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The daughter of actor Daniel Gélin and model Marie Christine Schneider, Maria spent her teens vagabonding through Montparnasse and Marrakech, living in communes, taking men and women as lovers. With curly hair ringing a puffy, pouty face, and large breasts on an otherwise boyish frame, Schneider telegraphed the try-anything spirit of a sexually swashbuckling age. That wasn't the image that Bertolucci had hoped to set against the rutting desperation of Paul, Brando's character. The director originally cast the blond, seraphic Dominique Sanda, who had illuminated his previous film, The Conformist, and who in Last Tango could represent a kind of modern virgin goddess, defiled and then deified by her goat lover. The idea was for Paul to drag Jeanne down sexually to his level not for him to dive into the lower depths and find her waiting for him.
But Sanda got pregnant (by Brando's old pal Christian Marquand), and Schneider, 20 at the time, won the job by the ease with which she disrobed at Bertolucci's request. Undressed, he said, "she became much more natural." Since Jeanne would be naked in much of the movie Brando too, but only metaphorically the director needed an actress who didn't feel violated every time she had to take her clothes off. A blasé exhibitionist, Schneider fit the bill. Now she had to convince the star she was worthy of spending a film with him. Taking Schneider to a bar, Brando said he wanted her not to talk, just stare at him as hard as she could. She managed the trick, and Schneider recalled, "From then on he was like a daddy." She said they never had sex, onscreen or off. Quoting Schneider from the TIME story: " 'He's almost 50, you know, and' she runs her hand down her torso to her midriff 'he's only beautiful to here.' "
The Paul-Jeanne affair begins in animal passion (they have sex within moments of meeting), blossoms in moments of erotic caprice ("That's your happiness," he says in their postcoital bliss, "and my hap-penis"), sours as they swap insults (she telling him he's old, he responding, "In 10 years you're gonna be playin' soccer with your tits") and reaches its brutal nadir in the sodomy scene. When Jeanne accepts her fiancé's proposal of marriage, Paul realizes that she means more to him than a vessel of anonymous sex. Suddenly he's all charm, gushing with details of his life ("I've got a prostate like an Idaho potato, but I'm still a good stickman ... Anyway, you dummy, I love you") and taking her on the last tango that will lead to his death. Her final words: "I don't know him ..."
An instant celebrity, Schneider got another big role in a 1975 film (The Passenger) by a major director (Michelangelo Antonioni) and with an American superstar (Jack Nicholson). But her wild, drug-addled life throttled her career. She walked off one film to enter a mental institution to be with her girlfriend of the moment, and in 1977 she was fired from Luis Buñuel's That Obscure Object of Desire; Buñuel puckishly replaced her with two actresses alternating in the same part. Bob Guccione offered Schneider the female lead in his 1979 porno-epic Caligula; she rejected it, saying she wanted to be known as an actress, not a sex performer.
"I'm much more free sexually than Bernardo or Brando," Schneider boasted during the Last Tango furor. Later, though, she bore both men grudges, saying that they "manipulated me, using me without thinking about me. I took years to forgive them." Nearly 40 years later, upon Schneider's death, Bertolucci made his mea culpa. "Maria accused me of robbing her of her youth, and only today I ask myself if she wasn't perhaps right," he told the Ansa news agency. "Her death arrived too soon, before I could re-embrace her tenderly and tell her that I still felt close to her, and ask her at least once for her forgiveness."
We do well to remember that, in the great movie revolution of the mid-'60s to mid-'70s, intimacy was in large part simple voyeurism, and an actress's first casualty was her modesty. Stripped naked, literally and often emotionally, she lived out the fantasies and compulsions of the man directing her. All actors are in a sense exhibitionists, parading themselves, costumed only by the characters they play; but the more private the parts they reveal, the more of their secret, vulnerable selves they expose. Some women, like Tura Satana, enjoy the attention; others, like Lena Nyman, take it in stride; still others, like Schneider, feel they're the victims of cinematic rape. All, though, whether eager volunteers or reluctant draftees, were soldiers in the battle for a free and mature movie culture. Schneider, Satana and Nyman deserve our respect for fighting in the vanguard, on the front lines, of a war over the movies that was won in the '60s and is largely forgotten today.