Romy Schneider



Romy Schneider photo
The life of the Austrian born actress Romy Schneider is a bewildering mix of fairytale and Greek tragedy. One of the most photogenic and gifted actors of her generation, she brought grace and charm to every one of the films she appeared in and she worked with some of the finest film directors of her time. More than three decades after her death, she continues to have an immense popular appeal, loved and respected by film enthusiasts across the world, particularly in France, her adopted country, and her native Austria. Yet, blessed as she was in her professional career, her personal life was marked by a succession of private tragedies that cut short her life and robbed cinema of one of its finest artistes. The life of Romy Schneider is a narrative that no screenwriter could ever have conceived, one in which no one other than Romy could have played the leading role.

Romy's career was mapped out for her from childhood. She was born Rosemarie Magdalena Albach, on 23rd September 1938, to a couple who were established actors living in Vienna. After her parents' divorce in 1945, Romy was brought up by her mother, Magda Schneider, and her younger brother, Wolfgang. As a girl, she wanted to be an illustrator of children's books but she also dreamed of being an actress. She made her film début in 1953 in Wenn der weiße Flieder wieder blüht, cast as the daughter of the main character who was played by her mother Magda. Two years later she was given the role that would instantly make her a star in Austria and Germany - the young Empress Elisabeth of Austria - in the 1955 film Sissi.

After playing Sissi in two subsequent sequels, Romy became nauseated by the saccharine "nice girl" image she had created for herself and was keen to make a fresh start. Her chance came in 1957 when Paramount Studios offered her a three year contract, but her family intervened and thwarted what promised to be a successful career in America. Fortunately, fate gave Romy a second chance of escape, via Pierre Gaspard-Huit's 1958 lavish costume drama, Christine, in which she starred opposite another young actor whose star was very much in the ascendant, Alain Delon. It was the beginning of Romy Schneider's successful film career in France.

In the course of making Christine, its two stars could not help falling in love and their very public engagement was announced not long afterwards. Although the couple lived together for five years, they never married. Delon had been having an affair with another woman, Nathalie Barthélemy, whom he chose to marry when he learned she was pregnant with his child. For Romy, it was a painful separation (Delon couldn't even bring himself to face her at their parting; he just left her a note saying goodbye), but she found solace in her work. The two actors later renewed their friendship and remained on good terms, with Delon offering both moral and financial support during Romy's periods of crisis.

Romy's international exposure was helped through her appearance in Luchino Visconti's segment (Il lavoro) of the 1962 anthology film Boccacio '70. The actress worked again with Visconti on his historical magnum opus Ludwig (1972), where she once again played the Empress Elisabeth of Austria, but in a very different vein to that of the earlier Sissi films of the 1950s. Another iconic film director, Orson Welles, was keen to avail himself of her talents and gave her a prominent role in his 1963 film Le Procès, a bold and inspired adaptation of Franz Kafka's novel The Trial.

Drawn to Hollywood in the early 1960s, Romy Schneider worked with some distinguished American directors and actors, on such film as Otto Preminger's The Cardinal (1963), David Swift's Good Neighbor Sam (1964) and Clive Donner's What's New, Pussycat? (1965). Ill at ease with the American way of making films, Romy terminated her contract with Columbia Pictures and returned to France, whereupon she was given a starring role in H.G. Clouzot's L'Enfer alongside Serge Reggiani. What drew her to this film was the prospect that it had the potential to radically change her screen persona, but the film was aborted midway through production when the director suffered a heart attack.

The following spring, Romy met the actor and theatre director Harry Meyen. When they married in 1966 Romy was five months pregnant and she gave birth to her first child, David Meyen, in December of that year. The previous month had seen the release of Jean Chapot's La Voleuse, in which Romy had played a woman who ruthlessly claimed back the child she had given up for adoption. This was the first film in which she appeared alongside Michel Piccoli, who remained one of her closest and most loyal friends for the rest of her life.

