It was, said critic Pauline Kael, perhaps the most important artistic event since the first performance of Stravinsky's "The Rites of Spring." She was referring to the 1973 premiere of "Last Tango in Paris," a film by Bernardo Bertolucci which dealt in explicit detail with a brief affair between a middle-aged man and a girl barely out of her teens. The man was Marlon Brando, long acknowledged as the finest screen actor of his generation. The girl was Maria Schneider, a 20-year-old with an innocent face, a woman's body and an electrifying presence.
Most of the film involved just two actors, and Schneider held her own with Brando in a stunning confrontation with sex and death. It was an astonishing performance. Maria Schneider quickly became the favorite "bad girl" of the movie press. She gave shocking interviews, she walked off a movie set and had herself committed to an asylum with the woman she described as her lover, she seemed to be surrounded by scandal. And then she made a film with another of Europe's top directors, Michelangelo Antonioni, and another major star, Jack Nicholson. The film was "The Passenger," and this time her screen image was altogether different: She was quiet, intelligent, even sweet.
Then Schneider dropped from view. She moved to America; signed with Paul Kohner (the legendary agent who represents Ingmar Bergman, Liv Ullmann and many other Europeans), turned down several big film offers, and moved into a house in the Hollywood hills. This interview, conducted in Kohner's office, is her first in the United States. She wore faded denims, smoked frequently, looked thinner and more intriguing than in "Tango," and seemed ready to revise her European image.
Q. Why California?
A. The main thing was the space. It was getting hard to breathe in Europe - it's too compact, too compressed. I lived in France about three years, traveling around a lot, and then I tried London, and about six months ago I settled on here.
Q. Americans have a thing about Southern California....
A. So do I. It's hard to talk to the people here. They're very shallow. All they talk about is their look, their hair and their screwing. But I love to act, and here is the place to come for the movies.
Q. Paul Kohner said you were reading a screenplay based on The Story of an African Farm.
A. Yes. It's a wonderful story. It's about a girl growing up in South Africa a century ago, and finding herself, and learning how to rely on herself. The story's so good, I want to make the film. I've had offers for a lot more money, but this project is by a director who's young and ready and wrote the screenplay himself. He'll care more than someone who was just paid to direct a story...and it's a good role for a woman. In most movies these days, women are just decoration. I'll never be that.
Q. So far you've been in two movies with two top directors, Bertolucci and Antonioni...
A. Six movies. Nobody knows, but I did six movies before "Last Tango in Paris." I don't think any of them ever played here. One was directed by Roger Vadim, after he made "Pretty Maids All in a Row." And I did some theater, and a couple of underground French movies. I walked out on one of them when I wasn't paid. I fought with the director, went back to Paris, and met Bertolucci. He offered me the role in "Tango."
Dominique Sanda was going to do it, but she got pregnant.
Q. And you got a sort of immortality, because the movie's already a landmark.
A. So much of that was because of Brando. He was wonderful to work with, for an actor like myself who was still beginning. He had just finished "The Godfather," and now this was also part of his comeback, and you'd think he'd want the advantage in all of the scenes. Actors always try to look their best. But he gave me the advantage, the material to work with. And he was brilliant when we improvised...the bathroom scene was improvised.
Q. And Bertolucci?
A. He's a great director, but...well, I was 20 when I did "Tango." Bertolucci made me wear very heavy black makeup under my eyes. Makeup on a girl who's too young gives her the wrong character, gives her a funny look. I argued with him, but with no luck. I don't know who he thought I was supposed to be. Marlon was such a good force on the picture. We were working like dogs with an Italian crew, filming in Paris, overtime and all that, and two crew members came down with stomach ulcers. And Marlon was the one - not Bertolucci, who goes on about being a member of the Italian Communist party - but Marlon was the one who brought sandwiches and wine for the crew and worried about them.
Q. After the film was released you were suddenly famous - or infamous - all over the world.
A. And Marlon told me about that, too. He was the first to tell me about the bad parts of fame. How the press can seize on everything and make it as sensational as they can. And there the European press is worse than the American. I think they'll print anything.
Q. There were some amazing quotes attributed to you.
A. I think I said a lot of them. After "Tango" came out, I amused myself at interviews by saying scandalous things, thinking they were funny. I talked about going out with men, women, I sounded promiscuous, I took it all as a joke. I see now it wasn't funny....
Q. And then you went to Antonioni....
A. For "The Passenger." It's an interesting thing about that film. It did better in America than it did in Europe. And Antonioni is supposed to be a star in Europe. I'm glad the Americans could watch something slower and more thoughtful for a change, instead of all the violence and crime. Still, I think Michelangelo has a problem with his English. He doesn't speak it very well, and I think some of the dialog in "The Passenger," which was supposed to sound real, sounded falsely poetic. Like when Jack Nicholson says, "What the hell are you doing here with me?" And I say, "Which me?" You see how wrong that sounds? And in another scene he says, "I met you before - you were reading" And I say, "That must have been me." Terrible!
