Written and directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, he filmed the movie in Paris, 1971. The story centers around a middle-aged man (Brando) whose wife has just committed suicide. While grieving this loss, he enters into a steamy affair with a teenager (Jeanne, played by Maria Schneider) who he has met by chance in a vacant apartment in Paris which they separately had an interest in renting.
From the moment they meet, we know what will become of it because very little is left to the imagination. The now infamous movie, Last Tango in Paris, premiered in New York in 1972 to plenty of controversy, mainly because its star, Marlon Brando, improvised a scene performing anal sex, using butter as a lubricant. A scene where Schneider says she cried real tears, as she felt raped by Brando.
"That scene wasn't in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea," she says. They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry. 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 apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take."
There were plenty of other scenes that raised eyebrows just the same, although probably not as graphic, or should we say pornographic, but I think it’s safe to say that this particular scene was the one everyone talked about the most, and why not. This scene, its perverted overtones, encapsulated the central themes of the movie: despair, sexual frustration, and masochism, all rolled into one.
The movie ends on a tragic note and sadly, the inside story of what happened to its young co-star was almost as tragic. Then 19, Maria Schneider, who played Jeanne, turned into a heroine and cocaine junkie when her life took a dark turn after the release of the movie. Allegedly, because of the negative image associated with the young actress, which dead-ended her career into nothing more than a series of offers for pornographic roles, which she turned down, including a role in Bob Guccioni’s, Caligula.
Schneider now admits that she is no longer friends with Bertolucci and that he used her and manipulated everyone on the set, including Brando, who also admits he felt raped by Bertolucci at the time.
Dell Publishing first published the novel in 1973, authored by Robert Alley, who followed the screenplay almost to the letter, including black and white photos from the film. Although, what is outrageous, and almost hilarious about the making of this movie is that most of its participants, Bertolucci in particular, received a four month suspended prison sentence for “obscenity,” and the filming of these explicit scenes. Brando and Schneider were similarly charged. The Italian Supreme Court also ruled to destroy all remaining copies of the film in 1976. What were they thinking? They lifted the censorship ban fifteen years later. What had changed? It was the same movie, minus ten seconds of implied raw sexual behavior.
Many opponents argued the film was nothing more than pornography masquerading as art. There certainly is a fine line here and, we might say that art pushed the boundaries of acceptable artistic expression, or that the male fascination with sexual angst and female domination, overtook the sensibilities of filmmakers. One thing is certain, the film’s sultry, evocative score will endure forever with the accompaniment of Gato Barbieri’s jazzy saxophone riffs that really set the tone and underlined the nuances of the time and place like nothing else does.
Whatever the case, this ingenious work is a perverse masterpiece, a testament to Bertolucci’s vision, a yearning from his sexual fantasies. Fantasies almost turned real. Lest we forget Brando’s own request to write his lines of dialog across Schneider’s rear end. To which the almost unscrupulous Bertolucci, said ‘no’.
He did have to draw the line somewhere, and some men might have agreed.
Now, can someone please pass the butter?