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Maria Schneider dies at 58; actress in 'Last Tango in Paris'

'Last Tango in Paris' is considered a classic, but it also included notorious sex scenes. In her later years, Maria Schneider expressed regret about appearing in the film, saying 'I felt a little raped' by costar Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci.

February 04, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Actress Maria Schneider poses for photographers in Beverly Hills in 1999. Schneider, most famous for her role as Marlon Brando's lover in "Last Tango in Paris," died Thursday in Paris.
Actress Maria Schneider poses for photographers in Beverly Hills in 1999.… (Reuters )

Maria Schneider, the French actress who appeared opposite Marlon Brando in "Last Tango in Paris," the 1972 movie whose strong sexual content stirred international controversy, has died. She was 58.

Schneider died in Paris on Thursday after a long illness, her family told Agence France Presse.

She was a voluptuous, 19-year-old newcomer with long, curly brown hair framing a youthful face when she was cast in writer-director Bernardo Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris," in which she played a young engaged Parisian woman looking for an apartment to rent. Her character begins an anonymous sexual relationship in an empty apartment with a grief-stricken middle-aged American (Brando) whose French wife has just committed suicide.

The X-rated film, which critic Pauline Kael called "a landmark in movie history" and which critic Roger Ebert said was "one of the great emotional experiences of our time," was banned in a number of countries for its sexuality and nudity.

"It's amazing," Schneider said in a 2007 interview with the London Daily Mail. "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."

The movie's infamous sex scene, involving butter, was not in the original script.

"The truth is, it was Marlon who came up with the idea," Schneider said. "They only told me about it before we had to film the scene, and I was so angry. I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can't force someone to do something that isn't in the script, but at the time, I didn't know that.

"Marlon said to me: 'Maria, don't worry, it's just a movie.' But during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn't real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Brando and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn't console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take."

In his review of the film when it was released in the United States in 1973, The Times' Charles Champlin wrote that Schneider "is a triumph of casting — petulant, self-indulgent, and convincingly terrified as someone who has gotten in beyond her depth."

In the 2007 Daily Mail interview, Schneider said she "never went naked in a movie again after 'Last Tango,' even though I was offered many such roles. People today are used to such things, but when the film opened in 1972, it was scandalous."

The film, which earned Brando and Bertolucci Oscar nominations, brought Schneider worldwide fame.

But the glare of the media, she said in the 2007 interview, "made me go mad. I got into drugs — pot and then cocaine, LSD and heroin — it was like an escape from reality .... I didn't enjoy being famous at all, and drugs were my escape. I took pills to try and commit suicide, but I survived because God decided it wasn't the time for me to go."

Although she lost many friends to drugs, she said, she met someone in 1980 who helped her stop.

Asked who it was by a reporter for Ireland's Sunday Independent in 2006, Schneider replied: "An angel .... I don't say if it's a man or a woman. But it was in 1980, and we're still together."

The daughter of French actor Daniel Gélin and a Romanian mother, Schneider was born in Paris on March 27, 1952, and grew up with her mother near the French border with Germany.

She ran away from home at 15 and reportedly did not meet her father for the first time until she was 16. Brigitte Bardot, one of her father's former costars, offered her a room in her home.

In her interview with the Sunday Independent, Schneider said that Warren Beatty, who was visiting Bardot's house, insisted his agent sign her up. "He called William Morris and said, 'You might take this young actress, she's so incredible,' and I hadn't done anything!"

Schneider's most notable post-"Tango" film credit was starring with Jack Nicholson in director Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 drama "The Passenger."

Looking back on her career in the 2006 interview with the Sunday Independent, Schneider said that in retrospect, she would not have made "Last Tango in Paris."

"I would have said no," she said. "I would have done my work more gradually, more discreetly. I would have been an actress, I think, but more quietly."

In her spare time in recent years, Schneider ran a charitable organization that helps aging and down-on-their-luck actors and performers.

A list of surviving family members was unavailable.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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