Schneider, Romy (1938–1982)

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Schneider, Romy (1938–1982)

Austrian actress who became famous in the 1950s through her "Sissi" film series, and whose life, like that of the empress she portrayed, ended tragically. Born Rosemarie Albach-Retty in Vienna, Austria, on September 23, 1938; died in Paris, France, on May 29, 1982; daughter of Wolf Albach-Retty (an actor) and Magda Schneider (1909–1996, an actress); married Harry Meyen-Haubenstock (a German actor and director), in 1966 (divorced 1975); married Daniel Biasini, in 1975 (divorced 1977); children: (first marriage) David Christophe (1967–1981); (second marriage) Sarah Magdalena Biasini (b. 1976).

Romy Schneider was born Rosemarie Albach-Retty in Vienna in 1938, only a few months after the city became part of Nazi Germany's Third Reich. That she would become a famous actress was almost predestined, given the fact that she was born to a famous theatrical couple; her father Wolf Albach-Retty was a leading actor of Vienna's Volkstheater, and her mother Magda Schneider starred in scores of lavish musical films in Germany. In an earlier generation, paternal grandmother Rosa Albach-Retty had been one of the most popular actresses of the Austrian theater. Rosemarie, known to family as Romy from her earliest years, was educated at private schools in Berchtesgaden and Salzburg. Interested in painting, she planned to continue her education at art school, but she was also interested in school plays, not only acting in them but directing as well.

In 1953, when Romy was 14, Berlin director Kurt Ullrich cast her as her famous mother Magda's screen daughter in the sentimental film Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht (When the White Lilacs Bloom Again). The movie, although of no artistic weight, was a success, and Romy never again returned to school. Near the end of her life, Schneider noted: "To start in this business very young is all very well. But some day or other you have to pay the price for it, and it can be very heavy." Over the next half-dozen years, she was almost always in front of a camera, making nearly a score of films in Germany. One of these, the 1954 film Mädchenjahre einer Königin (released in the United States in 1958 as The Story of Vickie), was about the adolescence of Britain's Queen Victoria . Described by one critic as "a pert Maria Schell ," Schneider became popular with mass audiences. In an attempt to work on a higher artistic level, she starred with Lilli Palmer in the 1958 remake of the classic Mädchen in Uniform.

Schneider became one of the European cinema's most famous actresses because of her portrayal of Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria (1837–1898) in three films directed by Ernst Marischka: Sissi (1955), Sissi, Die Junge Kaiserin (1956), and Sissi, Schicksalsjahre einer Kaiserin (1957). Known as the "Sissi" films, from Elizabeth's nickname, they were sentimental costume dramas, saccharine and escapist—perfect fare for German and Austrian audiences desirous of forgetting about the horrors of Nazism, World War II, and the privations of the early postwar years. When a lengthy amalgam of the three "Sissi" films was shown in the United States in 1962 under the title Forever, My Love, The New York Times critic noted that while "visually striking," the film was "brimming with warm wholesomeness and almost overwhelming sweetness," with performances ranging "from feeble to broad and the dubbed, kindergarten dialogue is plain ludicrous." Schneider, a potentially fine actress, was being hopelessly typecast in a "Shirley Tempelhof" role.

The intelligent, ambitious Schneider was aware of the dangers of these films, which had made many critics dismiss her as an actress of little consequence who had become permanently trapped in saccharine teenage roles, and despite lucrative offers she turned down the opportunity to appear in further "Sissi" movies. Seeking to expand her horizons, she went to Paris in 1958 to appear in Christine, a remake under a French director of the classic film Liebelei, one of her mother's greatest successes several decades earlier. Schneider's leading man in Christine was French star Alain Delon, with whom she quickly fell in love. She also fell in love with Paris and life in France, and soon transformed herself from a innocent Austrian ingenue into an elegant Parisian actress. Fluent in French, English, and Italian as well as her native German, Schneider was able to win over French audiences and critics alike, appearing successfully on the Paris stage. In 1961, she played opposite Delon in Luchino Visconti's adaptation of John Ford's Jacobean drama, 'Tis Pity She's a Whore.

