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Geoffrey Macnab: The dark side of the cinema screen

In early-1970s Hollywood, when maverick directors were making personal and provocative movies, actresses were still treated as badly as ever

The Italian film director Bernardo Bertolucci is gracious and cultured – an intellectual and an aesthete, not an ogre. But his remarks following the death of the French actress Maria Schneider last week suggested that he is racked with guilt over his behaviour 40 years ago when he worked with her and Marlon Brando on Last Tango in Paris.

Schneider never concealed her feelings that Bertolucci took advantage of her. In a late interview, she suggested that Brando had felt the same. "We both felt like we have been manipulated. Even he [Brando] felt manipulated, raped by Bertolucci. He rejected the movie for many, many years," she claimed.

Now, after Schneider's untimely death at the age of 58, Bertolucci appears to have accepted the charge. "Maria accused me of robbing her of her youth and only today I ask myself if she wasn't perhaps right," he stated following her death.

The tenderness and regret with which Bertolucci speaks of Schneider today is in stark contrast to the way he described her when he was filming Last Tango, with its unprecedentedly graphic sex scenes. "A Lolita but more perverse," was how he characterised her then, when he cast her as the young woman who has a destructive affair with a middle-aged American man.

The relationship between directors (invariably male) and their leading actresses has always been fraught, manipulative and full of bad faith. The former are the Svengalis, trying to coax and even trick the performance they want out of the latter. Film-makers don't always pause to consider the human cost that can be involved.

Schneider never made another film that matched Last Tango, either in terms of its artistic reputation or the controversy it generated. What Bertolucci, it seems, failed to consider was just what impact it would have on a 20-year-old actress with little previous experience.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, there were other young actresses caught up in the ferocious backlash their movies provoked. Linda Blair may have been able to spoof her past in a comic horror film like Repossessed (1990) but she couldn't always cope with the attention that came her way in the wake of appearing in a horror film as extreme and controversial as The Exorcist.

The experiences of Jodie Foster after she played a child prostitute in Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver (1976) show how easily the lines between a movie and real life can blur. Just as the lonely taxi driver Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) became obsessed by Foster's character in the film, the actress herself was stalked by John Hinckley, who went on to try to assassinate President Reagan.

It was ironic that in early-1970s Hollywood, when maverick directors like Dennis Hopper, Bob Rafelson, Hal Ashby and Roman Polanski were making personal and provocative movies with the studios' money, actresses were still treated as badly as ever. Their protagonists were invariably moody and rebellious male characters with big egos and even bigger sex drives. Their behaviour was often matched by that of the film-makers off screen. Polanski's arrest for the sexual assault of the 13-year-old Samantha Geimer continues to split opinion but what it underlined was the license film-makers felt they had in every sphere – social, sexual, cultural – in this heady era. Taking advantage came naturally.

Bertolucci comes from a different cultural and movie-making context. He was part of the New Wave in European cinema, and was as interested in politics as in aesthetics. The Italian was far from alone in the demands that he made of his actors. All that mattered was what was caught on celluloid.

What has changed? You would hope that film-makers today are no longer quite so oblivious to the effect that their preciously culled images have on the lives and careers of those they train their camera on so intently.

Geoffrey Macnab writes on film for 'The Independent'