A generation of male movie-goers may have gulped when they saw the obituaries for Maria Schneider and that picture of her from 2003 when she was 50—tense, not quite well, anxious about being looked at. How can we read so much into one picture? Well, how did we assume so much in 1972 when the breathtaking Schneider rolled across the screen in Last Tango in Paris like a bowling ball and took part in all those scenes with such aplomb? In 1972, we told ourselves, we were watching the most candid mainstream film we were ever likely to see. Wasn’t she the girl of the moment who’d do anything, and wasn’t that Marlon Brando there with her, doing everything? Yes, it was, but if you noticed, Brando somehow kept his clothes on, while Schneider’s breasts, her bottom, and everything else were there for anyone to see. She got $4,000 for the picture, it is said. I daresay Brando got more. But he was a star, and she was 19.
The director, Bernardo Bertolucci, had told the two actors he wanted to film their actual sexual behavior on screen. Brando refused. No one seems to have asked Schneider. Later on, she would say she sometimes felt “raped” by the two men, especially in the simulated anal sex scene. And it’s hardly a fit response to say, well, she could have said no, she could have walked away from it all—after all, $4,000 isn’t that much to lose, is it? But she was 19, the illegitimate daughter of a famous French actor (Daniel Gelin), and possibly messed up. Do you know any 19-year-olds like that? Nor should we underestimate how, for all the daring and insight of Brando’s performance, the audience went to see Maria Schneider, too, and see her naked.
I never met Schneider, but the film world was rife with stories that she was a victim of drugs, that she was bisexual and promiscuous, and that she had breakdowns. Of course, not all of those things are necessarily on the same level, and you would have had to be there to know the order in which they occurred and ranked. The film business is often prepared to ask young women to do anything they can think of on screen and then write them off as bad characters because they can’t be cool about it.
I regret that the obituaries didn’t say more about another of her films: The Passenger (1975), by Michelangelo Antonioni—and a more interesting picture than Last Tango in Paris. It’s a story about a disenchanted foreign reporter, David Locke (Jack Nicholson), who takes advantage of the death of another man in an African hotel by acquiring the dead man’s name and identity. So it’s a surprise to discover that he now seems to be a gun-runner.
When “Locke” comes back to London (his home), he sees a girl in a green dress, reading a book in a London Square. They notice each other without saying a word—the girl is Maria Schneider, and she seemed to have aged well in three years. She was less voluptuous, more ordinary, but very pretty, and she seemed smart. Then, the action moves to Barcelona, where “Locke” must go on a mission indicated in the dead man’s diary. And the girl is there again, a visitor in one of the Gaudi houses. Now they talk, and become companions.
The Passenger knows no more about its own plot than David Locke, but the coincidence of the girl in both places is odd. She and Locke become lovers as they travel together, and Schneider is touching as a funny person with a love of life. She is naked again for a moment, but the film does not exploit that. And she is there at the end as we realize Locke has been murdered in one of the most elaborate shots in film history. At that point she seems bereft, a loser, but can we be sure she wasn’t part of an intrigue that was watching the gun-runner? In an intricate, deeply felt film, she establishes a relationship with Nicholson who never condescends to her or treats her as a stooge.
Two years later, Schneider made a strange, inadvertent contribution to film history. Luis Bunuel was about to make That Obscure Object of Desire, in which a man played by Fernando Rey is driven almost mad by a very desirable girl who will not yield to him. Bunuel tested several actresses but gave the part to Schneider, though some felt she was too passive to be the extroverted, flamenco-dancing girl in the script. The shooting started badly. The screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carriere, said she was, “brilliant … but lackluster, dull,” because she was doing drugs. So Schneider was fired, and Bunuel and Carriere responded to the awkward situation by casting two actresses as the woman—Angela Molina and Carole Bouquet—and so the man’s frustration turns more comic because he can’t tell them apart.
Maria Schneider did only a few other—she was good and authentically sexy in Jacques Rivette’s Merry-Go-Round in another lead part, but as the mad woman in Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Jane Eyre she had hardly anything to say. People said she was “difficult” and “unreliable,” and perhaps that was so, but, at 19, if you’ve had a stick of butter pushed up your arse on camera as preparation—and had the years of jokes because of it—maybe “difficult” is easier to understand.
It’s hard now to think the essential purpose of Last Tango in Paris wasn’t to take advantage of Maria Schneider to get our dollars. I don’t mean to say the film lacks anguish, or that Brando isn’t riveting in it. But I’m not sure it was worth doing if it ruined a life. You can argue that actresses know what to expect. Haven’t they heard about show business? Maybe. But some actresses are desperate to believe in what they are doing. Just like actors. Just like us. Let’s tip our hats to Maria Schneider.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.