Bernardo Bertolucci: Separating the Art From the Artist

The death of legendary film director Bernardo Bertolucci on November 26, 2018 brings into tight focus the challenge of assessing the artistic value of the career of a controversial figure. The #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have done an extraordinary service within the industry of not only revealing the horrendous behavior of the power brokers within the field, but have also put those who might either continue such acts or be inclined to do so from their start up on notice.

It has been essential in creating a safer environment for the most vulnerable working in show business.

A perhaps unintended consequence of this righteous expression of new found power is an uncertainty of how to discuss the work of those who have been revealed to have behaved poorly — or far worse — on the merit of their artistic achievement alone.

Which brings us back to Bernardo Bertolucci. For most of his 77 years on earth, Bertolucci was regarded as personally above reproach. While many of his films, due to their political nature or sexual frankness, were seen as lightning rods for controversy, his own behavior had never been questioned.

That all changed in 2007 when Maria Schneider, Marlon Brando’s co-star in 1972’s Last Tango In Paris revealed that she felt abused by both Brando and the director on set.

Last Tango is practically a filmed play about an older man in Paris coping with his wife’s suicide by meeting with a much younger woman in a dingy flat to have a purely physic relationship that eventually turns dire. In the film’s most talked about scene, Brando’s Paul forces himself on Schneider’s Jeanne, using a stick of butter to have anal sex with her.

35 years passed before Schneider spoke of the circumstances that took place before and during the scene. I mention the duration not to diminish her account, but to illustrate how long Schneider’s perspective on the events of that day were kept under wraps — leaving those who admired Bertolucci and the film with no sense of what transpired during its making.

According to Schneider, the use of the butter was not in the screenplay, and while Brando and Bertolucci had discussed the introduction of the butter into the scene beforehand, they did not share this information with Schneider. As Schneider recounted, she felt “humiliated”, and “a little raped” after the filming.

In 2016 Bertolucci disputed the notion that what occurred would qualify as “rape” — no one involved with the film, including Schneider, suggested there was actual penetration — he did admit to not including Schneider in the discussion of the scene prior to filming because as he put it, he wanted to create a “real reaction of frustration and rage” in Schneider.

This is of course, horrendous. Schneider was just 19 at the time. Caught between two cinematic titans and surely lacking the power, information, and agency to have any say in what occurred.

Upon its release, Last Tango received an X rating. A standard which at the time had no relationship to actual pornography. Still, the film was a financial success and garnered Oscar nominations for Brando and Bertolucci in the categories of best actor and director.

Schneider fared not nearly as well. Aside from 1975’s The Passenger, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni and co-starring Jack Nicholson, her post-Tango career lacked distinction. Much of her subsequent lack of success can be attributed to her struggle with drug addiction, which she claimed was brought on — at least in part — by her involvement in and treatment on the set of Last Tango.

Of course, this is terribly sad. And I don’t blame anyone who can’t look at Last Tango, or view it again with the same perspective.

But what about those who think that Last Tango and other films by Bertolucci remain cinematic landmarks, in spite of what happened to Maria Schneider? Is it still possible and ethical for someone to feel that way?

Many people do. And whether someone can or cannot separate an artist’s work from their bad behavior is a completely personal attribute. This thorny question remains though:

How do we talk about the cinematic output of an outlandishly gifted artist on purely artistic terms? Can we do it at all?

Setting aside Last Tango, Bertolucci also directed such acclaimed film classics as The Conformist (1970), 1900 (1976), and his Oscar winning The Last Emperor (1987). Even his second tier films such as 1970’s The Spider’s Stratagem and his lush ode to Italy, Stealing Beauty, from 1996, hold distinction.

Due to his execrable personal behavior with Maria Schneider, do we ignore their existence? Refrain from discussing their qualities or where they rest in the history of cinema? Do we simply pretend a movie that happened didn’t happen?

Because here’s where it gets really tough if this is the standard going forward. If we are unable to talk about an artist’s achievements due to their high crimes and misdemeanors, are we willing to apply that evenly across the board?

Miles Davis may well be the greatest jazz musician to ever walk the earth. He also beat on women like they were snare drums. Pablo Picasso not only treated women terribly, he also accepted the rather ironically named Stalin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1950. Muhammad Ali went through women almost as fast as he went through opponents in the ring. Tom Cruise literally bankrolls a cult that harasses, tortures, and blackmails those that try to leave it. That’s not even mentioning Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Leni Riefenstahl.

What I’m asking of those who argue that Bertolucci’s work not be allowed an honest – and potentially positive – reflection is: are you willing to do the same for for other artists in the realm of cinema and outside of it?

Will you never listen to Kind of Blue again? Will you dodge Picassos at an art gallery? Will you disregard Muhammad Ali’s history as a fighter and social activist? Will you skip out on the next Mission Impossible film?

Perhaps you will. As I mentioned before, this is a matter of personal choice. What I don’t think is fair or even sensible is to look upon those who are able to separate the art from the artist as making a disreputable or immoral choice.

To put it another way, what Bertolucci did to Maria Schneider can — and I think should — be viewed as a terrible thing. Yet, one can also view Last Tango and other films in Bertolucci’s canon as extraordinary achievements in the realm of cinema.

Both things can be true. It’s a matter of holding two thoughts in your head at the same time.

The choice is yours.

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