Maria Schneider, the female lead in two of my all-time favorite films, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) and Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975), died yesterday from cancer. This depresses me quite a bit, actually—Schneider was a tremendous actor who never really got the credit she deserved for her remarkable performances in each of those classic films. Anyone who can hold her own against Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson (and at such a young age, and in a second language, and in such difficult filming conditions) is obviously insanely talented. Roger Ebert, in his 2004 reconsideration of Last Tango, said it very well:
Schneider’s performance has been discounted over the years. This is said to be Brando’s film. “Both characters are enigmas,” I wrote in 1995, “but Brando knows Paul, while Schneider is only walking in Jeanne’s shoes.” Seeing the film again, I believe I was wrong. Schneider, who plays much of the film completely nude, who is held in closeup during long scenes of extraordinary complexity, who at 22 had hardly acted before, shares the film with Brando and meets him in the middle. What Hollywood actress of the time could have played Brando on his own field?
In 1995 I wrote: “He is in scenes as an actor, she is in scenes as a thing.” Wrong again. They are both in scenes as actors, but I was seeing her as a thing, fascinated by the disconnect between her adolescent immaturity and voluptuous body. I objectified her, but Paul does not, and neither does the movie. That he keeps his secrets, refuses intimacy, treats her roughly, is explained by the scene with the body of his wife, and perhaps by his own experience of sex.
Anyway. Schneider is now gone, and it’s a real loss. She was a kind of actor we don’t seem to have anymore: one so relaxed on-camera, so comfortable in her own body, so mysterious and yet so fully present at the same time. And she made it all look so effortless!
She was so great.