PARIS—I was 19 when it rained and Marlon Brando told me he was at the end of his career, "making a fuck movie in Paris."
It was November, largely grey and Bertolucci's crew had been sneaking around Passy in Paris' 16th arrondissement, filming Last Tango commando-style for a week, perhaps 10 days. They'd been spotted picking up exteriors: along the Seine, a shopping high street... A few days earlier, a classmate claimed to have seen Jean-Pierre Léaud running down rue de Passy. Another heard scenes were planned for some soon-to-be-demolished dance hall.
On this particularly wet Wednesday morning, they hadn't yet been inside the large vacant apartment just downhill from the school I was nominally attending: the apartment where the film's obsessions play out.
This Wednesday, there were klieg lights under wet canvas on the pedestrian bridge at Rue d'Alboni and a small white panel truck beside the Kennedy Eiffel Bar, the dingy corner café where I gave the odd English lesson in exchange for coffee and a few coins. Enough to play pinball, stay warm, kill hours until a girlfriend got out of class. The crew had barely managed to get in their location shot—the scenes that make up the film's opening sequence beneath the arched bridge at Bir Hakeim—before the rains came through. Apparently they'd half of the chance meeting on the bridge finished when the rains washed away their afternoon plans.
At the café door, I caught Brando huddling in the rain. It was just a brief glimpse, his head ducked down as a ballet of umbrella and chauffeur arranged his departure. Inside, a waiter I knew, suddenly serving two dozen, told me the film crew was hastily arranging to film inside. His boss proposed I might stick around to help with these Italians who largely “spoke English.” He pointed at the man in the cowboy hat, centering two dozen clattering Italians. Looking over, Bernardo Bertolucci smiled briefly, gave an “OK.”
I was given a sandwich, a piece of paper to sign, promised $20 and told “stick around.” An hour later Brando returned.
He was thin and most beautiful. Looking exactly as he does in the film, hair longer and blonde, niftily matching the camel hair coat he wore. I've tried for years to explain his presence to those who care to listen. Brando didn't really have a full frontal face. It was more knife edge or axe-like in person. It was as though his face was angular, appearing to have been made of two profiles cleaved together. It was the camera that flattened it out.
I was introduced to him as “American” while the crew continued to set up in the café's cramped dining area. We shared a couple of coffees and together attacked the pinball machine. He was an experienced player but knowing this machine better I beat him two out of three games and was on my way to a sweep when Maria Schneider, tiring of being ignored by Brando, playfully goosed me.
The two of them were playful, and not much more. Brando and Schneider weren't lovers, friends or even particularly warm to one another. She was clearly in awe of him but without attraction. Their flirtation was professional. They were complicit in creating something he understood (much better than she) could merge art and scandal and together in the café, they exchanged the smiles and whispers of co-conspirators.
Those scenes which created Last Tango in Paris' shock, forged its groundbreaking reputation and condemnation, caused its ban, and which continue to roil its reevaluations were still to be shot.
Brando explained as much.
In person, he was generous, kind. Funny as hell. The superstar who spoke in a small, introspective boyish voice with false start pauses and tongue clicks had given dozens of impressionists their careers on black and white television and was oddly ill-matched to his assured athletic stride. I described it once as “a voice that come through a keyhole” and that's as close as I'll likely ever get. Except when I'm drinking. Then I'll dare to imitate him and for having observed him in person, do a better impression than most.
He also had both a killer glare and a killer smile which he teased about the noisy cafe. As the other “American” on set, he was open to me. He'd been in the news then just recently for having hired J.J. Armes to retrieve his son from Mexico and was exuberant with the private investigator’s success.
Career-wise, well, he was “Paul,” the character he portrays in the film, a man living beyond the edge of desperation. The role of an exile suffering loss approached autobiography and fit him as no other part ever. His own sense of living with immense failure informs his role, making his performance all the more insistent. It is a car crash into obsession you can't turn away from, unbelievably compelling and the essential reason to watch a film which I cede is brutally uncomfortable even before they approach the apartment scenes.
“My career is over," he confessed that day in the café. It seems inconsistent with the myth he has become but at that time the greatest actor of his generation was nearing 50 and a resounding box office failure. The excesses of the '60s, the financial poisons of Mutiny on the Bounty and subsequent flatline indulgences like The Countess from Hong Kong, Reflections In a Golden Eye and Candy had relegated his work to a string of fascinating and strikingly underfunded European art house projects.
He'd had to audition for a part the year before.
His career was over, and he said as much. He'd "just made a gangster picture in America and now making a fuck film in France." (The "gangster picture" would open in March and The Godfather secured his second Oscar. His thought of sending Sacheen Littlefeather to the stage to claim it probably cost him back-to-back wins when the following year Brando was again nominated for best actor in Last Tango.
(I mean, honestly, c'mon. Following his snub of the academy ceremony, 1973's competition was an “Anybody But Brando” vote. By default it was clearly Nicholson vs. Redford vs. Pacino. And the winner was... Jack Lemmon for “Save The Tiger.”)
Brando shared a few things that afternoon about “the fuck movie” which I've always kept back for the sake of propriety.
He openly, very graphically described his director's desire for on-screen penetration. He dismissed it completely, however, basing his refusal on his personal distaste for Schneider whom he described unflatteringly in language of the day. He joked about her lack of appeal, characterizing her in crude terms common to locker rooms and schoolyards. If there's any justification today, any excuse, it's that he was simply speaking the language used between men, 50 years ago.
To be blunt then, Schneider just wasn't his type. He'd made his decision and wasn't going to be persuaded. Bertolucci wanted a real fuck scene. He wasn't going to get one from Brando.
What ultimately appears onscreen, the violation, is considerably worse.
