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Maria Schneider vs. Bernardo Bertolucci vs. Marlon Brando: 'Last Tango in Paris' Blame Game

Maria Schneider, Joe Dallesandro, Merry-Go-Round
Joe Dallesandro, Maria Schneider in Jacques Rivette's Merry-Go-Round (Image: Des Filles des Garçons)

Maria Schneider Obit Pt.2: Ingmar Bergman - LAST TANGO IN PARIS “About Homosexuals”

In fact, bouts of mental illness and drug addiction, and even a suicide attempt – Daniel Gélin had similar problems in his life – helped to prevent Schneider from forging ahead professionally. Compounding matters, she also feared being typecast as a young sexpot ever ready to get naked on camera. “Never take your clothes off for a middle-aged man who claims that it's art,” she would later tell the Daily Mail.

Well, if Luis Buñuel asked Schneider to take her clothes off for Cet obscur objet du désir / That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), she probably should have, as that political allegory remains one of Buñuel's most fascinating works. Schneider had been cast as Fernando Rey's “object of desire,” but withdrew following a nasty argument with the director. Buñuel then replaced her with two actresses: Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet.

In his 1983 autobiography, My Last Sigh, Buñuel recalled the event:

In 1977, in Madrid, when I was in despair after a tempestuous argument with an actress who'd brought the shooting of That Obscure Object of Desire to a halt, the producer, Serge Silberman, decided to abandon the film altogether. The considerable financial loss was depressing us both until one evening, when we were drowning our sorrows in a bar, I suddenly had the idea (after two dry martinis) of using two actresses in the same role, a tactic that had never been tried before. Although I made the suggestion as a joke, Silberman loved it, and the film was saved.

Previously, Schneider had walked off of René Clément's La baby sitter / Scar Tissue (1975) to check into a sanatorium. The Clément film was finished, but Schneider eventually developed a reputation for being unreliable. She later told Roger Ebert that hers had been a gesture of support to a friend who was locked up at the facility. (The “friend,” actually Schneider's lover at the time, was photographer Joan Townsend.)

Schneider was also replaced by Teresa Ann Savoy in Tinto Brass' Caligula (1979), and claimed she turned down the role of the Virgin Mary in Franco Zeffirelli's television miniseries Jesus of Nazareth (1977). Zeffirelli's Juliet, Olivia Hussey, was given the part.

By the late '70s, Schneider was making more headlines for her “eccentric” behavior than for her film work. Long before Ellen DeGeneres, she could be seen with a girlfriend gracing the pages of gossip magazines. “Most of the members of my generation are gay, or bisexual,” she told Roger Ebert. “They have more open minds about sexuality, about what a woman's role can be, or what the potentials are.” (Ebert didn't quite buy that.)

Despite having the influential Paul Kohner (grandfather of Chris Weitz and Paul Weitz) as her agent and the possibility of playing a terrorist in John Frankenheimer's 1977 thriller Black Sunday – a role that went to Marthe Keller – Schneider had no luck in Hollywood.

Unfortunately, a talked-about adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees never materialized. The film was to have been directed by John Huston, with Robert Mitchum as the old colonel and Schneider as the young contessa. Also around that time, she was offered a film with Jean-Luc Godard, but he wanted her to put up $40,000 as a co-investor and Schneider didn't have the money.

She did, however, land roles in several interesting European productions, but nothing to rival the popularity (or notoriety) of Last Tango in Paris. Among those was Philippe Garrel's Voyage au jardin des morts (1976), as the non-virginal object of desire of a man (Laurent Terzieff) obsessed with the idea that she should be a virgin; Nouchka van Brakel's feminist romantic drama Een vrouw als Eva / A Woman Like Eve (1979), as wife and mother Monique van de Ven's lover; and Daniel Duval's La dérobade / Memoirs of a French Whore (1979), a purportedly gritty look at female prostitution that earned Schneider a nomination as Best Supporting Actress for the French Academy's César and Miou Miou the Best Actress award.

