Tuesday, April 8

Romy Schneider

I have never much cared for foreign language films because I don't want to take my eyes off beautiful faces to do all that reading.  But in 1958 I was taken by a neighbor to the local art house to see Christine, a French-language film starring Romy Schneider and soon-to-be boyfriend Alain Delon.  It was my first experience with foreign language films and I formed an immediate dislike, much to my neighbor's chagrin.  But I could not take my eyes off Schneider or Delon, so beautiful were they.

While I have said no-no to foreign-language films (there are a few exceptions), I have long said yes-yes to foreign actresses, particularly European.  At the same time few of them in the old days did American films.  Schneider was no exception so I've never seen her as often as I would have liked, but she had no trouble getting in there with my coterie of treasured foreign actresses.

She came to acting quite naturally.  It seems like her whole tribe was actors.  Mama Magna Schneider had achieved acting fame in Europe and would work with her beautiful daughter numerous times.  Romy was born in 1938 Vienna although she would eventually obtain German and French citizenship as well and would consider France her home.

She always impressed me as one who was quite passionate and somewhat restless.  I am presuming she was thrown into an adult world early on and enjoyed a too-soon freedom.  She had many relationships with men, most of which hit the papers because of the beautiful men she chose and because of the way most of the relationships ended.  She was also as ambitious as her boyfriends, if not more so, and was likely pretty hard to pin down as the average hausfrau.   She looked as delicious as a piece of Viennese sachertorte.

She was only 15 when she made her first film in Germany.  Her early career seemed to be dominated by playing royalty, most especially young Austrian Princess Elizabeth, known as Sissi, in a series of immensely popular films.  While still a teenager and as a result of working in Germany so steadily, she came to know handsome German actor, Horst Buchholz, with whom she soon became engaged.  She certainly had better luck with two early fiances than she did with two husbands, Buchholz being the first and Delon the second.  The second supplanted the first after they got hot and heavy making Christine.

The second film I saw her in was the just-too-European Boccaccio 70 (1962), consisting of four segments directed by different directors, which amounted to nothing close to what they expected, despite featuring two of Europe's voluptuaries, Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg.

Also making it to American shores the same year was The Trial.  Despite being directed by Orson Welles and starring him along with Tony Perkins, Jeanne Moreau and Elsa Martinelli, it was weirdly about a man standing trial while being unaware of his crime.  Say what?  Suffice it to say, if you missed it, be very happy.  Welles ran out of money making it and if the plot isn't wacky enough, let's consider the patchwork to get it ready for release.

The following year she appeared in a good war film, The Victors.  She and Moreau and Melina Mercouri, Elke Sommer, Senta Berger and Rossana Schiaffino were the various women who encountered American GIs in Europe.  Also in '63 was Otto Preminger's The Cardinal, which I quite liked despite not being Catholic and the film being over-long and heavy-handed.  She did a good job in a small role although she fought with director Otto Preminger.

With her undisputed great love, Alain Delon

In 1964, Alain Delon called off the romance (although they would remain lifelong friends).  She was in despair after the breakup.  Always high-strung and haughty on movie sets, she could be a terror.  There is little doubt, however, that she completely charmed the public, of which I am one.  Soon after the Delon breakup, she impetuously married German actor-director Henry Meyen and they had one son.  Their marriage, while tempestuous, lasted nine years.  The same year she was divorced, she married her personal secretary with whom she had a daughter. 

In 1964 she made her first movie in America, Good Neighbor Sam.  It was a comedy about a woman who asks her married nextdoor neighbor, Jack Lemmon, to pose as her husband so she can inherit a fortune.  It was no great shakes but it did introduce a beautiful and talented (she always had a great flair for comedy) actress to wider U.S. audiences.

To those same audiences, she became even more noticeable in another 1964 comedy, What's New, Pussycat?  Tom Jones' title song helped keep the film in the news.  Schneider forms a quartet of actresses with Capucine, Paula Prentiss and Ursula Andress in making life perplexing for Peter Sellers, Peter O'Toole and Woody Allen, the latter of whom wrote the zany piece.  The romance of Schneider and O'Toole was at the center of the plot.

10:30 P.M. Summer (1966), costarring Mercouri and Peter Finch as a married couple on vacation with a woman friend posed just the problems you might imagine.  I quite liked the feel of the whole thing, though it wasn't a great success.  The same year she was utterly watchable as Christopher Plummer's lover in Triple Cross, a spy story, also not as successful as hoped for.

Ludwig (1972), the story of the bisexual Bavarian king, was interesting to me.  The gay subtext trumped the foreign-language feature.  With a dynamite cast headed by Helmut Berger, Trevor Howard and Silvana Mangano, Schneider had a small role, again playing Austria's Princess Elizabeth.

The last time I would see her in the movies was in 1979's Bloodline, the story of the murder of a pharmaceuticals heir.  It was much-maligned and not successful despite a cast headed by Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, James Mason, Irene Pappas and Omar Sharif.  I loved it.

She would go on to make more European movies and win a couple of France's César awards as best actress, the equivalent to the Oscar.  Always passionate about her work,
she said she never felt whole if she wasn't busy doing it.  I have always had the feeling that because of my attitude about foreign-language films (and the general unavailability of them back then), I likely missed her best work.

Tragedy struck in 1981 when her 14-year old son died after being impaled on a gate.  It is a loss from which Schneider never recovered.  Despite having a daughter to raise, Schneider engaged in drugs and alcohol excessively and friends became worried.  Pal Simone Signoret got her to accept an assignment but the fire in Schneider had been extinguished. 

Her death in her Paris apartment in the spring of 1982 remains a mystery.  It was originally thought she committed suicide from a lethal dose of drugs and booze.  That was later amended to a heart attack but the doubts and the mystery remain.

Years after her death, Germany, who would always claim Schneider as one of its own, honored her by putting her face on a stamp.

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1 comment:

  1. Did you know the translation on her stamp reads, "For her social welfare work?"
    Bitte schoen...