Wednesday, January 25, 2012

'Last Tango in Paris' Actress Maria Schneider Has Died

  • This seems quite a shame.  She was so lovely - and she looks to have aged a lot in the intervening 38 years.

    by: Tim Grierson
    Maria Schneider, 1952-2011
    Dominique Charriau/WireImage
    When you're a young, beautiful and largely unknown actress, one of the biggest decisions you'll have to face is whether or not you're willing to appear nude in a movie that could launch your career. There's no right or wrong answer to that question -- each actress has to decide that for herself -- but in the case of Maria Schneider, whodied this morning in Paris at the age of 58, she said yes. The film was "Last Tango in Paris." And it changed her life -- for better and for worse.
    The French actress was only 19 when Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci cast her in the movie opposite the much more experienced and acclaimed Marlon Brando. (He was also much older: 48.) Released at the end of 1972, "Last Tango in Paris" was an instant scandal, telling the unlikely story of two strangers -- an American widower (Brando) and an engaged French woman (Schneider) -- who meet in Paris and decide to have anonymous sexual trysts with each other in an empty apartment. (How anonymous? The widower insists that they not reveal their names or anything about themselves.) Catching the film at its premiere at the New York Film Festival, New Yorker critic Pauline Kael memorably rhapsodized in her review, declaring that "Last Tango" had "altered the face of an art form ... This is a movie people will be arguing about, I think, for as long as there are movies." Sexually explicit in a way movies never were before and have only rarely been since, "Last Tango in Paris" was really about alienation and the disconnect between sex and love, but its legacy has ended up being that it was banned throughout the world and that, yes, it contains one of the most shocking love scenes of all time. We won't show you that, but the film's original trailer gives a decent hint of the movie's libidinous, artsy trappings:

    Instantly, Schneider was a star, and from all accounts she handled it very badly. For one thing, she had to contend with producers and directors who just wanted her to be nude in their projects. "Marlon was shy about his body, but nudity wasn't a problem for me in those days as I thought it was beautiful," she said in 2007. Still, "I never went naked in a movie again after 'Last Tango,' even though I was offered many such roles."
    She also wasn't ready for the media attention that would come with such a naked (both physically and emotionally) part. She got into drugs, overdosing a few times. She tried to kill herself at least once.
    But her fame brought her to the attention of another revered Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, who cast her alongside another iconic American actor, Jack Nicholson, for "The Passenger." And while some of the sexual politics of "Last Tango" haven't aged well, Antonioni's 1975 film remains pretty stunning. In it, Nicholson plays an emotionally lost journalist who assumes the identity of a dead man and starts a new life, with Schneider being the young woman he meets along the way for a journey that's as much about geography as it is about mental distance from his past.

    But despite landing a major role that would help people forget about "Last Tango" some, Schneider was still very uncomfortable with celebrity, although she did move to Los Angeles around that time to find work in Hollywood. In an interview with Roger Ebert after the release of "The Passenger," she talked about her feelings regarding Southern California: "It's hard to talk to the people here. They're very shallow. All they talk about is their look, their hair and their screwing. But I love to act, and here is the place to come for the movies."
    Very little came from it, however, and soon she was making European movies again. But though she kept working, her career never was the same again. Perhaps that was for the best. Even four years ago, she sounded like someone still reeling from the experience of her infamous first role. For the 35th anniversary of "Last Tango," she told a writer, "It's amazing. I've made 50 films in my career and 'Last Tango' is 35 years old, but it's still the one that everyone asks me about." She didn't seem particularly pleased with that fact -- in the same interview, she badmouthed Bertolucci. "I think Bertolucci is overrated and he never really made anything after 'Last Tango' that had the same impact," she said. "He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative ... and would do certain things to get a reaction from me."
    But if she was somewhat bitter about parts of her past, she was nonetheless in a better place. She had kicked drugs. She had found love, presumably with a woman she'd been with for decades. "I was very lucky," she said in 2007. "I lost many friends to drugs, but I met someone in 1980 who helped me stop. I call this person my angel and we've been together ever since. I don't say if it's a man or a woman. That's my secret garden. I like to keep it a mystery."
    For an actress who learned early in the career the dangers of leaving yourself bare, it was probably a great comfort at the end of her life to actually have some mysteries to call her own.