Q. Are you looking at scripts from American directors now?
A. I'm looking at all kinds of scripts. Most of them are no good. Hardly any of them have interesting female roles.
Q. Paul Kohner was thinking out loud about the idea of a movie of Hemingway's Across the River and into the Trees, which would be directed by John Huston and might star Robert Mitchum as the old colonel and you as the young contessa....
A. And be shot in Venice. I'd love to work in Venice. I lived there for a while. The light and the silence and all around the sound of the footsteps. You know, I saw Mitchum just last night in "Farewell, My Lovely." It stayed in my mind all night. I loved Jack Nicholson playing the detective in "Chinatown," but I much preferred this detective by Mitchum. What do you think of the...the chemistry if Mitchum and I were to be together?
A. (Laughs) And yet, you know, I always act with these men like Brando and Nicholson, who are much older than me. I wouldn't be with a man that age in my own life. And I think there'd be a problem in filming in Venice, too.
Q. The canals?
A. No, the insurance. You know, I have a problem in Italy since my last film with the companies that insure a film. I signed myself into an asylum for a friend of mine. They locked her up, and so I had to do it out of loyalty.
Q. That was in all the papers here.
A. And all the papers everywhere. But they never printed that I finished the movie.
Q. You did? I got the impression it was closed down.
A. Oh, yes, I finished it. It was called "The Baby Sitter," it's a thriller by Rene Clement, who did "Forbidden Games." It's a good thriller, well made, nothing poetic about it. They took away two-thirds of my salary to keep the insurance people happy. The producer was Carlo Ponti. He'll come out ahead any way he can. When Clement wanted me for the movie, he wanted me to play the role that was negative. There were two girls in the movie, and one was perverse and destroyed, and of course that was the one he wanted me for. But Antonioni showed him "The Passenger," and then I got the other role. He only knew me from "Tango." God knows what people think I really look like and act like!
Q. After "The Baby Sitter," did you split for Hollywood?
A. More or less. I was supposed to make a movie in Paris with Jean-Luc Godard. You know, he works in eight millimeter now. He gave a brilliant press conference about it in Cannes. He explained to me that the actor would put up $40,000, and he would put up $40,000, and then we would make the movie together. I would have, too, but I didn't have $40,000. And I still don't.
Q. But "Tango" made millions and millions...
A. Ha! You know what I was paid? Five thousand dollars! That's all. I didn't even get a percentage of all those profits. Jack Nicholson told me that after "Easy Rider" made so much money, they gave him something more in addition to the little he made in the first place. But no Italian producer would ever do that. I'm glad I've got Paul as my agent. He'll look after things like that. I'm no good with money. Working on my own, I constantly got ripped off. I just can't handle money.
Q. How'd you meet Kohner?
A. I walked in off the street. I'd heard he was the top agent. My doctor was in the building next door. I came out from his office, saw Paul's sign, and introduced myself at the switchboard. "Who are you?" they asked. I said I was an actress who wanted him to represent me. They asked what credits I had - they thought l was a nut off the street. I said I'd worked with Bertolucci and Antonioni. They didn't believe me. Finally one person in the office did recognize me. I look a little different now, I'm thinner, I'm 23, I wasn't wearing makeup.
Q. Kohner seems sort of paternal toward you, protective.
A. Well, I don't need too much protection. I live a simple life. And Paul tells me, let's wait for the right role. People get lazy doing whatever is given to them. I'd rather wait and go broke than be forced to do a bad movie for money. Paul has Charles Bronson and Ingmar Bergman among his clients. He says, we can go big, like Bronson, or small, like Bergman. I'd rather go small.
Q. And in the meantime you're keeping life uncomplicated?
A. That's right. I don't own anything. Well, I own a pickup truck. I don't have any maids or answering services or any of those things. I spend my money on food and travel and cameras. I live in Laurel Canyon with some friends, including some writers. None of my friends are actors or directors or Hollywood types.
I'm not interested in that crowd. And I'll just hold out and look for a decent role for a woman. "The Story of an African Farm" looks about the best.
Q. What else is around?
A. Paramount wants me to do "Black Sunday," which is about terrorists, and I play a Palestinian guerrilla. That's their idea of a woman's role. But things are changing. Most of the members of my generation are gay, or bisexual, they have more open minds about sexuality, about what a woman's role can be, or what the potentials are.
Q. Did you say most of your generation?
A. Most of my friends, anyway. Or maybe it's just California.