How do you move beyond something like “Last Tango in Paris”?

If you haven’t seen The Scene (three words: sex, butter and Brando), then you’ve probably heard about it, and if you haven’t heard about it, then you’re probably better off.

It’s a vulgar movie. The true beginning of the end for Brando, who had become as loathsome as he was appealing in those first few films. The 19-year-old who played the young Parisian lover, Maria Scheider, died in February of last year.

In the New York Times Magazine’s year-end obituary issue, she was among the people whose lives were honored. Victims of the Joplin, Mo., tornado, the man who invented cryonics, Jack LaLane, and Schneider, whose will forever be remembered as the young woman in “Last Tango in Paris” who, to be frank, appeared to be sodomized by stick of butter. In the graphic scene I don’t care to watch again, her character’s unwillingness and her own unwillingness are the same. “I instinctively felt I would be the one to suffer for it,” she later said.

She got paid $4,000 to play that role, a pittance compared to the wealth it earned Brando. She did star in another movie with an A-List chauvinist, Jack Nicholson, in “The Passenger,” but, like the majority of actresses in Hollywood, had a hard time finding decent work after the twenty-something glow wore off. (She even worked for an organization that helped older actors find work.)

As author Susan Dominus points out, the men (Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci, specifically) around her, who were as much paternal figures as colleagues, failed to protect her and she didn’t feel she could get out of the situation. This movie would be her breakout role, and she knew that you don’t just have to be sexy, you have to be but edgy and shocking, too.

But it went too far, and she knew it. They knew it, too, but Bertolucci didn’t even hint at apologizing until after her death.

Artists, especially young starlets in the public eye, will always challenge the norm, and I think they should. That’s where innovation comes from. But the Joaquin Phoenix stunt, the Olsen twin-Kisses-Ben-Kingsley scene, Lady GaGa’s whole persona, et al, didn’t do what this single scene did to this woman.

My only solace after I read the NYT piece was to realize that I don’t think a scene like this would fly today. Not that seriously kinky, weird shit isn’t happening in the very vast world of porn, but I don’t think such relatively mainstream actors, directors and producers would go that far. There are more women in power and, while we seem to have an increased desire for graphic sex, nudity and near-nudity (like the almost bare-breasted pinup at a new fried chicken restaurant in Austin and the dancing women in bikinis on the Mexican variety shows on TV), my instinct says we have a lower tolerance for twisted sexual violence. (I did, however, once see a man raped by a horse on a Spanish-language telanovela in the middle of the day. That, I cannot explain.)

Bernardo Bertolucci was so proud that he’d sexualized something as commonplace as a stick of butter, an already slippery ingredients that had long been used as a lubricant and didn’t need sexualizing. It was about taking a woman’s dignity and capturing it on camera.

Even though Nigella Lawson insisted that her lusty caramel cover shoot was anything but food porn and we all knew better, she was still in control over that image. Rachael Ray has said she’d do the infamous FHM shoot again. Paula Deen can throw the butter sex joke right back at Maxim magazine.

Schneider didn’t seem to get that chance. “I was with Maria when she saw the film for the first time,” her best friend is quoted as saying on Schneider’s IMDB page. “She was absolutely shocked. She had no idea what they were going to do with her. She ran from the cinema screaming and I had to run after her into the street and comfort her. That film ruined her life.”

I’d like to think that as ridiculous as things can seem now in this whole world of women and food, at least it’s better than it was. Rest in peace, Maria Schneider.

Photos from IMDB.com, Daily Mail and by Addie Broyles.

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7 responses to “How do you move beyond something like “Last Tango in Paris”?

  1. Man, this post is such a sad way to start the year, Addie. I had never even heard of this scene until now, and I’m not sure if that makes me uncouth, uncultured, or just lucky. I’m going to go watch something empowering and try not to think too much about butter for a while.

  2. After reading your post, I can’t stop thinking about the film. It was indeed pretty shocking when it came out in 1972, but at the time, everyone was so invested in pushing every conceivable boundary. I can’t remember any feminist outcry at the time, but surely there must have been some. Schneider’s story is a sad, cautionary tale about how dumb decisions, made when–as she said–we’re too young to know better, can haunt an entire life.

    On another front, I’ve been wondering if I was the only one chagrined by the “breasts and thighs” sign for that chicken place.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Kathryn and MM. I hated to kick off 2012 on such a downer of a post, but there’s some hope if it makes us think twice about the images we’re subjected to (and the ones we create) every day. I was so offended by the sign, that I made the “from one parent to another parent” phone call to the owner. The thought of that little girl, who is about the age of my young son, looking up at the sign of her namesake restaurant breaks my little feminist heart.

  4. Reading this was crazy because I definately watched this movie when I was younger but totally not critical enough of pop culture as I am now, so I hardly remember anything about it other than this scene and that it was supposed to be “Important”. I had a penchant for tracking down any taboo movie I could in high school, both as an attempt to impress the alternative guys who worked at the video store (never worked) and because I was hermit reading up on “Very Important Movies” without realizing most of them were total crap. Your post made me both want to and not want to re-watch the movie. Very interesting!

  5. Pingback: Oh, Let’s Make A List « Questions and Anchors·

  6. I’d heard the name of the movie, but had no idea the content or the context. I felt you article was a bit patronizing of an adult woman of consenting age, and I always assume anyone with any ax to grind, be it feminism or any other, is full of crap until they prove otherwise. So I watched a clip of the scene. Couldn’t finish it. I’m not sure I’d ever really considered the difference between rape fantasy porn and actually trying as hard as you could to film the sickness of rape by manipulating your actress into actually feeling raped. How horrific.

  7. It sadly appears that people have watched the film with no understanding. The only thing certain people can see is feminism, perpetually putting women as the victim, and male bashing. The story and relevance of the movie is lost, as well as an adult women being responsible for her actions.

    I suppose with that level of feminist tunnel vision, you need to move to an all female Amazon country or only watch movies with an all female cast that doesn’t reflect reality. What is even funnier, is that in an all female world, such interactions between 2 women can mimic what is presented in the movie. Women, to include lesbians, have always been just as human as any man. Just as capable of the full spectrum of human emotion and interaction, no matter how cruel or uplifting.

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