Icons / July 2016

A Viennese Affair: Romy Schneider

One of French cinema’s most incandescent stars was Austrian-born actress Romy Schneider, whose short but prolific career — with more than 60 films to her name — belied the personal…

There is nothing like a premature death to gild one’s reputation. Just ask Joplin, Dean, Hendrix and Monroe. Or don’t. You may be waiting a while for an answer.

On 29 May 1982, vaunted actress Romy Schneider sat down at the desk in her Paris apartment to write a letter to a women’s magazine cancelling an interview. It would never be completed. She was 43. The official cause of death was listed as cardiac arrest, but others saw it as a grimly appropriate epilogue to a life marinated in that much booze, pills, tragedy and celluloid that it has, to date, prompted three biopics.

Born Rosemarie Magdalena Albach-Retty — a rather wordy name for a marquee — in Vienna, Austria, in 1938, Romy grew up in a family of actors. By the age of 15, standing barely a metre and a half in stockings, she had already fomented the knowing kitten-meets-Cupid allure, which would tear at men’s hearts and loins for the next 30 years.

She first came to the attention of the European film-going public in the treacly trilogy Sissi, which began in 1955 and chronicled the romantic adventures of Elizabeth of Austria, who catches the eye of her sister’s fiancé, Emperor Franz Josef.

"By the age of 15, standing barely a metre and a half in stockings, she had already fomented the knowing kitten-meets-Cupid allure, which would tear at men’s hearts and loins for the next 30 years."

It was a role that she would later say “sticks to me like oatmeal”. At the same time, the young woman was being stiflingly stage-managed by her mother Magda — “Mom stands behind one and whispers, ‘Smile now, smile…’” she would subsequently reveal — while her stepfather Hans Herbert Blatzheim had less-than-wholesome intentions. “He clearly asked me to sleep with him.”

In 1958, she made her first foreign production Christine and promptly fell in love with co-star Alain Delon. Absconding from her predatory and stifling family, Schneider reinvented herself in Paris. She wrote, “I want to be completely French in the way I live, love, sleep and dress.” There were three people she later credited for her transformation from “healthy little dumpling” to smouldering ingénue: Delon, Coco Chanel and director Luchino Visconti.

After a period where she said she was known as “the cheerful companion of the up-and-coming superstar Alain Delon”, she was eventually cast by Visconti in the 1962 film Boccaccio ’70. The director hailed her one of the most brilliant actresses in Europe, and a year later, Orson Welles cast her as Leni in his film version of Kafka’s The Trial.

By 1965, she was established as a thespian of note, but her career success was soon to be fractured by a private pain in a dynamic that would play out repeatedly until the credits rolled on her life. Her marriage to Delon ended with a terse note reading “gone to Mexico with Natalie”. She responded by attempting to slash her wrists.

A year later, she married director Harry Meyen, who had been tortured by the Gestapo during World War II and later hung himself. To say that Schneider was unlucky in love is a gross understatement.

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David Smiedt