The NY Post headline screamed, “‘Tango’ Sex Bomb Dies.” A little blurb appeared underneath: “Maria Schneider, the French actress who was Marlon Brando’s young co-star in the steamy 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris,” has died, her talent agency said. She was 58.” Maria Schneider died after a lengthy battle with cancer.
A quiet funeral was held at Eglise Saint-Roch on February 10, 2011. Among friends in attendance were director Bertrand Blier, actresses Claudia Cardinale, Andrea Ferreol and Christine Boisson, writer Jean-Henri Servat, and actor Alain Delon. Maria’s partner, Pia, spoke at the memorial. “Ciao Bella, Ciao Maria,” she said, saluting her for bravery in the long illness that took her life. Pia and Maria had been together since 1980. Maria’s ashes were to be taken form Pere Lachaise crematorium to later be scattered at La Roche de Vierge in Biarritz.
Born in 1952, the daughter of French actor Daniel Gelin and Romanian-born Marie-Christine Schneider, who ran a bookstore in Paris, Schneider began her career in the movie “Les Femmes” in 1969, and continued to star in French films until 2008 when she retired for health reasons. It is for her role in the movie “Last Tango in Paris” that she is remembered. This role defined her in a way she never wanted.
“I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol,” revealed Schneider in 2007. “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.
In the film, Schneider plays Jeanne, a girl engaged to an annoying filmmaker, Tom, who goes to view an apartment in Paris. There she chances upon Paul (Marlon Brando), an American expatriate whose wife has committed suicide. They start a passionate affair. Paul insists they don’t even reveal their names.
There is ample opportunity throughout the movie to see Schneider’s luscious body, but the scene everyone remembers is when Brando puts Schneider face down on the apartment floor, lubricates her with butter and anally rapes her. “That scene wasn’t in the script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea,” she said. “Marlon said to me: ‘Maria, don’t worry, it’s just a movie,” but during the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears…I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci. After the scene, Marlon didn’t console me or apologize. Thankfully, there was just one take.”
Maria Schneider provided frank interviews in the wake of Tango’s controversy, claiming she had slept with 50 men and 20 women, that she was “bisexual completely,” and that she was a user of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.
In fact, bouts of mental instability, drug addiction and even a suicide attempt, prevented Schneider from moving ahead professionally. She also refused to let herself be typecast as a young sexpot ready to get naked on camera. “Never take your clothes off for a middle-aged man who claims that it’s for art,” she would later tell the Daily Mail.
In 1975, when Schneider was 23, she walked off the set of Rene Clement’s La Baby Sitter and signed herself into a Roman psychiatric hospital. Not for treatment, but simply to be with her inseparable companion of the past two years, American photographer, Joan (“Joey”) Townsend, 28, the daughter of ex-president of Avis, Robert Townsend, who also wrote the best-selling book, Up the Organization.
She later told film critic, Roger Ebert, that hers had been a gesture of support to a friend who was locked up at the facility. Townsend had been picked up at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport, babbling irrationally. On learning that her lover had been taken to a psychiatric hospital, Maria rushed to join her. “They locked her up, and so I had to do it out of loyalty,” Schneider explained. Paparazzi snapped them in various embraces.
One of these photos appeared in People. Sitting in a dingy airport in Alaska, waiting for the weather to break to depart, I was idly thumbing through the magazine when I flipped to the page with the photo of Schneider and Townsend looking out the window of the hospital. Townsend looked wild-eyed and distraught. Schneider had her head next to Townsend’s, and her arm was around her protectively. Her tousled, curly black hair was a contrast to Townsend’s blonde. I didn’t want people to see me staring, but I couldn’t stop looking at the photo. I pretended to keep reading, but kept going back to that page. I can’t remember what was written, except that Townsend was her lover, and that Schneider had ruined her prospects as an actress by going to her.
I did something I never do–I surreptitiously tore the page out of the magazine and stuffed it in my backpack.
I had obviously seen pictures of other lesbians by then, but nothing made a positive impact until that photo of Schneider holding her lover close and standing by her.
