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That Scene

A Commentary By Susan Estrich

I had never seen anything like it. I sat in the movie theater holding my breath as Marlon Brando wielded the stick of butter. For the sake of families who might be reading, I'll say no more, except that "Last Tango in Paris" was, depending on your perspective, either a very sexy movie or a very scary one.

The woman in that scene, Maria Schneider, died on Thursday in Paris at the age of 58. Newspaper accounts of her death make clear that the $4,000 she was paid for that role did not begin to compensate her for the pain it caused. The scene wasn't in the script. Brando -- that genius -- insisted on it. "I felt humiliated, and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci (the director)," she told reporters later. "After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take."

It turned her into a "sex symbol." Think about what that means: A "sex symbol" is a woman who is painfully humiliated, against her will and without her consent, with the cameras running, a woman forced to film a scene she did not agree to do or want to do.

Bertolucci was the famous director, Brando the mega-famous actor, and Schneider? She was a 19-year-old unknown, the abandoned daughter of a famous actor who refused to acknowledge her. She had no clout. She could not say no to these powerful men. She was their object. They used her and abused her, and this made her an international "sex symbol."

Three years later, she played an architecture student known simply as "the girl" in "The Passenger," directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. In that one, she was Jack Nicholson's girl.

"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." Her career fell apart.

Linda Lovelace, who shocked audiences during the same period in "Deep Throat," later revealed even more troubling stories of abuse. Is it just a coincidence that, for women, "sex symbol" so often seems to equate with victim and the path to "sex symbol" is so often lined with abuse?

Girls grow up longing to be as pretty and desired as the Maria Schneiders and Linda Lovelaces. I see them sometimes outside Hollywood hotspots, stunningly beautiful girls (and they are girls) tottering in high heels they can barely walk in, plainly nervous and out of place, with unattractive men three times their age. This is not love. This is not friendship. The only question is who is using whom, and from my perspective, it's not even a close one.

Stick around long enough and you know what happens. The girls get used up and tossed away like toilet paper, a dime a dozen. "Sex symbols to be," as any vice squad officer will tell you, are more likely to end up in the hell of Hollywood than on its movie screens, more likely to be dancing and stripping and having sex for money -- and not with the younger versions of Brando or Nicholson -- than lighting up movie screens. They never even get as far as Maria Schneider did.

The passing of a woman like Schneider should be an occasion to celebrate how far we have come. But if we have come so far, why do so many girls -- and not just the ones in high heels with the supposed high-rollers -- end up feeling like tissue paper, like Schneider with the lights off? Why do so many continue to come to my office telling me how they were also "a little raped"? As if there is such a thing.

I'm not talking about legal definitions, but real life. Humiliation is humiliation. Abuse is abuse. Whether the law recognizes it as such is irrelevant to that reality and what it does to the human being inside.

Both "Last Tango" and "Deep Throat" were made and released at the height of the sexual revolution. I remember wondering, as I watched these movies with my dates, trying to be cool and hip and sexy myself, how it was that this revolution was supposed to be liberating women. Schneider and Lovelace were not liberated; they were used. "Last Tango" was not a celebration of sexual freedom, but sexual abuse. It was scary, and it still is.


See Other Political Commentaries.

See Other Commentaries by Susan Estrich.  

Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports. 

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