Maria Schneider: at the edge of the world

During her meteoric career, the star of “Last Tango in Paris” became one of the greatest rebel icons of 1970s. Her daring, however, had a high price

New York, October 14th, 1972: Last Tango in Paris night première. Audiences oscillate between the shock of beauty and the warm of excitement. The portrait of the new sexologic era — the cult to obscene. For critic Pauline Kael, the impact of Bernardo Bertolucci’s work to film history is comparable to that Stravinsky caused with his Le Sacre du Printemps to music history. “This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made”, wrote in article published in The New Yorker magazine.

On screens, Marlon Brando’s violent masculinity is contrasted to the delicateness and youth freshness emanated from a then unknown actress’ vivid adolescent eyes: beautiful, intense and enigmatic, Maria Schneider eternized herself in the sweet smile of Jeanne, the girl-woman in the blossoming of sex.

Last Tango worldwide success, — and repudiation — however, cost to the young actress her sanity and permanence in film career: in 2007, after almost 40 years of silent tragedy, Schneider revealed the truth about her meteoric ascension and fateful fall. The trauma of public violation brought her sequels and a precocious lucidness about the horror of men, of fame and of being a woman.

(Photo: Reproduction)

During her ephemeral passage through stardom, Maria Schneider scandalized early 1970s conservative society. Her rebel, unsubmissive temperament was revealed in an early age: abandoned by father, French actor Daniel Gélin, she grew up in the French-German border alongside her mother, Romanian model Marie Christine Schneider. Books were responsible for her wish to explore world through art: “I wanted to paint, and I studied Latin and Greek”, told during Créteil Films de Femmes Festival, where she was honored with a retrospective of her career in 2001.

(Photo: Reproduction)

May 1968 revolutionary atmosphere had a definite influence over the little aspiring artist’s spirit: at 15, she left her mother’s house and went away alone to her hometown, Paris, where she began to earn a living by selling her drawings and illustrations — and, eventually, she posed as model for jeans brands. In the French capital Maria fell in love with cinema. Before the silver screens, the dreamer girl delighted herself in “Greta Garbo’s ambiguity”, “Anna Magani’s strength” and “Vivien Leigh’s fragility” — these three actresses I adore”, told.

Opportunity knocked on her door when, while walking by Paris streets, she met Brigitte Bardot during the shooting of Jean Aurel’s Les Femmes. Bardot had already made a film opposite Daniel Gélin — for Maria’s surprise, since she didn’t know her father’s fame. Sensitized, Brigitte helped the girl and became her friend and confident for all life. “She gave me a room at her place”, Maria told Daily Mail, “and it was through her I joined the William Morris Agency”. In 1970, Maria Schneider — back then credited as Maria Gélin — made her debut on screens, in Roger Kahana’s Madly or The Love Mates, opposite Alain Delon. “Nobody knows, but I did six movies before Last Tango in Paris”, told in interview to Roger Ebert. “One was directed by Roger Vadim, after he made Pretty Maids All in a Row. And I did some theater, and a couple of underground French movies. I walked out on one of them when I wasn’t paid. I fought with the director, went back to Paris, and met Bertolucci. He offered me the role in Tango”.

French magazine tells about Maria Schneider’s — then Maria Gélin — debut in Roger Kahana’s Madly (1970), with Alain Delon (Photo: Reproduction)


Maria Schneider was 19 when she was brought to stardom by Bernardo Bertolucci, who offered her the role that was initially destined to Dominique Sanda. When she first read the script, Maria hesitated because she had already been casted to another film with Alain Delon, Valerio Zurlini’s La Prima Notte di Quiette (1972), but she was convinced that she couldn’t refuse a leading role with Marlon Brando. “I regretted my choice since the beginning of my career that would have been sweeter, quieter”.