The 1970s were turbulent years for Schneider, marked by drugs and a suicide attempt. “I was lucky–I lost many friends to drugs–but I met someone in 1980 who helped me stop. I call this person my angel and we’ve been together ever since. I don’t say if it’s a man or woman. That’s my secret garden. I like to keep it a mystery. Garbo had the right idea.”
A month after the Schneider obituary appeared the documentary “Making the Boys” was released in New York City. That film was the other gay icon of my youth. Directed and produced by Crayton Robey, “Making the Boys”tells the story of the meteoric impact of “The Boys in the Band,” both the play and the 1970 William Friedkin film. Mart Crowley, the playwright and screen writer, was foundering in Hollywood before he “wrote what he knew” and became a voice for many gay men. The documentary paints a vivid portrait of the era when the closet was the norm. Footage of a CBS report on homosexuality shows Mike Wallace announcing that Americans consider homosexuality “more harmful to society than adultery, abortion or prostitution.”
“I felt Mart had been undervalued,” Robey said wistfully. “His play is a classic–a masterpiece. The revolution of the “Boys” has such a great history in terms of theater and in terms of visibility of homosexuals in mainstream culture, and the mainstream press introducing it to the masses and starting a conversation. His story should really come forward a bit.”
Mart Crowley was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1935. His early life was deeply rooted in the Catholic Church; he attended a Catholic high school, and went from there to The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, graduating in 1957.
He eventually landed a very coveted film job as a production assistant. He worked on such classics as “The Fugitive Kind” and “Butterfield 8” before becoming director Elia Kazan’s assistant on “Splendor in the Grass.” That’s when he met Natalie Wood, the film’s star, who became a close friend. She encouraged Crowley and introduced him to people who helped “Boys in the Band” come to fruition.
First staged on April 14, 1968 at the off-Broadway Theater Four, “Boys” played more than 1,000 performances before heading off to Los Angeles, where it won a Drama Critic’s Award in 1969, and then to London. The film was released in 1970.
Themes include coming out issues, passing for straight, the unrequited love for a straight friend, the man who leaves his wife when he finally accepts the truth about himself, and the “Christ, I was drunk last night” syndrome.
“The Boys in the Band” is set in an apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where a surprise birthday party is being held for a mutual friend. The host, Michael, is a Catholic with a major drinking and self-image problem. He is in psychoanalysis–to change or come to terms with himself. Other characters include Harold, the birthday boy, who is increasingly morose about the loss of his youth. One of his presents is “Cowboy,” a hunky but not very bright hustler. Donald, a friend, house guest and occasional bed partner of Michael is also conflicted about his homosexuality. He left the city to spurn the homosexual “lifestyle.” Larry and Hank are a couple with monogamy issues. Larry, a fashion photographer, tricks constantly, and Hank is in the process of getting a divorce from his wife. Bernard is an an African-American who still pines for the wealthy white boy in the house where his mother worked as a maid. Emory is a flamboyant queen.
Alan, a surprise guest, was Michael’s roommate at Georgetown. He calls Michael from a pay phone, upset, teary, and asks to see him. He was anxious to tell him something. What that something is we never find out. It could be his sadness about deciding to leave his wife. It could also be that he is questioning his own sexuality. Michael has kept in touch with another friend from Georgetown, Justin, who told him that he and Alan were deeply in love until Alan couldn’t take it, dumped Justin and married a woman. Michael is convinced that is what Alan was crying about on the phone.
Mart Crowley admits that his plays are autobiographical. In his introduction to “3 Plays by Mart Crowley,” he refers to “The Boys in the Band” and says, “There was never a real birthday party attended by nine actual men…However, just before I began to write the play, I had…attended a party for a friend’s birthday and it gave me the idea of how to frame what had already been on my mind…All of the characters are based on either people I either knew well or are amalgrams of several I’d known to varying degrees, plus a large order of myself thrown in the mix.”
Michael: Forgive him father, for he know not what he do.
