Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The last tango

with 5 comments

Bernardo Bertoclucci, Marlon Brando, and Maria Schneider on the set of Last Tango in Paris

When I look back at many of my favorite movies, I’m troubled by a common thread that they share. It’s the theme of the control of a vulnerable woman by a man in a position of power. The Red Shoes, my favorite film of all time, is about artistic control, while Blue Velvet, my second favorite, is about sexual domination. Even Citizen Kane has that curious subplot about Kane’s attempt to turn Susan into an opera star, which may have originated as an unkind reference to William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies, but which survives in the final version as an emblem of Kane’s need to collect human beings like playthings. It’s also hard to avoid the feeling that some of these stories secretly mirror the relationship between the director and his actresses on the set. Vertigo, of course, can be read as an allegory for Hitchcock’s own obsession with his leading ladies, whom he groomed and remade as meticulously as Scotty attempts to do with Madeline. In The Shining, Jack’s abuse of Wendy feels only slightly more extreme than what we know Kubrick—who even resembles Jack a bit in the archival footage that survives—imposed on Shelley Duvall. (Duvall’s mental health issues have cast a new pall on those accounts, and the involvement of Kubrick’s daughter Vivian has done nothing to clarify the situation.) And Roger Ebert famously hated Blue Velvet because he felt that David Lynch’s treatment of Isabella Rossellini had crossed an invisible moral line.

The movie that has been subjected to this kind of scrutiny most recently is Last Tango in Paris, after interview footage resurfaced of Bernardo Bertolucci discussing its already infamous rape scene. (Bertolucci originally made these comments three years ago, and the fact that they’ve drawn attention only now is revealing in itself—it was hiding in plain sight, but it had to wait until we were collectively prepared to talk about it.) Since the story first broke, there has been some disagreement over what Maria Schneider knew on the day of the shoot. You can read all about it here. But it seems undeniable that Bertolucci and Brando deliberately withheld crucial information about the scene from Schneider until the cameras were rolling. Even the least offensive version makes me sick to my stomach, all the more so because Last Tango in Paris has been an important movie to me for most of my life. In online discussions of the controversy, I’ve seen commenters dismissing the film as an overrated relic, a vanity project for Brando, or one of Pauline Kael’s misguided causes célèbres. If anything, though, this attitude lets us off the hook too easily. It’s much harder to admit that a film that genuinely moved audiences and changed lives might have been made under conditions that taint the result beyond retrieval. It’s a movie that has meant a lot to me, as it did to many other viewers, including some I knew personally. And I don’t think I can ever watch it again.

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

But let’s not pretend that it ends there. It reflects a dynamic that has existed between directors and actresses since the beginning, and all too often, we’ve forgiven it, as long as it results in great movies. We write critical treatments of how Vertigo and Psycho masterfully explore Hitchcock’s ambivalence toward women, and we overlook the fact that he sexually assaulted Tippi Hedren. When we think of the chummy partnerships that existed between men like Cary Grant and Howard Hawks, or John Wayne and John Ford, and then compare them with how directors have regarded their female collaborators, the contrast couldn’t be more stark. (The great example here is Gone With the Wind: George Cukor, the original director, was fired because he made Clark Gable uncomfortable, and he was replaced by Gable’s buddy Victor Fleming. Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland were forced to consult with Cukor in secret.) And there’s an unsettling assumption on the part of male directors that this is the only way to get a good performance from a woman. Bertolucci says that he and Brando were hoping to get Schneider’s raw reaction “as a girl, instead of as an actress.” You can see much the same impulse in Kubrick’s treatment of Duvall. Even Michael Powell, one of my idols, writes of how he and the other actors frightened Moira Shearer to the point of tears for the climactic scene of The Red Shoes—“This was no longer acting”—and says elsewhere: “I never let love interfere with business, or I would have made love to her. It would have improved her performance.”

So what’s a film buff to do? We can start by acknowledging that the problem exists, and that it continues to affect women in the movies, whether in the process of filmmaking itself or in the realities of survival in an industry that is still dominated by men. Sometimes it leads to abuse or worse. We can also honor the work of those directors, from Ozu to Almodóvar to Wong Kar-Wai, who have treated their actresses as partners in craft. Above all else, we can come to terms with the fact that sometimes even a masterpiece fails to make up for the choices that went into it. Thinking of Last Tango in Paris, I was reminded of Norman Mailer, who wrote one famous review of the movie and was linked to it in another. (Kael wrote: “On the screen, Brando is our genius as Mailer is our genius in literature.”) Years later, Mailer supported the release from prison of a man named Jack Henry Abbott, a gifted writer with whom he had corresponded at length. Six weeks later, Abbott stabbed a stranger to death. Afterward, Mailer infamously remarked:

I’m willing to gamble with a portion of society to save this man’s talent. I am saying that culture is worth a little risk.

But it isn’t—at least not like this. Last Tango in Paris is a masterpiece. It contains the single greatest male performance I’ve ever seen. But it wasn’t worth it.

5 Responses

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  1. Your comments cut to the heart of art and criticism. Do we consider the artwork solely in isolation? Ought we? I guess it is easier to leave things to the side if they are not part of the making of the work (or no one would use Gill sans…). But when they are part of the creative process… has a line been crossed then? Yet for many artists their way of life is tied up with their creativity. Where’s the line?

    I find your quotes from Powell (and Mailer) the most enlightening. They are effectively saying that the ends justify the means. It shows an odd lack of perspective. Maybe I am being too much the scientist here, but I don’t think any art justifies destroying or damaging the life of another person, and if that means some art remains unmade, then so be it.

    Darren

    December 6, 2016 at 9:33 pm

  2. @Darren: I think it comes down to the issue of consent. An adult can—and often should—be ready to inflict psychological pain on themselves and their collaborators in pursuit of a creative goal, but only when all participants are willing. It’s when the boundaries aren’t clear that we run into trouble.

    nevalalee

    December 6, 2016 at 9:50 pm

  3. I have read so many examples in science — behavioural, medical, even in physics — where the end justified the means and so subjects were mistreated incredibly, that perhaps I would draw the line too far on the side of not going ahead. Though in science you sometimes have the complexity of ‘yes, but if this treatment works it will save XXXX lives’. In art, we’re not saving lives, we’re supposed to be enriching them.

    And the problem with consent is that in power situations consent may not really be willing.

    And ‘if the participants are willing’ of course rules out a whole vast field — when people are compelled, when they have no choice, when they suffer unfairly, etc — a whole lot of stuff that is, it could be argued, really important (both in science and art).

    Cheerio.

    Darren

    December 6, 2016 at 11:29 pm

  4. Read Ethics by Spinoza

    galtz

    December 7, 2016 at 1:02 pm

  5. @Darren: I agree that it seems best to err on the side of caution.

    nevalalee

    December 22, 2016 at 9:05 pm


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