Eva Sereny felt at ease photographing Hollywood’s most sought-after stars, but she says capturing Marlon Brando’s image was different.
The photographer recently published a book titled “Through Her Lens,” which includes almost 100 unseen pictures from the ‘70s and ‘80s when she was working in film and editorial sets, along with the stories behind them. Some of Sereny’s subjects include Jacqueline Bisset, Paul Newman, Raquel Welch, Roger Daltrey and Lauren Bacall — just to name a few.
Sereny was chosen to photograph the making of 1972’s “Last Tango in Paris” — an erotic drama that famously earned an X-rating in the United States. In 2016, Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci responded to outrage when new reports claimed he and Brando conspired against actress Maria Schneider while filming a notorious rape scene in the film involving butter, calling it “a ridiculous understanding.”
“I specified, but perhaps I was not clear, that I decided with Marlon Brando not to inform Maria that we would have used butter,” said Bertolucci at the time, as reported by Variety. “We wanted her spontaneous reaction to that improper use [of the butter]. That is where the misunderstanding lies.”
“Somebody thought, and thinks, that Maria had not been informed about the violence on her,” he continued. “That is false! Maria knew everything because she had read the script, where it was all described. The only novelty was the idea of the butter. And that, as I learned many years later, offended Maria. Not the violence that she subjected to in the scene, which was written in the screenplay.”
Sereny told Fox News that during her time photographing “Last Tango in Paris” she did not witness any improper behavior, nor did she witness any of the shocking scenes that the film would ultimately become famous for.
“I’m sort of sometimes on set for two days or three days,” said Sereny about shooting film scenes. “It can be two weeks. With Bertolucci, I must have done on and off about 3-4 weeks… that one was a very long one. … [But] I was not there at the scenes, the ones that made a lot of news. I wasn’t actually there at those scenes.”
During her time shooting, Sereny discovered a new, surprising side to Brando, who was at the time considered “a God in cinema.” However, the star wasn’t initially swayed by the photographer.
“I remember the publicist came up to me and said there was a problem,” Sereny recalled. “Brando didn’t want to be photographed. He said it right out, ‘I don’t like photographers.’ I said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, then I’ll leave. I mean, what am I doing here then?’ What can you do if someone doesn’t like you? But the publicist panicked. ‘No, no, no, go and speak to Brando.’ I went into his dressing room.”
It was during her private meeting with Brando where she learned why the actor had a distaste for cameras following him.
“It was in those days where he was photographed with females by his side and all of that kind of thing,” she said. "He sort of felt everybody wanted to see what he was about or his behavior. He said, ‘No, no, it’s just that I don’t like being photographed without knowing.’ And he goes on to say, ‘I don’t like photographers.’ It was at that moment where I said, ‘Look, this is how I work. This is how I capture the most interesting images. Sorry if you’re not happy with that.’ Then all of a sudden he said, ‘Look, as long as I can see the pictures.’ I said, ‘Of course.’ I mean, all the photos that we shot had to be inspected by the actors or directors. And then he said, ‘I trust you.’”
Not only did Sereny earned Brando’s trust, but his friendship.
“He actually rang me up sometimes,” she chuckled. “I lived in Rome for many years. He rang me up one time and I said, ‘Who is it?’ And he says, ‘It’s Marlon. You just crossed my mind and I wanted to say hello.’ My Italian husband was around, but it was Marlon Brando! I thought it was interesting.”
But Sereny was quickly put to the test. One of the last scenes of the film was taking place in a public hall called the Wagram, close to the Arc de Triomphe. While on set, she was notified that Paris Match, one of the most important magazines in France, immediately wanted her images that night for their deadline. This meant she wouldn’t have time to develop the images and then show them to Brando for approval.
“I explained all of this to him,” she said. “All he said was, ‘Don’t worry, Eva. You make the choice.’ He really did trust me. Maybe because I really wanted to leave that day when he said he didn’t like photographers. I think he felt sorry he had said it. But he was very, very nice to me. … I think you just have to be on his right side.”
During Sereny’s brief time photographing “Last Tango in Paris,” Brando would send the assistant director to bring her to his dressing room for chats. It was during one of those conversations where Brando shared one of his proudest moments.
“I remember one time I said, ‘What is it? Is there something wrong?’ He said, ‘No, no, I just want you to look at this.’ He showed me a letter from an American college. I don’t remember which one it was, but he was given an honorary award for what he had written — I think he had written a poem or something like that for the literary world. He was so proud of this and you sort of realize he didn’t have that university education. He was just so proud of this award. It was rather sweet actually.”
“He was really excited, like a child,” continued Sereny. “He wanted to show this off. He was very happy with this award. It gave him enormous satisfaction. I don’t know anything about his personal life, but I do know how much that meant to him.”
Despite the rocky start, Sereny said she still has fond memories of capturing a different side to “Last Tango in Paris.”
“He was just such a natural actor,” said Sereny about Brando on set. “You don’t even realize he’s acting. It was lovely to get such good shots. That was my excitement. I lose myself in the work. And in those days, I had four cameras — three on my neck and one in my hand. … It was physically tiring. But he was a nice man. He really was.”
Brando passed away in 2004 at age 80.