Undoubtedly one of the most controversial films of the last century, Last Tango in Paris is an erotic drama that’s virtually impossible to look away from. A movie centering around the twisted affair between a young girl (Maria Schneider) and a middle-aged man (Marlon Brando), it floods the viewer with a sense of disturbing arousal.
But apart from the premise of the film, which is, in itself, a bit dodgy, what really catches most people off guard is one part in particular – the notorious “butter scene.” A scene in which the only thing that you, as a viewer, find comforting is the notion that they’re all acting and that none of it is real in any way.
Except, not really. Maria Schneider was kept entirely out of the loop during that grueling scene.
Here is what she had to say about it. And what director Bernardo Bertolucci had to say in return.
French actress, Maria Schneider, was only 19 when she was cast to play 48-year-old Marlon Brando’s lover in the film, Last Tango in Paris. Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, the film is a tale of lust involving an older widow and a younger woman. It had such racy sexual encounters that it was banned in several countries, including Italy, France, and Chile.
But that didn’t stop critics from crowning it as one of the best movies of the 1970s, with the iconic New Yorker critic Pauline Kael stating that it had “altered the face of an art form”, comparing it to Igor Stravinsky’s masterpiece, The Rite of Spring.
Many feminists, however, denounced it as a degrading “tool of male dominance.”
In the movie, Schneider plays Jeanne, a young girl engaged to a filmmaker named Tom (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who goes one day to view an apartment in Paris. There she comes across Paul (Brando), an American ex-pat whose wife committed suicide.
The two develop a passionate affair, knowing close to nothing about each other (Paul tells her it’s best that they don’t reveal their real names). Steamy clinches, a forbidden love, and an uncomfortable age gap are what make the movie controversially enchanting.
The most famous scene in the movie is hands down, the notorious butter scene. It involves Schneider, face down on the hard apartment floor, with Brando applying butter to her intimate parts and proceeding to perform sexual acts on her.
It’s virtually impossible to watch this scene without shifting in your chair in discomfort. It’s harsh, distressing, and even if you know you’re watching a movie, you still kind of want it to end. Schneider lets out cries of pain and humiliation, yet Brando continues to pin her strongly to the ground.
Now, you know they’re acting, so you wouldn’t really consider it rape, right? Especially because there was no real penetration involved. Well, here’s where it gets a bit fuzzy. Even though Brando kept his pants on, Schneider still felt violated.
Why? Because the scene wasn’t in the original script. The truth was that Marlon came up with the idea the morning of the shooting, as he and director Bernardo Bertolucci enjoyed their coffee and baguette. On the table was a delicious, creamy stick of butter. Brando looked down at it, then back up at Bertolucci, and without saying a word, the two knew what needed to be done.
For Schneider, it was business as usual. She strolled onto the set, assuming it would be just another workday when she suddenly found herself crying real tears of pain as Brando climbed up on top of her. She was incredibly angry for being kept out of the loop like that.
“I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set,” she admitted years later, “because you can’t force someone to do something that isn’t in the script, but at the time, I didn’t know that.” Apparently, the inexperienced actress was informed of the racy scene a few moments before shooting it. But she had no idea how it would actually go down. And she definitely didn’t know she would be smeared with butter.
Seeing her worried, Brando told her before the cameras turned on, “Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie.” Despite what many tried to make of their relationship, Schneider explained that Brando was like a father to her on set. She took his word for it and tried to calm down.
But in truth, nothing Brando said could have helped brush off the humiliation and violation she experienced during the scene. “I felt humiliated, and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,” she revealed. “After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
The visceral sexual violence in the scene sparked a screen myth that there was actual penetration. So, just for clarification, it wasn’t an actual sex scene. But still, it was incredibly, incredibly uncomfortable for the young actress, who had no idea it was going to happen, and once she did, she could do little to stop it from happening.
Bernardo Bertolucci didn’t ask for her consent. As a young newcomer in show business, Schneider felt powerless against such an influential director. “I was so young and relatively inexperienced, and I didn’t understand all of the film’s sexual content. I had a bit of a bad feeling about it all,” she told The Daily Mail in 2007.
