PARIS French actress Maria Schneider, whose role as Marlon Brando's lover in "Last Tango in Paris" won her lifelong fame but also an image she found difficult to shake off, has died. She was 58.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand called Schneider "a great artist" and saluted her ability to convey ambiguity on the screen, at once seductive and enigmatic, when working with directors like Rene Clement and Bernardo Bertolucci.
"She remains the singular image of today's woman, one of those living conduits of female liberty who is eternally reconquering a new generation," he said in a statement.
Le Figaro newspaper quoted her family as saying she had died on Thursday morning in Paris after a long illness.
The daughter of French actor Daniel Gelin and a Parisian bookshop owner, