Sometimes things come together in and around a movie in such a way – like an alignment of the planets – that the gravitational pull it exerts on the collective cultural consciousness is out of all proportion to its actual mass. Last Tango in Paris (1972) was that kind of movie; of its time, at just the right time. And in that, it made and possibly damned its leading lady, Maria Schneider, who died at age 58 earlier this month reportedly from cancer.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, mainstream moviemaking had become more daring, more experimental, pushing at – and sometimes punching through – the boundaries which just a few years earlier had protected those aspects of the human experience supposedly too sacred, too sensitive and intimate, too taboo to put on film. This was the time of Midnight Cowboy (1969), Deliverance (1972), The Killing of Sister George (1968), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1968), The Sergeant (1968), Straw Dogs (1971), Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969). Even today – maybe especially today when the multiplex is dominated, both on-screen and in the auditorium seats, by an adolescent mentality fixated on toilet humor and pyrotechnics– there’s still a militantly adult vibrancy to these films, an air to them of the committed, angry revolutionary screaming to be heard above the din of banality. They were all part of a strain of surprisingly commercial moviemaking (Tango would go on to gross nearly $100 million worldwide) which felt like a grasping for some grand, ultimate something about the connection between heart and mind and body…and, with all its flaws (the movie certainly has them) Last Tango seemed to be some sort of cathartic culmination, going further than any of the others visually and thematically in the dark eroticism it was trying to plumb.
Perfectly in synch with Tango’s still audacious yet very 1970s exploration of human connection, love, sex, manipulation, and emotional violence was Maria Schneider. She seems so of the film, so of its time, it’s hard to picture her in any other context. Or maybe the unhappy magic of the film is it makes us see her that way.
Again, that alignment of the planets… Everything conspired to make Schneider a legend, from the tragic brevity of her film career to the tragic brevity of her life. Though she had made some films before Tango, and others afterward, she remained, in popular perception, a one-hit wonder, defined and forever identified with this one unforgettable film. To the international audiences who came to know her through Tango, she seemed to come from nowhere, and just as abruptly disappear. The answers to “Hey, whatever happened to…?” only enhanced her mystique: 1972’s quintessential sexual icon coming out two years later as a bisexual, problems with drugs and alcohol, suicide attempts, walking off the set of Penthouse-produced sex epic Caligula in 1979 to sign herself into a Roman mental hospital.
Always in the air around her, with each revelation, this most tantalizing wondering: Had she always been too fragile for the movies? Were her problems the result of the stresses and strains of an always cruel and demanding – and sexist — business working their way on fault lines already there? Or had it been Tango?
She had only been 19 when director/co-writer Bernardo Bertolucci had cast her as Jeanne, a young Parisian who falls into a torrid, anonymous sexual tryst with middle-aged widower Paul (Marlon Brando). Bertolucci had gotten the idea for the movie from his own sexual fantasies, and whatever else Tango did – or didn’t – accomplish artistically, it hit a resonating chord in the minds of a generation of young men with Schneider as a tantalizingly attainable-seeming fantasy.
Schneider wasn’t Hollywood beautiful. She still had a teen’s round face framed in a cascade of hippy-dippy hair, an un-Hollywood-like fullness to her body; like an earth motherish commune-living version of Marilyn Monroe. In her bell bottoms and long scarves and floppy hats she would’ve looked at home on any college campus of the time. That real-worldness of her made her tangible, possible, and her free, comfortable sexuality filled in the idea of her as a flower child’s wet dream.
Maybe it was her own inexperience, maybe the fact she was constantly having to respond to Brando’s improvisations, but there was an unpolished, natural, honest quality to her performance. She would later say the film’s most (in)famous scene – “Go, get the butter” – was unscripted, spontaneously inflicted on her by Brando, and that the tears she shed on-screen during the scene were real. She didn’t seem like she was acting because often she wasn’t acting, and it was at those moments when her fragility came through that she seemed all the more real, all the more touchable, and because of that, when she seemed most hurt she seemed most alluring.
Afterward, she would say both Bertolucci and Brando had exploited her, that in her 19-year-old naiveté she hadn’t been able to divine just what a mindfuck the movie was. And perhaps it was, and that was why the drugs and alcohol and the psychological problems. Or perhaps the problems were already there and that’s what had made the experience such a mindfuck for her.
She would never get out from under that cloud; she would always be the girl from Last Tango in Paris. It was a mantle she hated, possibly doomed her subsequent career, and she never forgave Bertolucci or Brando for what she felt they’d put her through.
Whatever the truth of the matter – whether she had been a problemed girl going in, or a problemed girl coming out – and despite the undeniable sadness and tragedy of the course of her life, the impression she made on-screen 39 years ago remains indelible, captured on film forever young, forever enrapturing, eternally desirable.
– Bill Mesce