earlier film, "Last Tango In Paris," and what happened to one of its stars, Maria Schneider. And we want to warn listeners that the conversation you're about to hear over the next few minutes centers around an incidence of sexual assault.

We're joined now by film critic Carrie Rickey to talk more about this. Thanks so much for being with us this morning.

CARRIE RICKEY: Good morning, Rachel. I'm very happy to be here.

MARTIN: So I mentioned "Last Tango In Paris" is infamous because of this particular scene. And I will describe it here. It's in which the male lead, played by Marlon Brando, ends up raping the female lead, played by Maria Schneider. And I say ends up because it only surfaced a few years ago that Bertolucci and Brando had planned this violent scene without telling the actress, Schneider. So she genuinely felt violated and traumatized in the moment. Did she ever speak publicly about this?

RICKEY: In 2007, she was very frank and candid about it. She did say that the scene, the sodomy scene, was simulated. Some people argue that it was actually real, that Bertolucci wanted real sex. We'll never know. It's a very - it's a very hard scene to watch. Knowing what we know now, it's almost impossible to watch without just flipping out and being angry. And Brando and Bertolucci, at breakfast one morning during the production, said, why don't we do this scene, and that's how the male character would have felt then?

MARTIN: So he - I mean, Bertolucci argued that he wanted this to be real. He thought this was about his art, which is horrific to think about, especially in the #MeToo era that we live in now. But do you - do we, collectively, know about any other incidents of directors putting actors at risk this way?

RICKEY: We have heard of many accusations, and I think it probably happens all the time that directors decide a certain thing that's not in the script would be representative of the characters in the moment. And I don't think that it's right for the director or actor to conspire against an actress or for the actress and the director to conspire against the male actor. It's a shock. And today in the #MeToo movement, this would be reported and it should not happen. And in fact, Bertolucci's civil rights were taken away for five years in the '70s in Italy when the Italian authorities found out about this.

MARTIN: So he did suffer some consequences, at least, in the short term.

RICKEY: He did have some consequences. But I have to say, the 1970s were - and I grew up then - were an era of sex as liberation. And anyone who would have complained about such a sexual scene would have been branded a puritan or a prude.

MARTIN: Even a victim of a sexual assault?

RICKEY: Even though. Yes, even though a victim of sexual assault. But Bertolucci and even Maria Schneider contended that it was simulated. But it was still so shocking and debasing to her.

MARTIN: Right. What was the effect on her life? What happened to her, Maria Schneider?

RICKEY: She was very young. Brando was 48 years old. She was 19. She had lived on her own since she was 15. And she had made a movie or two, but she didn't understand that this movie would be huge, that there was a lot of nudity, that she would always be branded as a sexual wild child.

MARTIN: The impact of that particular film and that role haunted her for a long time. What do you think it meant for Bertolucci's legacy? How do you place that controversy in his greater canon of work?

RICKEY: Bertolucci is a very great director, and it's very hard for me to talk about his worst moment. Sex was always seen - almost always seen as very liberating in his movies. And he ushered in an era of sexual expression and tolerance. Despite the horribleness of this incident, I still celebrate him as one of the great filmmakers, and I think he learned from this incident not to be a predator on a set. And I'm very sorry 'cause this ruined Maria Schneider's life. She died when she was 58 of breast cancer. And I mourn her, too.

MARTIN: Film critic and essayist Carrie Rickey, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

RICKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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