02.06.11

Remembering Maria Schneider

After playing Brando’s young lover in Last Tango in Paris, Maria Schneider, who died last week, had a tumultuous life—and refused to be typecast. Holly Millea remembers the actress.

“October 14th, 1972: That date should become a landmark in movie history,” New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wrote after seeing Last Tango in Paris on the closing night of the New York Film Festival. “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating… and so it’s probably only natural that an audience…confronted with this unexpected sexuality and the new realism it requires of the actors, should go into shock.”

Maria Schneider, the French icon who played Marlon Brando’s beguiling, cherub-cheeked lover in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, died in that city on February 3 following a long battle with cancer. She was 58.

In 2000, 27 years after the film’s release, I interviewed Schneider for Premiere magazine’s Women in Hollywood issue. Still beautiful and petite, she arrived exuding cool, in a fitted blazer over a western snap-button shirt; tight jeans and ankle boots, her thick curly hair falling to her waist.

Schneider, who had faded from view, was regaining attention as a gypsy in the award-winning Savage Nights, and Rochester's mad wife in Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre, and portraying one of two love interests in  The Actors costarring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Alain Delon, and Gerard Depardieu. Given her history and talent and international renown, she was the kind of star ripe for a career-reviving role in a Quentin Tarantino film. She was a story. 

She was also a long way from her early days. A streetwise vagabond at 15, Schneider was working as an extra in Brigitte Bardot’s Les Femmes when the established star took her in. “Maria was like a kitten,” recalled Warren Beatty, who was friends with Bardot. “She was wise and didn’t talk much.” Beatty recommended her to the head of the William Morris Agency in Paris who signed her tout suite. After a small part in Alain Delon’s Madly, Schneider was cast as Brando’s obsession in Tango.

The week Brando turned 48, Schneider turned 20 and he filled her trailer with flowers. “He was father-like to me,” remembered Schneider, who was born out of wedlock and abandoned by her father, actor Daniel Gelin. “The problem with Marlon is that he doesn’t learn his text—laziness,” she said, smiling. “So when the close-up was on him, I had the script written all over my body. He was reading me!” In lieu of being interviewed for the story, Brando wrote Schneider a letter for publication.

Dear Maria:
I received an inquiry about you from Holly Millea of Premiere magazine. You know how I feel about you, but to iterate; I had so many pleasant, touching, funny memories about our being together. You clearly established yourself remarkably as an actress and I was delighted to hear that you are well and happy and still functioning. Je t’embrasse tres forte et nos memoires. [signed] Marlon

Her character had stripped down in the film, but she wasn’t about to bend over for anybody and beg for accolades.

Both Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Oscars, while Schneider was snubbed. She was such a natural talent; her acting in the film was taken for granted: “People thought I was the girl in the film. But I composed that character!” And then there was the issue of the explicit sexual content. Someone was going to pay for that exciting shock—the sodomy in particular—and it wasn’t going to be the men involved. Recalled actress Isabelle Adjani: “People wanted to brand her with a scarlet letter.” Metaphorically, they did: “The jokes, the giggles, on the street, in restaurants. It still goes on sometimes.”

Brando wrote in his autobiography that he had no clue what the film was about. But Schneider had a theory. “You have to understand what kind of world Bertolucci is in,” she said. “He was in love with Marlon. The part I play was written for a boy! That’s why the butter, the sodomization, the gag…” After the film’s release, Schneider said she was “manipulated” by the director, and she and Bertolucci remained locked in a feud. Bertolucci refused Premiere’s interview requests then, although he recently issued a statement: “[Maria’s] death came too soon. Even though I was unable to give her a tender embrace, I’d like to tell her that I’ve always felt connected to her… And, at least this one time, ask her forgiveness.”

Given her inexperience and bravado, Schneider didn’t court the press to win favor and prizes. Her character had stripped down in the film, but she wasn’t about to bend over for anybody and beg for accolades. In one interview, she told a reporter she was tired of acting and was going to go sell bananas in Naples. “Maria’s a revolutionary in spirit,” Beatty said. “She didn’t realize how foolish the establishment likes the theatrical revolutionary to seem. And so much of what she allowed—or even nurtured—in her publicity was so, let’s say, arresting.”

After seeing Schneider in Tango, director Michelangelo Antonioni cast her opposite Jack Nicholson in the existential drama The Passenger. This was a happier experience. Schneider got to keep her clothes on in the film, and her then-girlfriend, Joan Townsend, the Avis Rent a Car heiress, was along for the ride. After that movie’s critical success and her heralded performance, things went south. Schneider started using drugs and was fired as the lead in Luis Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. She walked off the set of her next film The Babysitter and checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in order to be with Townsend, who had preceded her there.

Schneider did finally finish The Babysitter and moved to Los Angeles, going on meetings and auditions, but refusing to lie down on the casting couch. “She could have had a much bigger career,” observed director Penelope Spheeris, a close friend at the time. “But I have a lot of respect for her. Think about it: To be such a sex symbol, to be so profoundly beautiful and have so much charisma and then not be available to men? Hollywood just doesn’t stand for that. I don’t care what people say, this town is run by men. Always.”

Returning to Paris, Schneider took work where she could find it and continued dabbling in drugs. At 28, she kicked a heroin and cocaine addiction after an overdose left her in a coma. She cleaned up, fell into a loving, lifelong relationship, and went on to act in over 50 films. In July 2010, the France’s Minister of Culture Frederic Mitterrand awarded her the chevalier medal in the Order of Arts and Letters. “She remains the singular image of today’s woman,” he said paying tribute to her. “One of those living conduits of female liberty who is eternally reconquering a new generation.”

We stayed in sporadic touch over the years. Schneider would call out of the blue for a long conversation. She was always interesting and interested and funny. I would look her up for a meal when I was in Paris. (She never flew to the States because she was so addicted to smoking, she couldn’t last the flight.) I can still hear her deep voice raging against ageism in the film industry. “I have things to express through my acting, my face, which are very rich and touching to the younger people today,” she said. “And they need images—they can’t just have all this teenage [stuff]. You know, 47 is not old for a woman—we can live until we’re 90!”

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A native of Rapid City, South Dakota, Holly Millea has been a contributing editor at ELLE magazine since 2001 profiling celebrities and writing the award winning Beauty Adventure column. Prior to that she spent nine years as a senior writer for Premiere magazine, and two years as a senior writer for Talk magazine. She has also written for New York magazine, Details, and Entertainment Weekly. For ten years she interviewed actors and directors in the back of a checker cab driving around Manhattan for HBO's Up Front in the Back Seat.