Alongside Marlon Brando in Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, 1972 (Photo: Reproduction)

The erotic drama, which depicts the anonymous relationship between Paul (Brando), a sadistic middle-aged widower, and Jeanne (Maria), a girl barely out of her teens, stirred the furious and the moral concern of dictatorships around the world: sexual revolution’s trademark, Last Tango was prohibited in Franco’s Spain and Pinochet’s Chile; in Italy, Bertolucci — back then member of the Communist Party — was condemned to jail for obscenity. According to Maria Schneider, the movie could have been even more outrageous, for in the original script Jeanne was, actually, a boy.

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In Brazil, the film was exhibited only in 1979, during the opening process of military regime. Manchete magazine, however, alerted: “Seen today, this movie will be the innocence itself if compared to some pornochanchadas [erotic comedies] exhibited in Brazil”. Even Maria considered the film dated in “style, form and speech”. In fact, maybe nowadays few elements of Last Tango remain as a valid attraction: Gato Barbieri’s jazzin’ soundtrack; photography rich in red and the gelid white of wintry Paris; but more, much more — to me — is Maria. Since the first time I watched Last Tango, I feel amazed by her electrifying presence, her girly eyes full of the black make-up that makes her, at the same time, the fragile lady and the femme fatale; the unpretentious sensuality and, above all, freedom and fearlessness with which she gives her body and soul to her character’s complex nature. Far from Hollywood untouchable goddesses, her figure is real and imperfect, but not less seductive and mysterious.

(Photo: Reproduction)
(Photo: Reproduction)

Last Tango caused frisson for its strong appeal to sexual perversion: the infamous sequence in which Paul sodomizes Jeanne using butter as lubricant permeated generations’ fetish imaginary. The scene, nevertheless, wasn’t in the script and was an idea of Marlon Brando himself, who, in conspiracy with director Bernardo Bertolucci, communicated Maria only at the moment of shooting. “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”, actress told Daily Mail. 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 Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologise”.

In 2013, two years after Maria Schneider’s death, Bertolucci confessed the violation to her: “You know, to make movies, sometimes, to obtain something, I think that we have to be completely freezing. I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her hate. I wanted Maria to feel… then she hated me for all life”. The declaration was made on a TV program, and when asked about if he regretted the act, the director affirmed feeling “guilty, but not regretted”. In another interview, given in the same year during Rotterdam International Film Festival, Bertolucci adds that “if the film is good, the manipulation was right”.


Last Tango worldwide repercussion marked negatively the career of Maria Schneider, who, during years, had her image associated to that of the promiscuous nymphet. Caring the trauma of physical and psychological abuse, the actress refused to appear naked again on screen. “I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol and I wanted to be recognized as an actress, and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown”. Maria shocked declaring herself bisexual and affirming her hate for men. When she refused being a mere object destined to masculine excitation, media sold her image as a “cinema’s symbol that doesn’t know her place” — as a Portuguese magazine wrote. An episode much spread among press vehicles was in 1975, when Maria admitted herself as voluntary in a Rome sanatorium in solidarity to her friend, photographer Joan Townsend — whom newspapers pointed wrong as being her girlfriend, in a time where visits to same-sex partners in sanatoriums and hospitals were strictly prohibited in Italy and all around the world.

In 1975 admitted herself as volunteer in a Rome sanatorium in solidarity to her friend Joan Townsend (Photo: Reproduction)

Sudden fame and lies spread by tabloids made Maria depressive and suicide. For seven years the actress fought against drugs. She remembered this obscure period in 2001, during Créteil Festival: “I started using drugs when I became famous. I did not like the celebrity, and especially the image full of innuendo, naughty, that people had of me after Last Tango. In addition, I had no family behind me, who protect you. I had no bodyguard like Sharon Stone, and so I was very exposed. I suffered abuse. People who come up to tell you unpleasant things on planes. I was tracked down, and I felt hounded.”

