What are the duties of directors towards their actors when they film rape scenes? The question has become a matter of national discussion following the intense media scrutiny of a newly resurfaced 2013 interview in which famed director Bernardo Bertolucci admitted to filming a real non-consensual sexual act for his 1972 film, Last Tango in Paris.
The scene, in which superstar Marlon Brando uses butter as a lubricant before raping actress Maria Schneider, was already infamous, but Bertolucci provided new details in the clip, admitting that Schneider was not aware beforehand of the details of what would happen to her in the scene. "I'd been in a way horrible to Maria because I didn't tell her what was going on," Bertolucci said. "Because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress… I wanted her to react humiliated. I think she hated me and also Marlon because we didn't tell her." Bertolucci added, "To obtain something I think you have to be completely free. I didn't want Maria to act her humiliation her rage, I wanted her to Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for all of her life."
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While Bertolucci's admission garnered intense outcry, the information had actually been readily available to the media for years. In 2007, Schneider told the Daily Mail that the scene wasn't in the actual script and that Brando had come up with the idea. "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," she said. "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 apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take." Schneider, who was 19 at the time of filming, died in 2011 at the age of 58, after a lifetime of drug abuse, depression, and suicide attempts.
Bertolucci has now backtracked on his comments, saying in a statement, "I specified, but perhaps I was not clear, that I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we would have used butter. We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter]. That is where the misunderstanding lies. Somebody thought, and thinks, that Maria had not been informed about the violence on her. That is false!… Maria knew everything because she had read the script, where it was all described. The only novelty was the idea of the butter." Bertolucci isn't the only person defending his actions; both his cinematographer and Marlon Brando's son have both denied the allegations, chalking them up to a misunderstanding with the press.
Hollywood has had a long and complicated relationship with rape scenes. Patricia White, a Professor of Film and Media studies at Swarthmore College, told Broadly that initial censorship guidelines kept rape from even being discussed, let alone portrayed, in film. "In classical Hollywood films, before the ratings system was introduced at the end of the 1960s, the Production Code stated that 'seduction or rape… should never be more than suggested,' pretty much sidestepping the question of consent," she explained. "How could a viewer tell whether it was rape or consensual sex that was being 'suggested'?"
I'm doubtful there's any increase in representations of rape. It is a constant.
As guidelines loosened and filmmakers were offered more freedom, films that crossed and ignored boundaries like Last Tango began to be made. "European art cinema has long been associated with more explicit sexual representation than Hollywood, and Last Tango took it to a new level," said White, "It was hailed as a masterpiece—as if calling the male director a genius somehow made the representation of violence against women tasteful."
When asked if instances of rape and sexual assault in film and television have increased since Last Tango's release, White responded, "I'm doubtful there's any increase in representations of rape. It is a constant. It is easy to use rape a metaphor or catalyst to get at something else. What is more visible is activism around sexual assault, and around underrepresentation of women and people of color who might bring new perspectives to how it is lived and depicted."
This is very apparent in Hollywood's response to the revelations: Actors and directors have publicly expressed their disgust and condemnation over the past week. Selma director Ava DuVernay tweeted an Elle article about the scene, adding, "Inexcusable. As a director, I can barely fathom this. As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it." Actress Zelda Williams tweeted about Bertolucci, "You're a director and want to film real pain? Real terror? Real shame? Do documentaries. Don't put your actors thru surprise hell without consent." Chris Evans of Captain America fame wrote that he would never look at Bertolucci or Brando the same way, adding, "This is disgusting. I feel rage."
In an interview with People, actress Jessica Chastain said, "I think we need to reexamine how we look at that film," adding, "Perhaps it needs to be defined as something else and not an excellent piece of film making because it's a situation where a woman was victimized and then it was recorded, and she was 19 and he was 48."
Bertolucci's actions were deplorable and show how deeply ingrained rape culture has been in Hollywood for a long time.
Many women in the industry feel that Bertolucci's comments highlight the immense significance of respecting and listening to women on set, especially when it comes to on-camera sexual violence. "Directors have a special responsibility to protect their actors, physically and emotionally. This is particularly vital when filming scenes depicting sexual assault," Film Fatales, a network of female filmmakers, told Broadly in a statement. "Bertolucci's actions on the set of Last Tango In Paris were deplorable and show how deeply ingrained rape culture has been in Hollywood for a long time."
Tamra Davis, who has directed movies like Crossroads and Half-Baked as well as shows like Grey's Anatomy and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, told Broadly that healthy boundaries and good communication are vital when filming sex scenes, regardless of whether they are portrayed as consensual or non-consensual. "I think it's really important that that a director is somebody that is there that the actor is comfortable with, that no matter what happens that they are there for them, to be their voice to and to take care of them."
Davis says that when actors and directors film difficult sex or rape scenes, "I always have a private meeting with the actors so that we really talk about what's going to happen, how they feel comfortable… I want to make sure that if they have concerns, they have someone there who they can voice them too, and somebody there who can protect them." Davis says that as a female director, sometimes she is hired for this express purpose. "Being a woman, I know that people have hired me specifically for that. I know that I worked on Crossroads"—which did not feature a rape scene but featured a scene of Spears' character losing her virginity—"because they wanted to make sure that Britney wasn't vulnerable to a man on that movie."
Davis says that actors make sure they read all scripts in advance so that they can discuss difficult scenes before filming; voicing objections in the moment makes the situation much more difficult. "I just did a sex scene with an actor and actress; the actor was like, 'I'll be naked, I don't care!'" she recalled. "She was like, 'I want to have padding on, tucked in. I don't want to have my legs open and feel his private parts dangling between my legs. That's not cool with me.' At first she was totally freaked out and wouldn't do the scene, until I spoke with her and understood that that was the problem. It was handled in a very professional way, and she had every right to request that."
She added that even after these discussions, a director has ultimate power to step in if actors feel uncomfortable or unsafe in upsetting scenes. "If some man is being violent, I can always yell 'Cut!' You don't always have that power in the real world."