French actress Maria Schneider died in Paris on Thursday (Feb. 3) after a long bout with cancer.
In the USA we know her from Last Tango in Paris because it was an English language film. It was a product of a niche genre from the '60s and '70s called Euro-American “arthouse” films. American actors and European actors alike starred in these films, which were usually directed by European directors, and were co-productions between France, Italy, the UK and the USA. Examples are Bernardo Bertolucci (Last Tango in Paris, 1972), René Clément (Wanted: Babysitter, 1975) and Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow-Up, 1966). These films were designed to promote European arthouse film with American entertainment packaging.
The young Maria Schneider adored arthouse films and said in an interview in Paris (2001): “I was a student and I wanted to be a painter and I studied Greek and Latin”… I wasn't planning to be an actress but was a cinephile and saw two, three, four movies a week and that was a great time for movies because you could see all the neorealism, you could see Bergman, Visconti, Antonioni.”
Schneider said she was taken under the wing of French actor Brigitte Bardot and lived with her for two years where she met producers and casting agents and began appearing in films. Her first [uncredited] role was in 1969 at the age of 17 in The Christmas Tree, directed by Terence Young and starring William Holden and Virna Lisi. Other Euro-American arthouse films she worked in include [uncredited] Les Femmes in 1969 directed by Jean Aurel starring Brigitte Bardot, The Love Mates directed by Roger Kahane starring Alain Delon and Hellé (1972) directed by Roger Vadim.
On "Last Tango," her first major role, Maria said:
"In fact, it's a total coincidence. I was close friends with Dominique Sanda. (The Conformist, 1970) She wanted to make the film with Jean-Louis Trintignant, but she was pregnant. She had a large picture with her of the two of us. Bertolucci saw it. He made me do a casting. I read the script, I did not immediately understand. I did not really want to do it and everyone told me: "C’mon, with Brando ..." I resisted until the last moment, because I had to make the film by Valerio Zurlini, with (Alain) Delon, called The Professor (1972) with dancer Sonia Petrovna. I regretted my choice since the beginning of my career would have been sweeter, quieter. For Tango, I was not prepared. People have identified with a character that was not me. Butter, about saucy old pigs ... I think it's a film that has aged, style, form and speech. It's a film typical of the '70s, dated, unlike the films of Antonioni, Rossellini, that do not wrinkle. Bertolucci's very smart, he followed the fashions. Even Marlon with his charisma and class, felt a bit violated, exploited a little in this film. He rejected it for years. And me, I felt it doubly. Marlon was extraordinary, sympathetic with the technicians and generous. Bertolucci, who was a Communist, worked for the people and was working fifteen hours a day. Marlon said: "There they stood, and so sandwiches for everyone," the Hollywood superstar that he was. There was a chemistry between us, a complicity. With other actors, the film would have been very different."
Last Tango in Paris (review by Movie Magazine International, San Francisco) did not fare well in the USA in the beginning. The police raided the cinemas and drove the audiences into the streets such as at a cinema house in Riverside where I attended one of the first screenings. Arthouse became associated with explicit sexual content in films like Bertolucci’s tale of a young 19-year-old woman who is picked up by a man old enough to be her father, grieving for his dead wife who committed suicide. The script written by Bertolucci is sadistic and demeaning, especially for the part written for the young Maria Schneider.This was something she realized later on in life that she would never escape and her fictitious character Jeanne became unfairly superimposed on her, something that was hard to shake. It was not “five minutes of fame” in a uneven cult film like "Last Tango" that Schneider was after. She reported that neither Bertolucci nor Brando respected her as an actor in that improvisational scenes were forced on her without having time to think them over.
If that is not enough, the media had a field day with the film’s excesses where Brando and Bertolucci emerged as champions and Schneider took the fall for their clumsy and mean-spirited artistry for women. Even the part where Jeanne (Schneider) shoots Paul (Brando) is flawed, for after all his sadistic behavior hurled over her, he suddenly seems to be over his grief and wants a relationship with her. "Why did she do it? After all he was (finally) warming up to her" -- was actually a common reaction in 1972 to her revenge. Years later, it would appear that Jeanne did the right thing and Paul has gone down in history as a mean slimeball. Bertolucci as maker must share that responsibility.
The Euro-American film provided other vehicles for Maria Schneider to show her real abilities.* French arthouse director René Clement made La Babysitter in 1975, three years after "Last Tango." The film in English is called Wanted: Babysitter (also Scarred). In this film Maria got to settle the score and show a part closer to her real self. She plays Michelle, a young sculptor who supports herself babysitting. In a twist of fate, she meets the young actor Ann (Sydne Rome) who is unhappily in love with the food mogul Cyrus Franklin (Carl Möhner). Ann is hit by a car and scarred for life, unable to take her clothes off in films, which thus ends her career. She decides to take revenge on her ex-lover and kidnap his young son Boots (John Whittington).
Michelle takes Ann into her home, and ironically supports a young actor, like herself in real life, that was exploited at a young age and who is commanded to continue doing parts that are demeaning or be thrown off the picture. Posing as Michelle , Ann sedates Boots and moves him to a deserted mansion where Michelle is given a false babysitting job for him. Vic, Boots' kidnapper (Vic Morrow), guards the place as part of a gang that exploits his father and sets up Michelle for the fall.
In this film Schneider plays a part where she has a nice boyfriend for a change, although a little fixated: Gianni (Renato Pozzetto) who supports her and relentlessly tries to find where she has been abducted. In every scene Schneider exudes gifted sensitivity and compassion. There is not a note of falseness to her performance. It takes a lot of work to get the young Boots to trust Michelle, since he believes she is the mean babysitter that sedated him. Michelle warmly develops a friendship with him and they work together to get rescued even though they are up against some very bad guys including Stuart Chase (Robert Vaughn), an actor that knows Anna. In the film Michelle is beaten and her hair cut with a knife. She constantly lives under the threat of being killed. During everyone moment of her capture she does not give up protecting the boy and displays courage and charisma. This was the brilliant work of Maria Schneider.
In 2001 Schneider spoke about how parts for women were becoming slim for her, and she no longer received central billing as the young actor where she often played roles simply called "The Girl." She was given minor roles up until her last picture in 2008. This is the well-known fate of women in film, with a shelf life of a ballerina. Men continue to get major roles well into their 80s with young women as their lovers and wives.
Forget "Last Tango." Maria Schneider made over 40 films. Many of these are French language pictures, but Schneider, who spoke excellent English, made quite a few that can be seen in the USA. While the media has a field day focusing on the breakthrough role of her career (Last Tango in Paris), it is also worth noting the expanse of her career with films such as The Passenger, opposite Jack Nicholson in 1975 directed by Antonioni , and Merry Go Round (1975) based on Reignen, a notable play by Arthur Schnitzler. Later roles include The Repentant directed by Laetitia Masson (2002), where Schneider plays the sister of Charlotte (Isabelle Adjani). Maria's last role was in Cliente (2008) by the noted French director Josiane Balasko.
Maria Schneider’s work includes many handpicked roles that reflect ambitious adventures in arthouse cinema. To this champion of better roles for women, we take adieu, and will continue to appreciate her as a vital and important French actor with the films she has left us, gone too soon.
*Note: Check Le Video San Francisco for English language films of Maria Schneider (The Passenger, Scarred, Last Tango in Paris, Merry Go Round, Au Pays des Juliet are in stock).Le Video does regular tributes to filmmakers, cast and crew who have recently passed away. They have the best arthouse film colllection in San Francisco.