Actress rails against industry's treatment of women

Name: Maria Schneider

Description: The feisty filly from “Last Tango in Paris” who has 49 films under her belt and a sharp sensibility above the neck

Last Seen: Being honored recently at the world’s biggest Intl. Women’s Film Fest

PARIS — If Bernardo Bertolucci had fulfilled his initial plan to make the twice Oscar-nommed “Last Tango in Paris,” Maria Schneider would not have burst so indelibly onto so many screens in the early ’70s.

“The director told me that the original idea concerned two guys,” says Schneider. “Now that would have been a cinematic breakthrough for the time!”

With a charming accent and a well-endowed figure — screen partner Marlon Brando famously warned her character that she’d be pendulously “playing soccer” someday — Schneider proved the perfect female lead for “Tango,” whose impact at the 1972 New York Film Festival Pauline Kael compared with the notorious 1913 debut of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.”

So far, gravity has been kinder to Schneider than to Brando.

Trim and fit, the actress just turned 49, having coincidentally appeared in the same number of films.

“It’s not so many, really, in a 30-year career,” muses Schneider, the guest of honor in late March at the 23rd Intl. Women’s Film Festival in the Paris suburb of Creteil.

Despite a lengthy, eclectic filmography marbled with famous names on both sides of the camera, Schneider remains best remembered for “Tango” and for Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (aka “Profession: Reporter”).

“It’s Jack Nicholson’s only European film, and Jack bought the rights. He rarely permits it to be shown, but he made an exception for this event,” says Schneider of the 1975 pic.

“I find most of ‘Last Tango’ outdated now,” Schneider tells Variety, “but ‘The Passenger’ is still so timeless and eternally modern. I find Jack’s performance magnificent, because he’s sober and understated.”

Two years later, Luis Bunuel cast her in his final film, “That Obscure Object of Desire,” only to fire her after one day, replacing her with two actresses, Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina.

Schneider lucidly owns up to old talk of drug use. “I lost seven years of my life to drugs,” she states, her gamine feistiness having given way to a survivor’s gritty charm.

Although Schneider — the illegitimate daughter of vet French thesp Daniel Gelin and a Romanian mother who worked in publishing — loves movies in general and life on a film set in particular (“It’s a pyramid of society at large”), she rails against the entertainment industry’s treatment of women.

“Why do actors get magnificent second careers after 40 and actresses don’t?” asks Schneider, who recalls going to see the woman who runs La Roue Tourne, a charitable organization that helps actors down on their luck.

” ‘But Maria, my dear, we’ve always been here to help! You’re old now — you’re 40,’ ” Schneider remembers being told.

These days, Schneider is a sort of ambassador for the org.

“This association paid Marcel Carne’s rent for the last 10 years of his life, and they did the same for Abel Gance,” she says.

Schneider, who speaks French, Italian and English, and has acted in all three lingos — “and even a little bit in Arabic” — is disappointed in the filmmaking process these days in France.

“You can’t get a movie financed until a TV channel has bought into it first,” Schneider notes, adding that the practice is diluting the artistic vision of French filmmakers.

Schneider considers herself an “artisan” of screen acting, somebody who learned her craft on the job and is more accomplished than ever.

“My present state of mind in my former body wouldn’t be a bad combination,” she adds, with a self-aware laugh.

Last year, she grabbed attention via a brief but memorable monologue in Bertrand Blier’s maligned tour-de-force “Actors.” This month, Schneider will play Isabelle Adjani’s sister in Laetitia Masson’s “La Repentie.”After that, Schneider allows, her dance card is open.

“I’m fatalistic,” the actress says. “I rely on the mystical process of chance meetings and crucial encounters.”

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