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Maria Schneider acted in more than 50 films, of which only one — except Tango — is still acclaimed and revisited: Michelangelo Antonioni’s classic The Passenger (1975), a film which Maria was proud of. For her, Antonioni was closer to what she really was. “He chose not to sell his soul.” In The Passenger, one of the three films Italian director made in Hollywood, we see a thinner Maria, with less makeup, her hoarse voice and naturally brown hair, embodying the mysterious Jack Nicholson’s companion. Smart and quiet, her character, whose name isn’t revealed, brings the melancholy and the wish of introspection. Here, more than ever, we see Maria — the true, in her pureness and enigma.

Alongside Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) (Photo: Reproduction)

Maria Schneider confronted the traditional feminine representation on screens and fought for “interesting roles”, on the contrary of the old stereotype of woman as object of pleasure, submissive, secondary figure. Refusing sexist proposals from directors such as Luís Buñuel and Joseph Losey, she made several cult movies — some good, some others bad: she worked alongside René Clement in La Baby Sitter (1975), an average thriller produced by legendary Carlo Ponti; with Jacques Rivette in the experimental Merry Go-Round (made in the late 1970s and released only in 1981), a confused and improvised mixture of film noir and road movie that brings pop-art’s leading man Joe Dallesandro less sexy than usual, and already declining from the glorious days of Andy Warhol’s Factory.

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In 1979 she turned down the role in the epic-porn Caligula to realize a “100% feminist” film: A Woman Like Eve (Een vrouw als Eva). Directed by cineaste Nouchka Van Brakel, this sensitive, poetic Dutch LGBT drama tells the dilemma of Eva (Monique Van de Ven), a married mom suffocated by the housewife duties who needs to choose between her sons and the overwhelming passion for a young hippie girl called Liliane (Maria). Alongside The Passenger, A Woman Like Eve is my favorite, and it surprises me that a so well-made film depicting in such an audacious and realistic way a drama that still present on current society, is not very known even among the most select appreciation publics of Seventh Art. A work deserved of rescue that can promote debates about pertinent issues: women’s subjection to patriarchy society; marriage between same-sex people; traditional family.

In 1979 Maria turned down the role in Caligula to make a “100% feminist” film: the Dutch lesbian romance A Woman Like Eve (Photo: Reproduction)

Controversial, Maria Schneider embodied the spirit of an era. The reason of her decline wasn’t Last Tango: it was the sexism, which wanted to make her a mere product destined to masculine aesthetical consume, and, seeing this purpose beaten, claimed to ruin her image before public opinion. “The media threw stones at me”. Hollywood machine crunched her and threw her away; in Europe, however, her legacy is still preserved and respected: during her funeral, occurred in February 2011 at Saint-Roch Church, in Paris, there were personalities such as actress Claudia Cardinale and director Bertrand Blier. Brigitte Bardot — who accompanied her friend during the long struggle against the cancer that culminated in her death — was present through a passionate letter read by Alain Delon. Pia, Maria’s companion since 1980s, praised her lover’s braveness and said goodbye: “Ciao Bella, Ciao Maria”, she said. Her ashes were taken to Père Lachaise Cemetery and later spread on the waters of Rocher de la Vierge, in Biarritz.

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In the verses of her song-tribute Maria, Patti Smith evokes the “exciting nature” and “the wanderings of the nameless girl in the desert of The Passenger”: “Wild, wild hair. Sad, sad eyes. White shirt. Black tie. You were mine…”

My love for Maria Schneider is unmeasurable. With tears running through my eyes, I remember that one who, with her charisma and simplicity, taught me to be free.


[Portuguese] “Filmes proibidos: anistia ampla, geral e irrestrita” — Justino Martins for Manchete Magazine , Year 28 — Bloch Editores S.A. — Rio de Janeiro, November 17, 1979


Forget Last Tango: Interview with Maria Schneider by Jackie Bucket and Elisabeth Jenny. Créteil Films de Femmes, 2001

Maria Schneider’s Arthouse: Beyond the Myths — Sense of Cinema, March 13, 2011

“I felt raped by Brando” — Daily Mail, July 19, 2007

Roger Ebert interviews Maria Schneider — September 14, 1975

“Last Tango in Paris” by Pauline Kael — The New Yorker, October 28, 1972