Feature

Maria Schneider, 1952–2011

The vulnerable actress who tangoed with Brando

One notorious film—more precisely, one scene in that film—made Maria Schneider’s career. It also broke her life. Director Bernardo Bertolucci cast the virtually unknown Schneider, then 19, to play opposite Marlon Brando in 1972’s Last Tango in Paris, the story of a widower and a young woman whose chance meeting in a vacant Paris apartment flares into a torrid affair. Despite Bertolucci’s art-house credentials, the film received an X rating and shocked audiences. In the most lurid scene, Brando sodomizes Schneider on the floor of the apartment, a segment that sparked public indignation and led several European countries to ban the film. Schneider herself was pursued relentlessly by reporters and photographers. “The whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy,” she said years later, “and I had a breakdown.” Schneider said the film had left her feeling “humiliated” and “a little raped” by both Brando and Bertolucci. Though she remained friends with Brando until his death, in 2004, she never spoke to Bertolucci again.

Schneider was born in Paris, the product of an affair between French actor Daniel Gélin and Marie-Christine Schneider, a Romanian-born model, said the London Guardian. Gélin, who was married to another woman at the time, refused to acknowledge his daughter, and “with defiance,” Schneider used her mother’s name when she began her acting career. Leaving home at 15 after a fight with her mother, she moved  into the Paris home of Brigitte Bardot, one of Gélin’s former co-stars. Bardot put her up and helped her find an agent. Schneider modeled and landed a few small movie roles before Bertolucci cast her in Last Tango.

The high point of Schneider’s post-Tango career was her role as a dreamy architecture student in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, playing opposite Jack Nicholson, said the Los Angeles Times. The low points were more plentiful. She became addicted to drugs, attempted suicide, and had tumultuous affairs with men and women alike. In 1975, she checked herself into a psychiatric hospital in Rome to be with her female lover. She quit at least two films in mid-production: Tinto Brass’s sexually explicit sword-and-sandals epic, Caligula, and Luis Buñuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. On both occasions, she had quarreled with the directors over nude scenes, which she refused to perform. “Never take your clothes off for middle-aged men who claim that it’s art,” she advised other actresses.

In her last years, Schneider had kicked drugs and seemed to have found a measure of peace, working in her spare time with The Wheel Turns, a philanthropy that helps down-on-their-luck performers. After Bertolucci learned of her death, he said, “Maria accused me of having robbed her of her youth, and only today am I wondering whether there wasn’t some truth to that.”

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