The word that Maria Schneider died Thursday in Paris at the age of 58 resonates with baby boomers. For them she was a pivotal sexual icon of their youth. In 1973, Schneider was the next big thing. The wildest of wild childs who embraced the sexual revolution with open arms. She was the female lead opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci's X-rated "Last Tango in Paris." Schneider was so overtly sexual she made Brigitte Bardot look like a nun.
The film made the cover of major magazines for its nudity and frank and often violent sexual scenes between Brando, who earned an Oscar nomination, and the then 20-year-old Schneider. No one looked at a stick of butter quite the same way after one classic scene.
Brando played a recent American widower whose wife had committed suicide; Schneider was the carefree Parisian engaged to marry a pompous young filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Leaud). Brando's Paul and Schneider's Jeanne meet at an apartment for rent, have a quick sexual encounter and decide to meet there again for anonymous encounters -- they know nothing about each other, including each other's name.
The camera loved Schneider, as did most of the male audience members who went to the hit film, but she wasn't the first choice for the role -- Dominique Sanda was supposed to play the part but had to drop out when she got pregnant.
Schneider next showed up opposite Jack Nicholson in "The Passenger," directed by Michelangelo Antonioni in 1975. But her career languished shortly afterward.
Schneider, who was the illegitimate daughter of French actor Daniel Gelin ("The Man Who Knew Too Much"), had a turbulent life, as did her father, who had battled alcohol and drugs.
A bisexual who came out in 1974, she left the film set of "Caligula" in Rome in 1976 with a woman she said was her lover and checked herself into a mental hospital. She made headlines because of her drug and alcohol problems and suicide attempts during that decade, but apparently turned her life around in the 1980s.
She continued to work but rarely did her films show up in the U.S. One of the few exceptions was the 1996 version of "Jane Eyre." But looking far older than her years, it was hard to believe it was the same actress who had played Jeanne two decades before.
-- Susan King
Photo: Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider in "Last Tango in Paris." Credit: Associated Press