Schneider became an internationally acclaimed film star in 1962, when she appeared in the segment directed by Visconti in the multidirector film Boccaccio '70. Her performance, as that of a young wife who allows her husband to pay her for sex in order to save their wobbly marriage, was thought to be one of the best in the entire film. In 1962, she also appeared in a small role in The Trial, Orson Welles' version of Franz Kafka's great book, in which Schneider caught the attention of critics as a "disturbingly erotic" maidservant. In Carl Foreman's The Victors (1962), she was effectively cast in a small role as a young violinist forced into becoming a prostitute in wartime. In Otto Preminger's 1963 production of The Cardinal, Schneider made a powerful impression as an impulsive Viennese student who finds herself hopelessly in love with a young priest. She starred with Jack Lemmon in her first Hollywood film, Good Neighbor Sam (1963). Though it was a comedy with a flimsy plot, Schneider once again drew critical praise, while Variety welcomed her as "a fascinating newcomer to the Hollywood scene." Schneider's comedic talents were further revealed in Clive Donner's What's New, Pussycat? (1965), which starred Peter Sellers.

By the mid-1960s, Schneider's private life became increasingly turbulent as her affair with Delon ended. Professionally, she devoted herself to making films with French directors, including Claude Sautet, with whom she made Les choses de la vie (The Things of Life, 1970), César et Rosalie (1972), a warm-hearted comedy in which she starred with Yves Montand, and Une histoire simple (A Simple Tale, 1978). During the 1970s, she was twice awarded a César, the French equivalent of an Oscar. Other notable film roles included that of the assassin's girlfriend Gita in Joseph Losey's 1972 drama The Assassination of Trotsky, and a more mature Empress Elizabeth of Bavaria in Visconti's Ludwig (1973). Despite personal problems, Schneider remained professionally active to the end of her tragically short life, appearing in such films as Costa-Gavras' Claire de femme (1979) and Bertrand Tavernier's La mort en direct (Deathwatch, 1979). Her last film appearance was in Jacques Rouffio's La passante du Sans-Souci, released in 1982, the year of her death.

Though her professional life was filled with success, Schneider's personal life was in marked contrast. Once describing herself as "proud, hot-tempered, [and] impatient," she was also intelligent, sensitive, and easily hurt. When she and Delon lived openly together in the early 1960s although unmarried, they were hounded by the media, so much so that Schneider characterized the situation as one in which the press made her "feel like a whore." She was determined not to abandon her career for a conventional marriage, noting: "The cinema was in my skin. I couldn't give it up nor did Alain wish me to. I was not made for the kitchen." She admitted that she was not easy to live with: "I have too many moods. Sometimes I think I am too ambitious."

In 1966, within a year of the end of her affair with Delon, Schneider married German actor and director Harry Meyen-Haubenstock. In 1967, she gave birth to a son, David Christophe. She and her husband divorced in 1975. That same year, she married a photographer, Daniel Biasini, with whom she had a daughter, Sarah Magdalena. Schneider's second marriage ended in divorce in 1977. In 1979, her first husband, who had survived a Nazi concentration camp, committed suicide. Schneider had remained friendly with Meyen-Haubenstock and was disturbed by his death. Her health declined, and she had to undergo surgery for removal of one of her kidneys. In July 1981, Schneider received a blow from which she would never recover. While climbing on a fence at the house of his father's parents, her son David Christophe fell onto an iron railing and was fatally impaled. Her own weakened health and the merciless and unrelenting media coverage of the tragedy only increased the intensity of grief resulting from her son's death.

Schneider was found dead in her Paris apartment on May 29, 1982. Police reports initially suggested that the actress had committed suicide, but the public prosecutor later would announce that she had suffered a cardiac arrest. Schneider was buried in the little village of Boissy-sans-Avoir, west of Paris, where only weeks before her

death she had purchased a farm and a cemetery plot. Her five-year-old daughter Sarah Magdalena was placed in the custody of her maternal grandmother Magda Schneider. Magda outlived her daughter by more than a decade, dying in July 1996. Although many filmgoers in Germany and Austria had been critical of Schneider's adoption of France as a second home during her lifetime—regarding her as "a star without a homeland"—after her death they became ever more interested in the details of her short, tragic life. Many books and countless articles have been published about her in Germany, and others have appeared as well in France, Switzerland, Russia, Spain, Japan, and the former Czechoslovakia.

Many writers have attempted to explain Schneider's appeal to film audiences. Director Claude Sautet came close to the mark when he described her as "a mixture of poisonous charm and virtuous purity. She is as elevated as a Mozart allegro but aware of the power of her body and her sensuality. Romy is vivacity itself, an … actress who transcends the everyday, who has an ethereal quality which is the preserve of only great stars."


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John Haag , Associate Professor History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Schneider, Romy (1938–1982)

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