Dead Sex Kittens: Farewell to Three Icons of Movie Eroticism

The recent deaths of Maria Schneider, Lena Nyman and Tura Satana call to mind the sexually adventurous films they starred in and the cultural battles of the 1960s and '70s

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Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris

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Well, a movie can be not erotic, or anti-erotic, and still worth watching. What's of interest today is the relationship of director to actress and the elfin, exhibitionist vitality of Nyman. Between sex talk with a girl chum (they discuss using shower nozzles, vibrators and vacuum cleaners) and asking each of her 23 lovers to answer a questionnaire on their sexual experiences and political affiliations, the pudgy star eventually tires of Börje, dreaming of castrating him with a knife. Her beau too grows alienated: he glances at a bedroom ornamented with Che and Marx photos and snarls, "Put dieting posters up on your wall instead," and drives away with a dismissive "I don't want those tits in my MG."

Behind these sexual skirmishes is a standard movie-set romance, which may begin in erotic attraction and end in a who's-using-whom catfight. "You want a girl in your film and a girl in your bed," Lena tells Sjöman. "And if you can combine the two, all the better, right?" She feels manipulated by her master — and he by her: "She's using me, that damned girl," Sjöman complains. "This movie is her chance, and she knows it. And, boy, does she take advantage of it!" All this may be fiction, but it reflects the familiar synergy and abrasion of a director and his leading lady. And if we take the movie at its word that Sjöman and Nyman were bedmates when Curious was made, we're left with the odd spectacle of a director filming his girlfriend having sex with another man.

Maria Schneider
In their big films, Satana and Nyman were acting with unknowns. Schneider's onscreen partner in her first prominent role was Marlon Brando, fresh from The Godfather. She played Jeanne, a young bride-to-be who goes scouting for an apartment, meets a middle-aged man there (Brando's Paul) and enters into an intense, claustrophobic affair in which, at the man's insistence, no names or biographical details will be exchanged. At heart a movie about two people in a room, having sex and talking about sex, Last Tango was a '70s sensation not for what it showed, exactly — though a scene in which Paul sodomizes Jeanne, using butter as a lubricant, might have been a movie first — but because Brando was doing it. Schneider was the woman he did it to.

In the storm of agitation, the rhetoric of both the movie's defenders and its detractors ascended to operatic heights. Writing in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael proclaimed: "The movie breakthrough has finally come ... This must be the most powerfully erotic movie ever made, and it may turn out to be the most liberating movie ever made." (The review would become nearly as famous as the picture; in subsequent years, when other critics referred to Last Tango, they'd say, "That was Pauline's film.") The movie's event status was certified by a TIME cover story; so incendiary was the article's judicious description of the sex scenes that an unprecedented number of outraged readers canceled their subscriptions.

Last Tango doesn't deserve either extreme response. The movie is long and lumpy, with such empty grand gestures as door punching and floor rolling and a few acting arias that show more bravado than behavioral truth. There's an ill-fitting subplot involving Jean-Pierre Léaud as Jeanne's filmmaker fiancé, who wants to make a documentary about her life (the exact same notion that informed I Am Curious.) But Tango exerts an enduring fascination: for its ruthless intimacy, for the elegance of its spare, swank visual style, for the master class Brando gives in character improvisation — particularly in one four-minute closeup in which Paul recalls the indignities of his youth — and for the beguiling mixture of kewpie doll and sex toy that was Maria Schneider.

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