The butter scene story was kept under wraps for years and years. Meanwhile, both Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Oscars and were showered with praise. No one was interested in hearing Maria’s side of the story.
In his defense, Bertolucci said that the rape scene had, indeed, been in the script. It was only the butter that was not pre-planned. Either way, Schneider argued she was caught off guard. Bertolucci clearly took advantage of his status and did with her body as he wished.
Schneider revealed that working with Bertolucci was an absolute nightmare. “He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me,” she said. “Some mornings on set he would be very nice and say hello, and on other days, he wouldn’t say anything at all.”
The actress never fully forgave him for the way he treated her. Even though they met on several occasions in the following years, she never once said hello, purposely turning her back on him and dodging his eyes every time he passed by her.
Many thought that the sex scenes between Brando and Schneider were real, but the actress insisted that were was no romantic love there and barely any attraction. “Not at all. There was no attraction between us,” she confirmed. “For me, he was more like a father figure and I, a daughter.”
Marlon used to tell her that her baby face reminded him of his daughter, Cheyenne. The actor used to give young Schneider advice about the movie industry, about how to deal with her newfound stardom, and how not to let it get to her head.
Bertolucci’s explanation for his dubious directing was this: “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress.” And “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act.”
Well, that’s just dandy. Bertolucci wanted to draw an authentic reaction from the young woman, so he sexually humiliated her. Makes perfect sense…
“I specified, but perhaps I was not clear, that I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we would have used butter,” Bertolucci explained. “We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter]. That is where the misunderstanding lies.” Bertolucci downplayed the whole thing by insisting that the only novelty was the butter.
Although he tried rationalizing his actions, Bertolucci still admitted on a few occasions that he felt a little bit guilty about how things played out. He said he was well aware that Schneider hated him for years after the film, for his behavior in general but especially for the butter scene.
“I think that she hated me, and also Marlon, because we didn’t tell her, and there was that detail of the butter used as a lubricant, and I still feel very guilty for that,” he confessed. So, the director felt guilty, yes. Yet, he insisted he had no regrets whatsoever. He said that, as a filmmaker, “you have to be completely free.”
Brando has also said that he had a particularly humiliating experience shooting the film (but for completely different reasons). In his 1994 memoir, he wrote it was terribly cold during the filming of one of his nude scenes, and his “body went into full retreat,” referring to the size of his manhood.
“I was humiliated but not ready to surrender yet,” he revealed. After about an hour, the crew threw in the towel, and the scene was cut for the day. Marlon described it as “one of the more embarrassing experiences of my professional career.”
Schneider believed Bertolucci was playing out his fantasies through her and Brando. He even tried convincing them to have actual sex with each other. “He was in love with Marlon,” she revealed. “The part I play was written for a boy! That’s why the butter, the sodomization, the gag. …”
Despite going through all that, Schneider didn’t regret doing the film. And she said that the greatest thing that came out of the movie was getting to know Brando. The two remained good friends until Brando’s passing in 2004.
The scandalous scene surfaced nearly five decades later, in 2016, after a Spanish-language blog called El Mundo de Alycia posted an article about why Schneider’s treatment on the film set had to be revisited. It encouraged whoever believed that Bertolucci and Marlon Brando should have been condemned publicly and legally to share the video about it so that the truth would come out.
They uploaded a video of Bertolucci talking about the scene, with subtitles added in Spanish, under the rather startling and gripping title: “Bertolucci sobre Maria Schneider/Bertolucci admits rape scene was non-consensual.”
Calling it a “non-consensual rape scene” was all that was needed for it to explode all over English-language media. Tom Butler, an editor at Yahoo Movies UK, came across it and ran a similar article titled “Bertolucci admits infamous Last Tango ‘butter’ rape scene was non-consensual.”