Also: Jacques Rivette's crime drama Merry Go-Round (1981), opposite another performer known for sex-charged roles, Joe Dallesandro (and, in a supporting role, current French Minister of Culture and Communication Frédéric Mitterrand); and Luigi Comencini's comedy Cercasi Gesù / Looking for Jesus (1982).

Among Schneider's most notable film appearances in the last couple of decades, after “an angel” (she refused to identify her savior's gender) rescued her from the pits of drug addiction, were supporting roles in Cyrill Collard's over-the-top AIDS melodrama Les nuits fauves (1992), winner of four Césars, including Best Film; and Franco Zeffirelli's underwhelming adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1996), starring William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

Schneider's last film role was in Josiane Balasko's romantic drama A French Gigolo / Cliente (2008), starring Eric Caravaca (as a married construction worker / sex worker), Nathalie Baye (as the wealthy client), and Isabelle Carré (as the wife). In recent years, Schneider reportedly ran The Wheel Turns, an organization that helped ageing, out-of-work actors.

Two of Schneider's half-siblings, Pascal Gélin and Xavier Gélin have also died. The former at the age of 14 months after accidentally swallowing pills in 1957 (Daniel Gélin was then married to Dior model Sylvie Hirsch), and the latter of cancer in 1999 at the age of 53. Gélin, who developed serious alcohol and drug issues, died of kidney failure in 2002 at the age of 80. (The handsome Gélin, who mostly kept his distance from Schneider, didn't look at all like her.)

Last Tango in Paris Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider
Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris


Decades after Last Tango in Paris became a cultural phenomenon, Schneider continued to hold a grudge against Bertolucci – even though she once told the French newspaper Libération that Brando was the one dictating to the “submissive” director how Last Tango in Paris was to proceed.

“Although we met in Tokyo 17 years ago, I ignored him,” she told the Daily Mail. “Plus, he and Marlon made a fortune from the movie and I made about [$5,000]. And Bertolucci was a Communist, too!"

Schneider added that Bertolucci was an “overrated” filmmaker and was “fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself” throughout the Last Tango in Paris shoot. And finally, she blamed Bertolucci for her reputation as a “sex symbol” not to be taken seriously and for her mental breakdown in the late '70s.

“Both of them were more than 21,” Bertolucci told The Guardian's Xan Brooks in 2004. “Or more than 18 anyway. With Brando, we are now very close. But it is true that Maria was very young when we shot the film and maybe she couldn't articulate what happened, so what remains is a confused moment where I am the killer or the bad guy.”

While speaking to Steve Dollar earlier this year, Bertolucci placed the responsibility for Schneider's woes squarely on her own shoulders.

“I remember when we opened Last Tango in Paris in New York, she had a page in the New York Times where she was saying, 'I slept with 74 men and 55 women,' really talking in a wild way. But then time passes and she starts to complain and to let me know through interviews that I stole her youth. How can you say that to somebody? To a director who went looking into your personality – as I try to do every time with a person in front of my camera.” (Via GreenCine Daily.)

As for Brando feeling “manipulated,” Bertolucci added:

“He felt tricked. When he saw the movie, he realized he went much further than he thought. I'm not talking about sex. But how much of his real humanity I'd been able, let's say in quotes, 'to steal from him.' I thought, my God, I am 33, he is 50. He is incredibly experienced, more than me. How could I have done that?"

Following Schneider's death, Bertolucci changed his tone, telling Italy's ANSA press agency:

“Her 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 just like on the first day. And, at least this one time, ask her forgiveness.

"Maria accused me of having stolen her youth and today I ask myself if that wasn't partly true. In fact, she was too young to have been able to sustain the impact of the film's unexpected and brutal success. Marlon hid himself in his impenetrable private life, so that [the responsibility for] every step of the film's promotion fell on Maria and myself.”

