Directors Shouldn’t Abuse Actors For The Sake Of ‘Brilliant’ Art

By Addison Peacock

Scene from ‘Last Tango in Paris’ (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Anyone who has seen the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris can recall one particularly disturbing scene involving a brutal sexual assault and a stick of butter. In a recent interview, Bernardo Bertolucci, the film’s director, admitted that the infamous scene was not entirely simulated; he deliberately kept information about the scene’s content from his leading lady (the 19-year-old Maria Schneider). He claimed that the decision to catch Schneider by surprise with the unscripted moment was a deliberate move to get the best possible results from Schneider, and that he wanted her to react “as a girl” and not “as an actress.”

“I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage,” he said. “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act, the rage and humiliation. Then she hated me for her whole life.” Of the experience, Schneider (now deceased) admitted that it made her feel “a little raped” and that, as a young and naïve actress, she hadn’t known that the director cannot force a performer to do something that is not in the agreed-upon text.

The backlash to Bertolucci’s behavior — in the wake of a 2013 interview with his admissions recently resurfacing — has been swift and intense. However, as with most controversies involving sexual violence and powerful men in the entertainment industry (Woody Allen, anyone?), dissenters have come out of the woodwork to cite the cinematic value of Bertolucci’s work, as if that somehow excuses it. This response, and the fact that Bertolucci was able to treat Schneider in such a horrific way with little to no negative impact on his career, illustrates a deeply disturbing trend in the film world.

Directors are able to treat human beings (particularly actresses) like garbage as long as their work is perceived as “brilliant.” If the film is critically well-received, then the abuse, violence, and psychological torment that made it possible is unimportant. The lesson that this teaches is not only distressing, but dangerous; it convinces directors that they are untouchable, and that their artistic vision trumps the safety and wellbeing of other human beings.

Last Tango in Paris may have been the most recent movie to dominate the news cycle on this front, but it is hardly the first time an iconic film involved horrific acts at the hand of a megalomaniac director. There are myriad examples of this behavior from highly respected directors over the years. And these are not exactly men randomly plucked off the street; these are names that every cinema buff or Film 101 student has heard. Stanley Kubrick famously tormented Shelley Duvall on the set of The Shining, forcing her to do a record number of retakes on a single scene, and admittedly creating an environment so manipulative and hostile that her hair began falling out in clumps from stress. Of course, women are not the only ones who suffered in the making of his films. Among other instances, Kubrick almost caused irreparable damage to Malcolm McDowell’s eyes during the filming of A Clockwork Orange.

And while I would never do anything to minimize the mistreatment men have faced at the hands of directors, it’s important to note that for actresses, mistreatment often takes on an added gendered and sexual component.

Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, absolutely tormented Tippi Hedren, the star of The Birds, throwing live birds at her constantly — to the point that she would have anxiety attacks at the sight of them. His harassment of her was also sexually coercive; he threatened to end her career if she did not sleep with him. Still, Hitchcock remains one of the most revered directors of all time.

Imagine, too, a woman in any other profession telling the story of her boss strangling her until she loses consciousness, all to make sure that her work would be up to his standards. Now, imagine that not only does this not register to her as a problem, but no one else objects either. Are you shocked? Ready to call the police? This is exactly what Quentin Tarantino did to Diane Kruger on the set of Inglourious Basterds.

Why would anyone frame this as acceptable behavior? Shenandoah University’s professor of women’s studies, Dr. Amy Sarch, provides some perspective on this phenomenon of permissiveness:

“I’m not trying to take the blame off of these directors and actors, but to even wrap our brains around how could this possibly be? Just look around us. It points back to rape culture, because the message is everywhere, from a boy pulling a girl’s hair in first grade and the teacher saying ‘that means he likes you’ to a father is defending his son who was charged with rape. The gender norms in place are so pervasive, and they have hegemonic power.
These gender norms are used as points of comparison: bullyish, tough, and violent are seen ‘male’ traits, and compliant, sweet, and complacent are ‘female.’ So why are women not believed or taken seriously when they come forward? Because we tend to judge any actions that fall outside of these norms as ‘not normal’ or dismiss them because they don’t follow the script that is embedded in our heads.”

I should point out here that rape culture hurts men as well as women; when any gender is confined to a box of predetermined traits, any deviation is met with scorn. That is just as unfair to men who are told that they cannot be vulnerable or “soft” or “weak,” which may contribute to men who are mistreated by directors feeling like they are unable to speak up for themselves. This cautious attitude about speaking out enables abuse to be spun into quirky anecdotes about the “eccentricity of genius.” We cannot continue to normalize this. As Dr. Sarch eloquently puts it: “Violence against another human being is never a norm, period.”

Actors are not expected to have their bones actually broken during fight scenes, or to actually die on-screen — that would be a snuff film. Why, then, do directors take it upon themselves to inflict very real and lasting damage on their actors for the sake of a perfect take, rather than trusting the actors to do their jobs? Directorial choices like these illustrate a deep narcissism, a sense that no one else is equipped to carry out their vision, and a belief that any wounds (physical or otherwise) that the actors suffer at their hands are justified in the name of Art.

But actors are not tools of the trade, they’re human beings. It should not have been Bertolucci’s call to force genuine rage and humiliation on Schneider. He should have trusted her as an actress to find that truth on her own terms and convey it, or he should not have hired her in the first place. Acting, particularly in such sexually and emotionally intense films, is a highly intimate and vulnerable process, and it requires a tremendous amount of trust. For a director to violate that trust — especially so intentionally and with full awareness that he was violating the consent of a young actress — is, frankly, reprehensible. It is also counterproductive to quality work. No actor will do their best if they are consistently walking on eggshells, knowing that their personal boundaries could be violated at any second for the sake of their employer’s ego.

I am not merely here to point out this problem, but to provide some idea of how we, as consumers, can work against the issues in place. As individuals we may feel powerless, but as the old adage of snowflakes in an avalanche suggests, individual action combines into systemic change when enough people unite and participate.

“Consumers need to speak up and boycott movies by abusive directors,” says Dr. Sarch. “Writers need to write about it so that others sit back and go, ‘wow, right, hey . . . This is horrific.’ We need to ban the term ‘boys will be boys’ from our collective vocabulary — unless we reappropriate the meaning to reflect boys who treat others with deep respect and refuse to falter if someone calls them names for expressing themselves.”

We need to create a climate where no one is afraid to speak up, where cruelty is inexcusable, and where art is the product of love and healthy collaboration.

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