For the next three years, Romy Schneider was content to play the part of mother and wife at her home in Grünewald. She was persuaded to resume her acting career when Jacques Deray invited her to star with Alain Delon in his next film, the stylish psychological thriller La Piscine (1969). The same year, she appeared in Claude Sautet's Les Choses de la vie, playing Michel Piccoli's wife for a second time. Sautet was so taken with Romy Schneider that he gave her substantial roles in four subsequent films: Max et les ferrailleurs (1971), César et Rosalie (1972), Mado (1976) and Une histoire simple (1978). It was for her arresting portrayal of an independently minded woman in the latter film that Romy received her second César in 1979.

The film that won Romy her first César was Andrzej Zulawski's controversial L'Important c'est d'aimer (1975), in which she played a failed actress reduced to working on tacky exploitation movies. Before this she had lent her talents to some noteworthy films by some distinguished auteur filmmakers. In Joseph Losey's The Assassination of Trotsky (1972) she appeared with Alain Delon for the last time. In Michel Deville's Le Mouton enragé (1974) she had a small but memorable part opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant. And in Francis Girod's black comedy Le Trio infernal (1974) she assisted Michel Piccoli with some nasty acid bath murders. Robert Enrico's hard-hitting wartime drama Le Vieux fusil (1975) and Claude Chabrol's Les Innocents aux mains sale (1975) also made good use of her talents.

Romy Schneider was also an outspoken defender of women's rights. In an edition of the German magazine Stern in 1970, she added her name to a list of a hundred women who claimed to have terminated a pregnancy and who demanded that abortion be made legal.

The 1970s gave the actress some of her best career opportunities, but it also brought with it the first of the tragic blows that would ultimately drive her to an early grave. In 1972, she parted from her husband Harry Meyen on bad terms and had to surrender half of her personal fortune to him in a divorce settlement so that she could retain custody of their son. Then, in 1976, not long after marrying her second husband, Daniel Biasini, a car accident resulted in her having a miscarriage. By now, Romy was becoming increasingly dependent on drugs, cigarettes and medication, with the result that her health was in a serious state of decline. April 1979 brought with it the shock revelation that Harry Meyen had hanged himself. The cumulative effect of all these experiences had a visible effect on Romy's appearance and manner - she looked older, more withdrawn, more fragile. What is remarkable is how she was able to channel all this inner pain into some truly remarkable performances, most notably in Costa-Gavras's Clair de femme (1979) and Bertrand Tavernier's La Mort en direct (1980).

When Romy began working on Jacques Rouffio's La Passante du Sans-Souci (1982) her declining mental and physical health were more than evident - it had not been long since she had divorced Daniel Biasini. Frequently she would be too drunk or drugged to work and the production was held up several times, once when she was admitted to hospital with renal trouble. The start of a new love affair with a young film producer, Laurent Pétin, brought about a swift recovery and Rouffio was finally able to complete his film.

It was just when Romy was starting to get her life back on track that fate dealt her the cruellest blow of all. In July 1981, Romy's 14 year old son David, the centre of her world, accidentally impaled himself on railings at his grandparents' home and bled to death from his injuries. This tragedy was more than any woman could bear. Romy had just one thought: to escape. Once she had finished work on La Passante du Sans-Souci, she fled to the Seychelles with her daughter and new partner Pétin, but wherever she went she was pursued relentlessly by journalists. She later returned to France, staying in Yvelines, Paris, where she planned to restart her life and career. In her last television appearance in April 1982 (an interview with Michel Drucker), Romy said: "Life must go on. My work gives me strength."

But it was not to be. On the night of the 28th-29th May 1982, Romy Schneider suffered a fatal heart attack at the Paris apartment she shared with Laurent Pétin. She was 43. At the time, speculation was rife as to whether she had died accidentally or had taken her life deliberately, perhaps through an overdose of barbiturates, but the evidence was inconclusive. Romy was buried beside her beloved son David in the cemetery at Boissy-sans-Avior in Yvelines, 60 km west of Paris. Her passing was keenly felt, but she lives on in her films, remnants of a life that was both wonderful and cruel.

© James Travers 2015

The above article was written for and should not be reproduced in any medium without the author's permission.

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