The film became a landmark. An international scandal. Art. It continues to draw viewers and controversy. I confess, however, to being unable still to understand its significance with any objectivity. It remains a postcard of my youth.
Two decades on, I tracked Schneider down hoping for a newspaper or magazine interview in advance of the film's 20th anniversary. She was largely reclusive but an acquaintance knew someone who knew her and my telephone number got through. Her eyes, her voice, shied away when the topic approached. She took to calling at 3 a.m.
If Brando had been crude discussing her, she was equally unflattering, NO! She was even more vitriolic about her co-star, their director and the film. The intervening years hadn't been kind. She was a difficult personality type, who'd lived an even more difficult existence. There were stories of problems on her subsequent film, a collaboration with Nicholson and Antonioni. Other stories circulated concerning breakdowns, hospitalizations, perpetual financial problems... In the few 3 a.m. calls we had, she persistently tried brokering payment in exchange for her confessions.
When finally I made her understand my absolute inability to offer her a payday, the calls stopped.
I grasped in part her anger and sense of betrayal. In the intervening years, I'd seen the film, found it both ugly and compelling. It's not an easy experience to sit through. It has been reviled and championed, revisited, reevaluated for nearly 50 years... In 2007, Schneider did finally interview with Britain's Daily Mail, explaining she had felt both raped and manipulated during filming. Describing Bertolucci as "overrated," a director who never made anything with similar impact after Last Tango, she claimed he had coerced both Marlon and herself. "I was too young to know better," she stated. "Marlon later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt. People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn't me."
The controversial butter scene, "wasn't in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea," she explained. "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 apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take."
Brando died in 2004. Schneider, 2011.
Bertolucci, last month in Rome at age 77.
A gentle man who began writing as a poet, he emerged into Italian cinema's Golden Age, working with some pretty kinky puppies (Pier Paolo Pasolini among them) and contributed a number of fascinating unconventional films like The Conformist and La Luna which leave their effect on a viewer like a secret erotic passion. He achieved one masterpiece, The Last Emperor, but never escaped Last Tango's shadow.
In December 2016, Bertolucci and Last Tango resurfaced in controversy, drawn into the #MeToo movement's sights when video of a masterclass he'd given three years earlier surfaced. In the video, he explained how the butter had worked its way into a pre-scripted scene. The idea, he claimed, had occurred spontaneously and simultaneously to both Brando and himself over breakfast in the apartment. He had, he admitted "been horrible to Maria because I didn't tell her" what was intended, wanting to capture her authentic humiliation on screen for the artistic purposes of the film.
He felt "guilty" he said but had no regrets because of the way the scene was filmed.
The 2016 controversy drew new infamy to the film, fresh condemnation to its director. Calls came from the then nascent #MeToo movement for the director to be stripped of honors won for other works. Attempting to calm critics, Bertolucci issued one last clarifying statement concerning the "butter scene" in which he again repeated Schneider was well aware of the scene's violence which had been present in the original script. What she hadn't been informed of, he said, the “only novelty” introduced to the scene on the morning of the shoot, was the butter.
He just didn't get the outrage.
But he had, in fact. When Schneider passed away in 2011, he told the Italian news agency ANSA that the creative rapport he had with her during the Last Tango shoot had been lost. Her death, he said, had come "too soon, before I could tenderly hug her again, tell her that I felt close to her like the first day, and at least once, say I was sorry.”
Eva Green, an actress drawn early on into the Weinstein furor and the #MeToo movement, first came to stardom in 2003 in Bertolucci's The Dreamers. Last month, she chose to put things into perspective and remember him fondly. Telling the Hollywood Reporter, she didn't wish to diminish or "undermine Maria Schneider’s experience," she added, "I’m sure she really suffered. But as for my own experience, he was always a gentleman. Very respectful. He knew how nervous I was about the sex scenes but he never pushed me. He just let us do things. There was never anything odd. There are so many worse directors—he was just a wonderful person and maestro."
I was fortunate to speak with Bertolucci once years after Last Tango. In 1996, he appeared at Cannes to promote Stealing Beauty. As I sat down opposite him, I presumed to explain how meeting him again represented “a personal bookend for me” (a terrible phrase but the one which sadly I came out with) as I'd been on the set of Last Tango...
He stopped me there. "Many people," he said, his English still accented as I recall, "tell me they've been on the sets of my movies. Sorry but I don't recognize you."
"You wouldn't. My elbow appears as a shadow on the cafe bar for seconds,” I said, suddenly seized by the feeling my three-minute interview, like my intended Schneider 20th anniversary idea, was rapidly heading through the floor into the dark nebulous world of never-gonna-happen. Plunging forward in blind panic, I tried winning back the moment, adding for no fathomable reason beyond panic. "Well I recall one of your crew explaining how he'd just returned from Vietnam... "
I still hadn't asked a question related to Stealing Beauty and Bertolucci. I noticed he was politely looking over my shoulder, towards his next interview.
"And how... how... because of the rain, you came into the cafe, improvised a lot that afternoon and and and the old lady...' Her image spit up from nowhere. Some unknown depth. "That bit by the washroom door, you know, where Maria uses the telephone, the old lady you hired to go by her, she never remembered to... " He stood up. He stared. His warm shoe-button eyes, I swear, pulsed with an electrical wave. "Eight takes!" he cried, "Eight takes! She never got it right. She never open the door. Then she close the door, never remembered to leave it open. We make eight takes to get that one shot."
Then, jumping out of his chair with the joy of anyone finding Livingstone in the jungle, Santa eating cookies on Christmas morning, or another Titanic survivor swimming onto the raft, he threw a bear hug on me, calling to his longtime producer Jeremy Thomas. "Hey Jeremy! Jeremy, guess what? This guy, you and me, we make Last Tango together."
And that's my Brando story.