Maria Schneider: Actress best known for starring opposite Marlon Brando in the controversial film 'Last Tango in Paris'

Tom Vallance
Saturday 05 February 2011 01:00

The French actress Maria Schneider became famous over-night when she starred opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci's controversial film Last Tango in Paris (1972), which featured perhaps the most famous sex scene in cinemahistory, in which Brando, with the aid of a slab of butter, appears to have anal intercourse with his co-star.The sequence caused a world-wide furore, and the film was banned in several countries (including parts of the UK). Schneider and Brando, along with Bertolucci, were idicted by an Italian court on charges of obscenity for participating in the making of an erotic movie, and it was banned in Italy until 1987.

Though it gave Schneider lasting fame, it also started a career marked by breakdowns, drug addiction, a suicide attempt and fractured relationships. Schneider would later claim that she was coerced into doing the film's most notorious sequence, which had been thought up by Brando (she was an unknown with no professional training) and she harboured a lifelong animosity towards Bertolucci, stating, "Never take your clothes off for middle-aged men who claim that it is art."

Born Marie Christine Gelin in Paris in 1952, she was the illegitimate daughter of a Romanian teenage model who ran a bookshop, and the popular French actor Daniel Gelin, who was married to the actress Danièle Delorme at the time and refused to acknowledge his daughter. She was raised by her mother in a town near the German border until at the age of 15 she left home after an argument and went to Paris, where Brigitte Bardot, who had worked with Gelin and was allegedly appalled at his behaviour, gave her a room in her house and found her an agent.

Schneider took her mother's surname when she started working in films as an extra, movies in which she had brief roles including L'Arbre de Noel (The Christmas Tree, 1969) with William Holden, and Madly (1971), an Alain Delon vehicle, but was still an unknown when she auditioned with over 100 other actresses for Last Tango in Paris, in which she played an unworldly, bourgeois girl, about to get married, who meets a middle-aged widower in an empty Paris apartment. (The role was intended for Dominique Sanda, who had become pregnant.) The couple embark on an intense, entirely physical affair during which the man works out his aggression – at his request, they do not even learn each other's names.

The combination of Brando and Bertolucci, and the notoriety of its sexual content, made the film anenormous hit, described by the critic Pauline Kael as "bold and imaginative – a great work," and Brando and Bertolucci were nominated for Oscars, though an Italian court gave Bertolucci a four-month suspended prison sentence for obscenity. "Iwas too young to say no," said Schneider of the much discussed scene. "I was no more than a baby at 19. So I did the scene and I cried. I was trapped in his fantasy."

Schneider was to appear in one more memorable film, Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger (1975), an existential but accessible thriller in which Jack Nicholson starred as a reporter who assumes the identity of a look-alike who dies during an overnight stay in a hotel, later discovering that the man was a gun-runner. Again nameless (she is billed as "the girl"), Schneider was impressive as an enigmatic, outwardly naïve architectural student – part of the exquisitely photographed movie is set against the background of Gaudi's Barcelona.

In the year The Passenger was released, Schneider walked off the set of René Clément's La Baby-Sitter to become a voluntary patient at a psychiatric hospital in Rome in order to be with her lover, the American photographer Joan Townsend, who was incarcerated there. "They had locked her up, so I had to do it out of loyalty," she explained. In 1977, cast as Conchita in Luis Bunuel's That Obscure Object of Desire, she made headlines by walking off the set because, she said, of excessive nudity, and two years later she abandoned Tinto Brass's Caligula for the same reason. "I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol and I wanted to be recognised as an actress. The whole scandal and aftermath turned me a little crazy and I had a nervous breakdown."

She turned down the chance to play Mary Magdalene in Franco Zeffirelli's epic television drama, Jesus of Nazareth (1978), a decision she later regretted. Later films included La Derobade (Memoirs of a French Whore, 1979), Mama Dracula (1980), Jacques Rivette's Merry-Go-Round (1981), which teamed her with Joe Dallessandro, Balles perdu (1983), L'Art de Survivre (Bunker Palace Hotel, 1989) and Les Nuits Fauve (1992). She played Mrs Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli's Jane Eyre (1996) and was an ageing courtesan in her final film, Josiane Balasko's Client (2008). A dependence on drugs blighted much of her later life, but she was finally able to conquer her addiction with the help of a partner whom she called "my angel" but refused to identify.

Marie Christine Gelin (Maria Schneider), actress: born: Paris 27 March 1952; died Paris 3 February 2011.

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