“Don’t worry, it’s just a movie.”
That’s what Maria Schneider reports Marlon Brando said to her after she felt “raped” by the actor when filming the infamous butter scene in Last Tango in Paris.
Schneider and Brando are both deceased, but attention to her account was renewed recently when video was posted online of director Bernardo Bertolucci admitting that neither he nor Brando told Schneider about the use of butter as a lubricant for the sex scene nor obtained her consent to film the scene as they did.
The admission is shocking and the anger towards the director and deceased star has been swift and vocal as the story has resurfaced. Is expressing outrage enough? What should be / can be our relationship to art created by artists whose decisions we find sinful, criminal, or morally repugnant?
Before exploring that question, some necessary (albeit distasteful) caveats. Because of the ambiguities in language, it is not crystal clear what Bertolucci meant when he said that he “feels guilty” about “this detail of the butter [being] used as a lubricant.” Earlier in the same video, he says that he and Brando came up with “the sequence” and did not inform Schneider. The actress said in a separate interview that she felt “a little raped” even though “what Marlon was doing wasn’t real.”
Whether “what Marlon was doing” that “wasn’t real” refers only to the anal sex or also refers to what Bertolucci calls the “lubrication” with the butter may be the difference between whether or not one thinks the actress was humiliated, assaulted, or actually raped. The most plausible interpretation based on both the actress’ and director’s comments appears to me to be that the sex was simulated but that Brando may actually have penetrated Schneider with the prop — without her foreknowledge or consent. Definitions of rape vary from state to state, with some making a distinction between rape and “penetration with a foreign object.” For many (myself included) that semantic distinction will do little to mediate the assessment of moral blame, but it is nevertheless important to reiterate that “rape” is a category of sexual assault and not a catchall term.
As an educator and film journalist who likes to think (and claim) that my work is informed by my Christian faith, I confess I am less interested in the degree of shock and/or anger that this story has engendered than the degree to which we allow it (or don’t) to inform and influence our consumption of art. Yes, everyone is, or should be, rightfully outraged and mournful about what happened to Maria Schneider. It’s hard for me to imagine how one could conceive of oneself as a humanist, a feminist, or Christian, and not feel deep remorse at a culture or industry that turned (or still turns) a deaf ear to a woman’s account of being victimized. My question isn’t so much about what we should feel, it’s about what we should do. I’m not sure I know the right answer to that question or whether the answer is the same in all cases, especially since the particulars may matter a great deal. Below are some preliminary thoughts:
- We should listen to, take seriously, and attempt to verify allegations of sexual harassment, assault, or rape. Where evidence exists to corroborate such claims, they should be prosecuted. Otherwise criminal actions should never be excused because they were performed under the cover of making art or perpetrated by popular or powerful celebrities, artists, or politicians.
- What is especially damning about the Bertolucci tape is that we seldom have an admission that actions were perpetrated without consent. Power imbalances in professional relationships often blur the line between coercion and force. If we consume art, I think we owe it to the women who participate in the industry to educate ourselves not only about individual cases of force but also about the culture in which they work in order to better understand their potential difficulties in dealing with coercion.
- We should remind ourselves that while women are the more frequent victims of sexual assault and rape, that the abuse of power can also target men and boys, particularly in cultures where we grant a lot of power to those in authority without much oversight.
- To boycott or not to boycott? One of the most common responses to revelations such as this one is a call to boycott a specific artistic work or even the artist’s (artists’) body of work. This is, admittedly, a slippery slope, and a question I struggle with. I don’t have much trouble with abstaining from the individual work in question if/when I find the alleged victim’s account credible. (I never did watch Blue is the Warmest Color for that very reason.) I’ve also experienced a change in my level of esteem or capacity to enjoy certain artists based on accusations or accounts of personal, moral failings. This is different from a protest. There are certain films by Woody Allen or stand up routines by Bill Cosby that I just don’t find funny anymore. I don’t refuse to watch them out of some sense of moral outrage but because I’ve outgrown them — my aesthetic and artistic preferences have changed. It would be meaningless for me to say in response to Bertolucci’s admission that I refuse to watch Last Tango in Paris any more because I haven’t watched it in over twenty years and had no particular plans to revisit it. Given that the director is seventy-five and unlikely to create any more films, refusing to see his subsequent work strikes me as a similarly empty gesture. Brando, of course, is another story. Oscar or no Oscar, you could develop a knowledge of film history without diving into Bertolucci’s filmography; it’s hard for me to say the same thing about Brando. I could certainly abstain from future viewings given that I’m already familiar with nearly all of Brando’s seminal works. And really, only one, The Godfather, is a film I hold dear. What, if anything, does refusing to watch that accomplish? That leads me to my biggest take home from musing about this story…
- Whatever we do in response to reports of injustice or victimization should prioritize helping (empowering, supporting) the victims over making ourselves feel better. Schneider’s story, though it happened over forty years ago, is hardly unique — or unique to Hollywood. Last I heard, less than 10% of studio films are directed by women. I suspect that we make a much bigger statement by what we spend our money on than on what we boycott. Remember when Christians got so upset at Universal over The Last Temptation of Christ that they called for a boycott of E.T. on VHS? How did that work out? In a globalized, multinational world, I can scarce think of a product — from the clothes on our back to the phones that we use to the chocolate we eat to the bottled water we drink to, yes, the movies we watch — that isn’t implicated in the exploitation of human labor. We absolutely can (and should) make distinctions of degree as well as kind, and we should condemn, loudly, the most egregious examples of misconduct. But let’s not assuage our troubled consciences by thinking that having taken a stand against those individual, high profile transgressions that we have alleviated ourselves of any responsibility for supporting unjust or exploitative systems, businesses, industries, or practices. Maria Schneider was sexually assaulted. By all means, let us condemn the men who did it. But maybe, just maybe, we could also try to do a little something to address the conditions that allowed it to happen (and keep happening). Maybe we could try to translate some of that righteous indignation and anger into action? Support a woman artist. Listen to a woman who reports being abused. Read women’s literature, feminist criticism, and women’s biographies. Discuss art with women; you may become more aware of themes or messages in works of art that complicate but ultimately enrich your appreciation of both the women and the art. Donate money to a local woman’s shelter or to ministries helping victims cope with the trauma of sexual assault. Do something positive and empowering, even if it is small, rather than simply cursing the darkness.