“Last Tango in Paris” is a tragedy that grows more tragic with age. Though people who’ve never seen it associate with its graphic sex scenes, it is much more about grief than eroticism. It is an uncomfortable film to watch in the first place, revisiting upon the deaths of its creators makes it even more so. When Marlon Brando died in 2004, I rewatched it and now that Brando’s co-star, Maria Schneider, died earlier this week at the age of 58 of an undisclosed illness, I revisited the film again.
As every single obituary written about Schneider will tell you, she was just 19 when she was cast by Bernardo Bertolucci to co-star in “Last Tango” with Brando. She played Jeanne, a young woman engaged to a film director. Apartment hunting in Paris, she finds a place and discovers Brando’s Paul sitting inside. His wife has just committed suicide and he’s looking for a new home himself. They talk for the first time in the apartment, but they’ve already met twice and not realized it. She passes him on the street, and soon after uses a telephone booth after Paul without noticing him. It’s as if fate is pushing these two people together towards a common destiny.
“Last Tango” is available on Netflix Watch Instantly. When I heard the news of Schneider’s death, I turned it on, looking more closely at Schneider’s performance than I had before. She does a good job in what must have been nearly impossible circumstances. I like Roger Ebert’s reassessment of his own initially negative perception of Schneider’s performance in his “Great Movies” essay about “Last Tango:”
“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?”
Absolutely correct. To dismiss Maria Schneider because she’s not as good as Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris,” is like dismissing Dwayne Wade’s role on the Miami Heat because he’s not as good a basketball player as his teammate LeBron James. Schneider was held to an unfair and impossible standard, and as a result got a raw deal that was never fully rectified in her lifetime.
You can read quotes from Schneider about making the movie; the ones on her Wikipedia page suggest that she enjoyed the early attention the film brought her, as any 19-year-old suddenly thrust in the spotlight probably would. But later, Schneider realized that no matter what she did in life she would be forever followed by the things she had done and shown in “Last Tango.” Reuters’ obituary quotes an interview Schneider gave in 2007 with The Daily Mail, when she said “I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol — I wanted to be recognized as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown.”
Schneider’s IMDb page indicates she worked pretty steadily through the 1980s and 1990s. But apart from her role opposite Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s “The Passenger” — a film that’s only gotten its due in the last decade — nothing came close to replacing the image “Last Tango” left in people’s mind. It’s a sad story that makes a tragic film even sadder.