French actress Maria Schneider, best known for her roles opposite Marlon Brandon in Last Tango In Paris and Jack Nicholson in The Passenger, has died after a long illness. She was 58.
Schneider was only 19 when Bernardo Bertolucci cast her as the young Parisian woman who embarks on a tawdry, anonymous affair with Brando’s middle-aged widower—an entirely sexual relationship that is at turns sensual and violent, and certainly most famous for a scene involving a stick of butter. Upon its release, it caused an immediate scandal: The Italian Supreme Court ordered that all copies be destroyed, while Bertolucci was put on trial for obscenity, given a suspended jail sentence, and had his civil rights revoked for five years. But the effect on Schneider was lifelong, as she later told The Daily Mail, saying that she “felt a little raped” by both Brando and Bertolucci—particularly for the notorious “butter scene,” which Brando had improvised. (Schneider added that she was never able to cook with butter again.) The attention that the film received made her the subject of scurrilous tabloid gossip, pushed her into drugs and several suicide attempts, and despite numerous offers, Schneider swore to never take another film with a nude scene.
Despite her vow, Schneider did star in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, which called for a nude scene, albeit one in a long shot. In it she once again stars as an anonymous young woman—known only as “The Girl”—who becomes romantically entangled with Jack Nicholson’s TV reporter, who’s living under an assumed identity. The film was more or less “lost” until its revival on DVD in 2006.
Schneider’s 1970s nervous breakdown more or less killed the momentum of her acting career, leaving her to star primarily in low-budget films Memoirs Of A French Whore, Mother Dracula, and A Woman Like Eve. She was cast as Drusilla in 1976’s Caligula but abandoned the film, both after refusing to do nudity and to check herself into a mental hospital with her lover, photographer Joan Townsend. By the 1980s, Schneider was balanced and drug-free, and was soon starring in films like Merry-Go-Round and In The Country Of Juliets. She returned to controversy once more with a role in 1992’s Les Nuits Fauves (Savage Nights), a film in which an HIV-positive man has reckless sexual encounters with nearly every man and woman he meets. In 1996, Schneider played the mentally ill wife to William Hurt’s Mr. Rochester in Franco Zeffirelli’s adaptation of Jane Eyre. Her last role was in 2008’s Cliente—a film about a man leading a double life as a male prostitute.