Not Just the Last Tango: What Makes Directors Abuse Their Female Stars?

The nightmare experienced by the young French actor Maria Schneider on the set of 'Last Tango in Paris' was not a one-off. Many legendary filmmakers have allowed themselves to abuse their cast, especially female actors, supposedly in the name of art.

Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in "Last Tango in Paris" (1972).
Archives du 7eme Art/Photo12

Forty-four years have passed since Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci caused a scandal with the release of his drama “Last Tango in Paris.” If it seems that over the years memories of the film have seen it move gently into film history as one of the outstanding works of its time – this is most definitely not the case.

The scandalous potential of Bertolucci’s 1972 film, starring Marlon Brando as a middle-aged American conducting a torrid affair with a young Frenchwoman, resurfaced last weekend, following the online publication of a 2013 video interview with the director. In it, he recounted how he made the film’s most (in)famous scene – the anal sex scene in which Marlon Brando uses a stick of butter to penetrate Maria Schneider (incidentally, there was no actual penetration between the actors during the shooting). Bertolucci said the use of butter was not in the original script but was instead conjured up by Bertolucci and Brando on set that morning. Furthermore, it was filmed without Schneider’s consent.

During the interview, the veteran director said he did not regret his actions. In order to justify this, he said he did what he did so that Schneider would react as a woman (she was 19 at the time), not a female actor.

It’s amazing that such a dumb sentence could come from the mouth of such a talented director as Bertolucci, to whom social and political issues – including relationships between men and women – were central themes of many of his films. Isn’t every female actor first and foremost a woman exposed to the camera, which produces a gaze designed first and foremost for men, as per the feminist theories regarding cinema in the 1970s?

Dominate and control

Since the overwhelming majority of filmmakers in this art form have been men, their mastery isn’t expressed only in the extreme case of Bertolucci and Schneider. Many directors saw themselves as masters of this world, and that it was their right – given their lordly status behind the camera – to dominate and control the actors who were creating a world in the director’s image. And since it is harder for men to control other men, women were usually their main victims.

Sometimes, this control had a personal nature. It is said, for example, that when French director Jean-Luc Godard made “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Godard’s real-life wife, Anna Karina, their four-year-old marriage was already on its last legs and there was huge animosity between the couple. In one scene, the character played by Karina, Marianne Renoir, was supposed to be buried in sand on the beach. It was claimed that for a lengthy time Godard refused to yell “Cut!” to signify the end of filming, until some of those present rushed to extricate Karina from her predicament.

Another, earlier example is the 1947 Orson Welles film “The Lady from Shanghai,” which starred his then-wife, Rita Hayworth. Their marriage was already on the rocks and the entire movie – in which Welles starred alongside Hayworth as her innocent victim – expressed contempt for her. This was seen not only through her character being one of the most seductive and evil yet shown on the big screen, but also by shearing away her long, red hair. This had hitherto been her screen trademark, but Welles’ swapped it for a short blonde hairdo. This disappointed her fans and contributed to the film’s failure and the subsequent crisis in Hayworth’s career (Welles’ career was permanently in crisis, anyway).

The best-known case, of course, is that of Alfred Hitchcock. The British filmmaker worshipped some of his actresses – like Ingrid Bergman and Grace Kelly – but abused others, such as Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren.

The abuse of Hedren in two of his films, “The Birds” (1963) and “Marnie” (1964), is well documented (and was immortalized in a 2012 television movie, “The Girl”), and reached its peak in the scene in which Hedren’s Melanie Daniels character is trapped in an attic as dozens of birds attack her – some of them live birds who were actually attached to her body. This scene was filmed over many days, after which Hedren needed medical and psychological treatment (much like the character she portrayed).

This affair resurfaced recently with the publication of Hedren’s autobiography, “Tippi: A Memoir,” in which she detailed the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of Hitchcock. There were also other kinds of abuse, such as a ban on the other actors socializing with her. And because she signed an exclusive contract to appear only in Hitchcock movies, she was banned from appearing in any films other than his (yet he failed to cast her again after “Marnie”).

Other directors are also known for their demeaning and abusive treatment of female actors – from Erich von Stroheim and Otto Preminger during Hollywood’s Golden Age, to the modern-day Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier. Björk, the star of his drama “Dancer in the Dark” (2000), called the movie her worst-ever experience, and almost refused to appear alongside Von Trier at the Cannes Film Festival awards ceremony when the film won the Palme d’Or and Björk claimed the best actress award.

Even if I appreciate all the directors listed in this article, I have no respect for directors, as good as they may be, who used their authority to achieve cinematic authenticity – which is overrated, anyway. In the case of Hitchcock, and possibly the other directors mentioned, too, this was the passion that drove him. But perhaps this passion is also overrated.