The story gained major traction in the U.S. during the first week of its release, when it was reported on by outlets such as Variety, Vulture, and Elle. Word of Bertolucci’s directing began to spread and took on a different version, the worst one being something a freelance writer posted, saying: “[Schneider’s] experience of being anally penetrated by a stick of butter without her consent.”
The renewed attention the movie was receiving drew outrage from Hollywood actors and directors, who took to social media to express their anger. “Inexcusable. As a director, I can barely fathom this,” director Ava DuVernay posted. “As a woman, I am horrified, disgusted and enraged by it.”
As the clip circulated online, celebs took to Twitter to express their anger, including Marvel Comics actor Chris Evans who tweeted: “Wow. I will never look at this film, Bertolucci or Brando the same way again. This is beyond disgusting. I feel rage.”
Last Tango in Paris made millions and millions, yet Maria Schneider made five thousand dollars. That’s all. She assumed she would get a bit more after the film blew up like that, but nope, nada. Bernardo Bertolucci was too proud to cash out more than he had already given.
Both Bertolucci and Brando made a fortune from the film, yet Schneider had to suffice with an embarrassing amount. Her youth, inexperience, and sex made her the perfect target to exploit. “Working on my own, I constantly got ripped off,” she once admitted.
Maria Schneider became famous overnight thanks to her role in Tango. The erotic drama catapulted her into superstardom, proving to be a little too much for the 20-year-old actress. Interviews on interviews by both the American and European press were dizzying, to say the least.
She began fooling around and amusing herself in her interviews by purposely saying scandalous things. “I talked about going out with men, women, I sounded promiscuous, I took it all as a joke. I see now it wasn’t funny,” she recalled.
But funny didn’t last very long. And Schneider’s downfall after the movie was painful and sad. Totally unprepared for all the attention the film brought, she embarked on a path of self-destruction which escalated to the point of suicide.
“I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol,” she explained. “I wanted to be recognized as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.” She tried to radiate confidence in front of the press, but deep down, she was a frightened little kid who lacked the proper guidance.
Schneider began experimenting with everything. She took every drug possible, from pot all the way to heroin. “It was like an escape from reality,” she revealed. Drugs were her escape from fame, from people, from the surreal reality she was suddenly part of.
Schneider overdosed three times on drugs, and, in retrospect, the actress admitted it was a form of suicide. Albeit not a conscious act of suicide, but still, behavior that came from a place in her mind that wanted to pass out for good.
“I was very lucky,” Schneider told The Daily Mail: “I lost many friends to drugs. But I met someone in 1980 who helped me stop. I call this person my angel… I don’t say if it’s a man or a woman. That’s my secret garden. I like to keep it a mystery.”
Schneider’s “angel” was likely a woman. The actress has admitted relationships with women before and even went so far as to commit herself as a voluntary patient at a mental hospital in Rome to be with her then-lover, photographer Joan Townsend.
Schneider never went naked in a movie again after Last Tango in Paris, despite being offered several tempting roles. “Even before my experiences on Last Tango, I found it hard to trust men,” she confessed. “I only met my father when I was 15, and all the role models in my family were women.”
Her dad, French actor Daniel Gelin, had an affair with Schneider’s mother when she was 17. But was never brave enough to take responsibility for his actions, and he split the second he heard she was pregnant.
The actress never married, nor did she have kids, but she confessed to having no regrets at all about how her life turned out. “It just wasn’t in my destiny,” she told The Daily Mail.
Maria grew up near the Franco-German border and, after a heated fight with her mom, ran away from home at only 15. She then moved to Paris and made ends meet by working as a model sporadically. Despite the fact that her dad was living in the city (and quite comfortably) too, he wasn’t willing to take her in.
Surprisingly, it was Brigitte Bardot, an actress who once starred with her father, who eventually came to her rescue. She was shocked to hear that Maria’s father had abandoned her like that, so she gave her a room at her place. Thanks to Brigitte, she was able to join the William Morris Agency – her ticket to booking valuable gigs.
