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Maria Schneider: Controversial 'Last Tango in Paris' Actress Dies

Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider, Last Tango in Paris
Marlon Brando, Maria Schneider in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris. The scandalous film was reviled by Lucille Ball, admired by Robert Altman, and reinterpreted by Ingmar Bergman

Maria Schneider, best known for her sex scenes with Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), died of cancer earlier today in Paris. Schneider was 58. (Update: In a strange coincidence, Lena Nyman, the star of the controversial, sexually-charged 1967 Swedish drama I Am Curious (Yellow), died the day after Schneider. Nyman was 66.)

The daughter of actor Daniel Gélin and Romanian-born French model Marie Christine Schneider (also a bookstore owner, according to some reports), Maria Schneider was born in Paris on March 27, 1952. At the time, Gélin was married to actress Danièle Delorme; as a result, Schneider was raised by her mother near the Franco-German border.

Schneider fled home when she was 15, ending up in Paris where she had to fend off for herself until her father's Mademoiselle Striptease (1956) co-star, Brigitte Bardot, came to the rescue. According to Schneider, Bardot and friend Warren Beatty helped her sign with the William Morris Agency.

Schneider's film career began at that time, with small roles in now mostly forgotten productions such as Jean-Pierre Blanc's La vieille fille / The Old Maid (1972), starring Annie Girardot, and Hellé (1972), directed by Bardot's former husband Roger Vadim, and featuring Gwen Welles in the title role.

Everything changed when 19-year-old Schneider replaced a pregnant Dominique Sanda in Bertolucci's Ultimo tango a Parigi / Last Tango in Paris. Unfortunately, it was neither Schneider's acting nor screen presence that made her an instant celebrity, but the fact that her character had (simulated) buttered anal sex with Don Corleone himself, Marlon Brando, here playing an American widower in Paris.

Brando's middle-aged American, who can't get over the fact that his wife committed suicide, becomes entangled in an illicit sexual liaison with Schneider's much younger Frenchwoman, who also happens to be engaged to an obnoxious filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Léaud, apparently as Bertolucci's alter ego). Needless to say, Last Tango in Paris doesn't have a “Happily Ever After” finale.

Its phony sex scenes and moralistic take on sex-based relationships notwithstanding, Last Tango in Paris became a worldwide succès de scandale, even more notorious than the unapologetically explicit Deep Throat (1972) and Devil in Miss Jones (1973).

Labeled as pornography, Bertolucci's psychological drama was summarily banned in dozens of countries, many of those ruled by right-wing military leaders, including Chile, Brazil, Portugal, Spain, and South Korea. But so-called democracies also went after the film, which was banned in parts of the United Kingdom, where the released prints offered less extended sex scenes.

In Italy, Bertolucci, Brando, and producer Alberto Grimaldi received a three-month suspended jail sentence; additionally, the director had his civil rights revoked for five years. On top of it all, the Italian High Court ordered all copies of the film destroyed.

In the United States, Last Tango in Paris was the closing night presentation at the New York Film Festival on Oct. 14, 1972. Remembering that night, The New Yorker's Pauline Kael began her review with the following:

… that date should become a landmark in movie history comparable to May 29, 1913 – the night Le Sacre du Printemps was first performed – in music history. There was no riot, and no one threw anything at the screen, but I think it's fair to say that the audience was in a state of shock, because Last Tango in Paris has the same kind of hypnotic excitement as the Sacre, the same primitive force, and the same thrusting, jabbing eroticism.

That “thrusting, jabbing eroticism” made the Motion Picture Association of America's censorship board slap Bertolucci's film with an X (equivalent to today's NC-17) rating. Perhaps appropriately, in New York City tickets for the United Artists release cost $5 – as much as those for porno movies. That may help to explain why Last Tango grossed approximately $36.14 million (approx. $163.5m)* in the US alone, in addition to about $60 million internationally.

Additionally, Last Tango in Paris was condemned by every upstanding citizen on the planet who failed to see the film's quite moralistic stance, focusing instead on the butter. Those ranged from Lucille Ball (“I'd like to bash Brando in the nose, and I have these three rings on!”) to right-wing columnist William F. Buckley, who, without taking the trouble to see the film, called it “pornography disguised as art.”

On their side were the usual self-serving police sheriffs and district attorneys, who tried to have Last Tango in Paris banned in their areas. According to Tino Balio's United Artists: The Company That Changed the Film Industry, UA invariably won those anti-censorship fights.

* Box office figures: Boxofficemojo.com, using $1.77 as the ticket price average for 1973. Surely, Last Tango in Paris' ticket-price average was higher than that, but by how much I can't tell.

The IMDb is the source for Tango's $60 million international take (up to 1980); I was unable to find confirmation for that figure.