Harold: Michael, you don’t know what side of the fence you’re on. Say something pro-religion, you’re against it. Deny god, you’re against that. One might say youhave some problem in that area. You can’t live with it, and you can’t live without it. You hang on to that great insurance policy called the Church.
Michael: That’s right, I believe in God. And if it turns out there isn’t one, okay, nothing’s lost. But if it turns out there is, I’m covered. I’m one of those truly rotten Catholics who gets drunk, sins all night, and then goes to mass then next morning.
Michael is the character with whom Crowley most strongly identifies. The witty, self-deprecating, and cynical Michael has also been the focus of detractors of the play. His most famous line, “You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse,” has been used to indict Crowley for promoting self-loathing and negative stereotypes.
Crowley has strongly defended his play. The play’s “self-deprecating humor was born out of a low self esteem, if you will, from a sense of what the times told you about yourself.” The movie came out as gay liberation was just getting going, and any kind of negative sterotyping was not welcome. “But that’s an awful standard to hold to art,” he said. “The curtain can’t just go up on two happy people in rocking chairs saying ‘I love you,’ and the other one saying, ‘No, I love you more,’ and then the curtain coming down! Very positive images are not what dramatic fare is all about.”
“The Boys in the Band” is an honest, funny, gripping, perceptive, and powerful portrait of gay life before Stonewallâ€”one that in many ways remains as true today as it was 43 years ago. “Some things don’t change,” said Crowley. “Not ever. I mean, coming out is hard, even today. Growing old is hard.”
I saw the “Boys in the Band” when I was a freshman at Trinity College, an all-women’s college right next door to Catholic University. I believe the screen was at Catholic University(!), but perhaps it was at a theater close by. I remember I waited all week to see it. I felt a rolling succession of emotions watching the film-most of all–and intense curiosity and a delicious fear of discovery. While I was dating guys at Georgetown, I was also aware my strongest feelings were around a friend at Trinity. What did this mean? On some level I probably knew, and went to see the movie to help me pierce through the walls I set up between who I was, and who I was expected to be. As the feelings got stronger, so did the sense of denial. I did not come out until well after college, two years after my marriage ended, and I was living independently. Like Hank, I finally decided to stop living as a straight person.
The line in the film that resonated the most as I watch the film was Harold’s good-bye to Michael at the end of the party: “You’re a sad and pathetic man. You’re a homosexual and you don’t want to be, but there’s nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you’ve got left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you’ll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die.”
These words chilled me. I was terrified. I had homosexual longings. I wanted to explore them, but I was afraid. I also knew that no matter how many boys I dated, or when I got married, or whatever life I lived, these feelings were a part of me and never go away. When the lights went on I left. I didn’t mention the movie to any of my friends.
In the end, Donald and Michael are left in the living room. Hank and Larry are making love in the bedroom, so Michael can’t go to bed. Donald starts to leave, but Michael breaks down and begs him to stay. Michael wants to walk to clear his head of all the booze he drank. Donald tells him he’s going to finish the brandy but he’ll be back next week. Michael heads out into the night. “…there’s a midnight mass at St. Malachy’s that all the show people go to. I think I’ll walk over there and catch it.” Donald raises his glass and says, “Well, pray for me.”
In the closing scene Michael laments: â€œIf only we didnâ€™t hate ourselves so muchâ€¦if only we could just not hate ourselves quite so very muchâ€¦”
How could we grow up and not have avoided the miasma of anti-homosexual rhetoric, and the brutality and self-hatred that provoked? Family, friends, church, society, media and the arts were the endless source of queer jokes, put-downs and threats. Village Voice columnist Michael Musto reminds us, “Gays were not portrayed in movies generally, unless they were horrible victims or horrible perpetrators of crimes.” Being homosexual in that horrible environment was a terrible fate.
“The Boys in the Band” and Maria Schneider changed how I looked at homosexuals–and ultimately myself. They offered me the first opportunity to see people struggling in their attraction to a friend; who were bonded together in their same-sex attraction, who made a life for themselves as best they could, and took the world on for love.