For ‘Last Tango’ Actress, the Ugly Aftermath of Notoriety

MY COUSIN MARIA SCHNEIDER: A Memoir, by Vanessa Schneider. Translated by Molly Ringwald.

For many actresses, the path of the ingénue can be treacherous. Celebrated for her beauty and youth, the ingénue is defined almost exclusively by her sexuality. An outsize amount of attention is paid to her looks and her body, little interest to her mind. As she grows older, opportunities diminish. Forced to act younger than her age and compete with newer faces, she eventually discovers that her career has hit a dead end. Among the long list of cautionary tales: Jean Seberg, the darling of French New Wave cinema, who died by suicide at the age of 40; Debra Winger, who shocked Hollywood by retiring at the height of her fame at 40; and, of course, the French actress Maria Schneider.

Schneider was only 20 years old when she catapulted to fame after starring opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris.” In its most notorious scene, Brando, who plays a grief-stricken man named Paul, rapes Schneider, who plays a young woman named Jeanne, improvising with butter as a lubricant. Bertolucci and Brando conspired to film the scene, which Schneider claimed wasn’t in the original script, without her consent. Bertolucci later explained his reason for that decision as wanting Schneider “to respond like a girl, not an actress.”

Because of its violence and frank treatment of sex, the film was a sensation, confirming Bertolucci’s status as a provocative filmmaker and cementing the comeback of Brando, who for some time had been seen as a Hollywood has-been.

For Schneider, it was her “cross to bear,” writes the French journalist and novelist Vanessa Schneider in “My Cousin Maria Schneider,” a slender memoir composed in second person, directly addressed to the actress and elegantly translated from the French by Molly Ringwald. The book, first published in 2018 in France, is both a beautiful eulogy (Schneider died of lungcancer in 2011) and a much-needed corrective — an opportunity to finally set the record straight for an actress long mischaracterized and unfairly judged.

The “Last Tango” scene would define Schneider for the rest of her life, explains Vanessa Schneider. Subjected to unrelenting negative publicity and attention surrounding it (a dairy manufacturer once used Schneider’s image on its packaging; a flight attendant served her a pat of butter without prompting), Schneider acted out. She spoke too candidly to the press about her personal life; she dismissed famous directors and actors; she walked off film sets.

That Schneider was also addicted to heroin didn’t help, and Vanessa Schneider wonders if the drugs and partying were ways to avoid the spotlight so instantly thrust on the young actress.

Growing up, Maria Schneider was unwanted. Her father, the French actor Daniel Gélin, was not involved in her childhood, and her mother, Marie-Christine Schneider, sent Schneider to live with a nursemaid when she was 8. Her mother’s “sex life was never a secret,” writes Vanessa Schneider. “A story often told … is of the time your mother was in bed with a man and called out for you to fetch her diaphragm.” She also reveals that Schneider’s mother “elected not to take the trip from Nice to Paris” for her daughter’s funeral, “saying she was too tired.”

Vanessa Schneider’s parents took in Maria as a teenager. From an early age, Vanessa worshiped her older cousin, saving every clipping of her from magazines and newspapers in a red plastic binder. As a result, this memoir is written with a rare sense of intimacy and devotion. It warmly captures the highlights of Maria Schneider’s life: her enduring friendships with Brigitte Bardot and Nan Goldin, her pride in starring in films such as Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” and her later advocacy for women in film.

It is also, at moments, unsparing, describing Schneider’s struggles with addiction, financial woes and other embarrassing family drama. At one point Vanessa Schneider questions whether her cousin would like such an unvarnished portrayal of her life, and deletes what she’s written. “I often worry that you won’t approve of the story I’m telling, Maria,” she explains. “You won’t like that I’m speaking of the drugs, of your mother and father and brothers.”

Yet in this post-#MeToo era, Vanessa Schneider’s evenhanded portrayal of this daring actress of the 1970s is a refreshing one. For once, a young woman is not placed on an impossibly high pedestal, where she is unfairly worshiped for her beauty and then cruelly defiled for our entertainment. Instead, Maria Schneider is presented with both her faults and her charms. In that way, this is a generous account of a rare and complicated cinematic star.

Thessaly La Force is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New York Times Styles section. Previously, she was the features director at T: The New York Times Magazine.

MY COUSIN MARIA SCHNEIDER: A Memoir | By Vanessa Schneider | Translated by Molly Ringwald | 160 pp. | Scribner | $26

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