Schneider could have easily remained bitter by her experiences, but through the years, she grew out of it (although the bad blood between her and Bertolucci never went away). The actress tried to get back on the acting wagon and managed to snatch a few more memorable projects, including 1978’s Goin’ South, where she starred alongside Jack Nicholson.
She led a relatively quiet life, working mainly in Italy and France. At one point, she ran an organization called The Wheel Turns, which helps aging actors find work in the business. When questioned about finding work in her 50s, the actress admitted that she felt like “when a woman gets old enough to have something interesting to say, people don’t want to hear her speak.”
Maria passed away of breast cancer on February 3, 2011, at age 58. Her ashes were scattered at sea in Biarritz, France, according to her last wish. Friends, family, actors, directors, and producers in French cinema all attended the ceremony.
She was an incredibly important figure in the industry, who shaped the way women are treated. As one of the first to speak up about the poor treatment of women in film, Schneider set an early stage for women to share their stories and be heard by others.
Marlon Brando’s incredible performance in the film was a bit overshadowed by the movie’s sexual content. Still, he managed to be nominated several times, including receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
The late actor wrote in his autobiography, “To this day I can’t say what Last Tango in Paris was about” and added that the movie “required me to do a lot of emotional arm wrestling with myself, and when it was finished, I decided that I wasn’t ever again going to destroy myself emotionally to make a movie.”
Bertolucci talked about the butter incident in an interview in 2013. Incredibly, when he discussed how he and Brando looked at the butter and just “knew” what had to be done, the crowd laughed.
In 2007, several years before Schneider’s death, she spoke up about her experience. And again, it wasn’t taken seriously. Today, the story is out and has been heavily criticized, but it’s too bad the actress no longer has a chance to talk now that the whole world knows what happened to her.
Maria was subjected to a humiliating situation at work, a sexual interaction she never agreed to. Barely an adult, the actress didn’t realize she could say no. And the butter scene, along with the movie’s other sex scenes, came to define her as a sex symbol, something she never wanted which caused her lasting psychological trauma.
Schneider’s case is, sadly, just one out of many, many, many sexual assaults that have happened and are likely still happening in Hollywood. Fortunately, the #MeToo movement has done wonders in encouraging women to speak up and has prompted a serious reconsideration of gender and power in the industry.
Brando’s final years were spent side by side with Michael Jackson. A bit surprising, right? Apparently, Brando’s son Miko was the singer’s bodyguard for several years and helped form a connection between the two men.
“Michael was instrumental helping my father through the last few years of his life,” his son confessed. “For that I will always be indebted to him. Dad had a hard time breathing in his final days, and he was on oxygen much of the time. He loved the outdoors, so Michael would invite him over to Neverland.”
The late actor was hospitalized in 2001 with pneumonia. He managed to pull through for three additional years, until his body ultimately collapsed in 2004. Apart from respiratory issues, Brando also suffered from diabetes and liver cancer.
Marlon’s ashes were put in with those of two of his good friends, Wally Cox and Sam Gilman. They were then scattered partly in Death Valley, California, and partly in Tahiti. In 2007, Brando: The Documentary was released, covering different fascinating bits about his life.
Bertolucci died of lung cancer in 2018 at the age of 77. The Italian director, who was slowed down by his back problems and declining health, directed his final film, Me and You (2012), from a wheelchair. His last creation centered around a troubled teen who hid out in a basement with his half-sister.
Bernardo is survived by his second wife, the screenwriter and director Clare Peploe, with whom he tied the knot back in 1978. His first marriage to actress Adriana Asti, the female protagonist in the Italian romantic drama Before the Revolution ended in divorce.
Bertolucci made Last Tango in Paris at a moment of new sexual freedoms. He intended to shoot a movie that would reveal the complexities of society’s new beliefs. But as he worked on it, he also showed that the depiction of sex in films is emotionally charged and even dangerous, particularly when it comes to directorial decisions.
And while the film won him acclaim at first, his creation came back to haunt him as the years went by. Bertolucci might have directed some fantastic movies throughout his career, but Last Tango in Paris completely tainted his reputation (and rightfully so).