Maria Schneider, Jack Nicholson, The Passenger
Maria Schneider, Jack Nicholson in Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger

Robert Altman, for his part, saw more than sex and dairy products in Last Tango in Paris, remarking, “Bertolucci has carried film honesty to its ultimate. How dare I make another movie? My personal and artistic life will never be the same.”

Ingmar Bergman, fresh from his own controversial Cries & Whispers (1972), came up with a bizarre interpretation of the storyline: “I don't think it's really about a middle-aged man and a young girl, but about homosexuals. As it is now, it makes no sense as a film. But if you think about it in those terms, it becomes interesting.” To that, Bernardo Bertolucci responded: “I accept all interpretations of my films. I'm not sure what my film says.” (A few years ago, Schneider remarked she had “heard the character I played was supposed to be a boy. That maybe explained it.”)

Homo or hetero, Last Tango in Paris went on to receive two Academy Award nominations in early 1974 (it had opened in the US the previous year): an unsurprising Best Direction nod for the persecuted Bertolucci and a more surprising Best Actor nod for Marlon Brando. Schneider was bypassed by the Hollywood Academy, but she did win a Special David di Donatello from the Italian Academy for her work in both Last Tango and Enrico Maria Salerno's Cari genitori (1973), a generation gap drama co-starring Florinda Bolkan.

“So much of [the Last Tango in Paris success] was because of Brando,” Schneider told Roger Ebert in a 1975 interview, during a brief sojourn in Los Angeles. “He was wonderful to work with, for an actor like myself who was still beginning. He had just finished The Godfather, and now this was also part of his comeback, and you'd think he'd want the advantage in all of the scenes. Actors always try to look their best. But he gave me the advantage, the material to work with. And he was brilliant when we improvised … the bathroom scene was improvised.”

Schneider would later claim that the butter scene was also improvised, though this time around she didn't find it “brilliant.” She told the Daily Mail that Brando came up with the idea and Bertolucci went along with it.

“They only told me about it before we had to film the scene and I was so angry.

“I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can't force someone to do something that isn't in the script, but at the time, I didn't know that.

“Marlon said to me: 'Maria, don't worry, it's just a movie,' but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears.

Contradicting what she had said elsewhere about Brando, Schneider added, “I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologise. Thankfully, there was just one take.”

A couple of years after Last Tango in Paris, Schneider had another shot at art-house stardom with Michelangelo Antonioni's Professione: reporter / The Passenger (1975), playing opposite Jack Nicholson as an American television reporter who exchanges identities with a dead man he finds in his Central African hotel. (Curiously, The Passenger was co-edited by Franco Arcalli, who was credited along with Bertolucci for the Last Tango in Paris screenplay.)

Although screened at Cannes and respected by many, the MGM-distributed The Passenger was a dismal flop in the United States, taking in a mere $620,000 (about $2.8 million today) domestically. The Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists liked it better than American audiences, awarding the film Silver Ribbons for Best Director and Best Cinematography (Luciano Tovoli).

Schneider later told Ebert: “I think Michelangelo has a problem with his English. He doesn't speak it very well, and I think some of the dialog in The Passenger, which was supposed to sound real, sounded falsely poetic.” Nicholson, for his part, had a problem with Schneider. In an interview found on the Passenger DVD, he recalled that in one scene he had to hold his co-star upright because she was high on painkillers.

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

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

Maria Schneider Pt. 3: MEMOIRS OF A FRENCH WHORE, A WOMAN LIKE EVE

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 on 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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3 Comments to Maria Schneider: Controversial 'Last Tango in Paris' Actress Dies

  1. Moira Sullivan

    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.

  2. Shaoleen26

    Yesterday, (feb 28 2011) i just learned about Last Tango in Paris and was able to watch it last night. Curious, I googled it on the net, starting with wikipedia, and then searching on the actors. it was such a coincidence that actress maria, died just within february, when she looks so fresh and young in the movie.

    I mean, i just saw the movie and learned about her and it's sad to know she just passed away. Reading the reviews and the reactions of the people during the decade when it was shown, i can understand the responses and criticisms.

    But i guess now, this movie is now normal. In this recent times, there is much more nudity and violence even just in dramas on televisions.

    I am not a film/movie critic so i may not use the proper words to review the movie.

    But i personally see the film as artistic, not pure pornography. of course, some people would be highlighting the sex scenes, would even cut it and make it part of their collections.

    In fact, the reason why i got to this movie, was because i was searching for erotic movies, and this was one of them, among others, like Eyes wide shut, two moon junction.

    And learning what's behind the movie, the actors' history and what had become of them is interesting.

    I just learned that both lead actors have already passed away, but they sure have left interesting history in the cinema. I'm so glad i stumbled into this movie.

    If i were a professor in literature or the arts, i would love to show this film and let my students explore their minds and make a substantial reaction paper. :)

  3. #95susan

    Guilty as charged! I focussed on the butter. But upon attempting a month ago to re-evaluate this film, I found I couldn't even watch it long enough to GET to the butter scene.