Asked if she were to relive her life, would she have danced the same tango in the same Paris, Schneider told the Sydney Morning Herald:

“No. I would have said no. I would have done my work more gradually, more discreetly. I would have been an actress, I think, but more quietly.”

Maria Schneider will be buried at Paris' Père-Lachaise cemetery following a religious ceremony. The specific time and date haven't been announced, yet.

Additional sources: Lucille Ball and Ingmar Bergman quotes via Damien Bona and Mason Wiley's Inside Oscar. The Luis Buñuel quote from his autobiography was found on Wikipedia.

Maria Schneider, Marlon Brando, Last Tango in Paris
Maria Schneider, Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris

Here's wondering if Maria Schneider would also have found Pauline Kael's review of Last Tango in Paris “kitsch,” much like Schneider's latter-day opinion of the film itself.

Below is a paragraph found in Kael's lengthy hosanna to Bernardo Bertolucci's drama. It's probably the much revered (and much reviled) critic's best-known piece. And I can't help but wonder if it was all in jest. The full review, which reads like a parody of both the film and Kael's own writing style, can be found at the Criterion website. Also, I should note that Kael had obviously been watching the wrong “exploitation films.”

The movie breakthrough has finally come. Exploitation films have been supplying mechanized sex – sex as physical stimulant but without any passion or emotional violence. The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters' drives. Marlon Brando, as Paul, is working out his aggression on Jeanne (Maria Schneider), and the physical menace of sexuality that is emotionally charged is such a departure from everything we've come to expect at the movies that there was something almost like fear in the atmosphere of the party in the lobby that followed the screening. Carried along by the sustained excitement of the movie, the audience had given Bertolucci an ovation, but afterward, as individuals, they were quiet. This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made, and so it's probably only natural that an audience, anticipating a voluptuous feast from the man who made The Conformist, and confronted with this unexpected sexuality and the new realism it requires of the actors, should go into shock. Bertolucci and Brando have altered the face of an art form. Who was prepared for that?

And below is Kael's highly imaginative take on Schneider's performance and Last Tango in Paris character, Jeanne. Here's wondering what Danielle Darrieux, Simone Simon, Gaby Morlay, Arletty, Annabella, and Marie Bell, a few of the “sensual bitch-heroines” of 1930s French cinema (don't know of any from the 1920s; I wonder if Kael herself did), would have thought of Kael's remarks.

As Jeanne, Maria Schneider, who has never had a major role before, is like a bouquet of [Jean] Renoir's screen heroines and his father's models. She carries the whole history of movie passion in her long legs and baby face.

Maria Schneider's freshness—Jeanne's ingenuous corrupt innocence—gives the film a special radiance. When she lifts her wedding dress to her waist, smiling coquettishly as she exposes her pubic hair, she's in a great film tradition of irresistibly naughty girls. She has a movie face—open to the camera, and yet no more concerned about it than a plant or a kitten. When she speaks English, she sounds like Leslie Caron in An American in Paris, and she often looks like a plump cheeked Jane Fonda in her Barbarella days. The role is said to have been conceived for Dominique Sanda, who couldn't play it, because she was pregnant, but surely it has been reconceived. With Sanda, a tigress, this sexual battle might have ended in a draw. But the pliable, softly unprincipled Jeanne of Maria Schneider must be the winner: it is the soft ones who defeat men and walk away, consciencelessly. A Strindberg heroine would still be in that flat, battling, or in another flat, battling. But Jeanne is like the adorably sensual bitch-heroines of French films of the twenties and thirties—both shallow and wise. These girls know how to take care of themselves; they know who No. 1 is. Brando's Paul, the essentially naive outsider, the romantic, is no match for a French bourgeois girl.

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1 Comment to Maria Schneider vs. Bernardo Bertolucci vs. Marlon Brando: 'Last Tango in Paris' Blame Game

  1. Maria Schneider will not be buried at Père Lachaise, she was cremated there on Feb 10 following a service at Eglise Saint Roch; her ashes will be scattered at Biarritz at the shrine of La Vierge de Roch.