'Last Tango' role shaped career for good and ill

 

MARIA SCHNEIDER: MARIA SCHNEIDER, who has died of cancer aged 58, was a French actress whose performance as Marlon Brando’s young lover in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris(1972) helped make explicit sex scenes acceptable in mainstream cinema. Ironically, while the film established her reputation, it also arguably destroyed her career.

The daughter of French actor Daniel Gélin and a Parisian bookshop owner, Schneider was a 19-year-old model when she was cast in only her second screen role opposite Brando, who was 48 at the time. The film details the relationship between a young Parisian woman and a middle-aged American hotel manager and was notorious for an improvised, butter-assisted sex scene that resulted in a prohibitive X-rating in the United States.

The film made Schneider a star, although she later accused Brando and Bertolucci of exploiting her; Brando and the director won Oscar nominations. She described Bertolucci as “a gangster and a pimp”, likened the experience to being “raped” and said Last Tangotaught her an important lesson: “Never take your clothes off for a middle-aged man who claims that it’s art.”

“Bertolucci was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself, and would do certain things to get a reaction from me,” she said. “I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol – I wanted to be recognised as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.”

Bertolucci, for his part, appeared puzzled by the criticism. “It is true that Maria was very young when we shot the film and maybe she couldn’t articulate what happened,” he said in 2003.

“So what remains is a confused moment where I am the killer or the bad guy.”

Following Last Tango in Paris,Schneider went on to star alongside Jack Nicholson in The Passenger,an existential thriller by director Michelangelo Antonioni.

But her subsequent career was hindered by drug addiction and mental illness. She said she turned her life around after meeting her long-term partner in 1980 – it is not known whether she was in a relationship with a man or woman.

She explained in interviews that she was bisexual, and committed herself to a psychiatric institution to be with her female lover.

“They locked her up, and so I had to do it out of loyalty,” Schneider explained.

“Most of the members of my generation are gay, or bisexual, they have more open minds about sexuality, about what a woman’s role can be, or what the potentials are.”

Schneider’s other films include A Woman Like Eve, In the Country of Julietsand the acclaimed Aids drama Savage Nights. Her last significant role was the anguished Mrs Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli’s 1996 adaptation of Jane Eyre.

She was awarded the medal of Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for her contributions to the arts on July 1st, 2010.


Maria Schneider: born March 27th, 1952; died February 3rd, 2011