PARIS — Maria Schneider was just 19 years old when she did the last tango and some rather more risque dances here with a middle-aged widower played by Marlon Brando. "Last Tango in Paris" became an X-rated movie classic in 1972, but the uninhibited young French star seemed to disappear as quickly as she was discovered.
Whatever happened to Maria Schneider? The actress, now 41, pondered that question in the bar of the Ritz Hotel the other day, pausing to light a cigarette and sip her espresso.
"When you start your career like I did, with a film like 'Last Tango,' it's a little hard," she began, speaking in a soft, deep voice. "It's better to grow in a career steadily."
Schneider has made only one other appearance on the American big screen, in "The Passenger," a 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson. Since then, she has done 20 films, all in Europe.
"I've been working, but my only regret is that I haven't worked in the States since then," she said.
Next month, she will be seen in a supporting role in Gramercy Pictures' "Savage Nights," a powerful French autobiographical film by Cyril Collard, who died of AIDS last March. Schneider plays a Moroccan psychic who appears to the HIV-infected man in a dream. She describes it as a "very small, very strong part."
The film was hailed by critics in France as a courageously honest portrait of a bisexual, 30-year-old man with AIDS who is torn between his love for a woman, 18-year-old Laura, and a man, 20-year-old Samy. French audiences were fascinated by Collard's willingness to portray himself as an egocentric character who slept with a young woman several times before telling her he carried the AIDS virus.
"I was touched by his true story," Schneider said. "It's quite admirable to be so honest. But I was quite depressed after seeing it. I guess I live in this very romantic world. I had no idea people could live like he did."
She considers Collard's film "a very interesting first effort," but she doesn't think it's a "masterwork. It would have been interesting to see what he would have done after that."
Since "Last Tango" and "The Passenger," Schneider's European roles have included a baby-sitter who kidnaps the children, a criminal who does 10 years in jail for killing her husband and, in her most recent film, "Sandscreen," a Saudi Arabian princess.
Wearing jeans, a wool jacket and leather boots during a recent interview, she appeared thinner and more handsomely mature than the teen-ager who wowed American audiences as Brando's innocent femme fatale . She is bemused that anyone would still be interested in "Last Tango" and Jeanne, a role she was chosen for from hundreds of actresses in Paris, and for which she was paid just $5,000. To her, the film seems ages old.
"Do you remember everything you did 20 years ago?" she asked. "And when I see 'Last Tango' today, I have to say it got old. The film has aged."
But, when pressed, she admits that her American experience was enriching for a young actress. And she still recalls how Brando asked her what her astrological sign is on the first day of shooting, and seemed relieved upon learning it was the same as his--Aries.
"I'm quite proud to be the only European actress to play opposite Marlon Brando. Quite proud," she said. "And then to play with Jack Nicholson, too. They're not weak actors, you know.
"But I was young in those days," she added. "I play mothers now."
She says she doesn't much miss the fame, fleeting though it was. "I did this one film and suddenly I couldn't travel without people recognizing me," she said. "It was insane. People saw me on the street and starting thinking I was like Jeanne in real life."
She spent two years in Los Angeles in the early '70s, but, homesick, returned to Paris. The daughter of a French actor, Schneider has never married and she leads a rather quiet life here.
She's an admirer of American films. "We still make some good films in Europe, but the women's parts in American films are much more interesting. We don't build many films on women stars. Here you play the wife or the mistress."
But she harbors little desire to return to Hollywood. Her heavily accented English is a drawback. And, as she has matured, her Romanian-Greek roots combined with her curly black hair have produced a look that is difficult to cast as French. "It's hard for me to find parts in America," she said. "I could play a Mexican maybe or a Colombian. Look, I'm objective about it."
She's not sure how Collard's tale of love and AIDS will play in America. "The attraction of romance is very French," she said. "But in the States, you aren't that romantic. It'll be interesting to see what happens."*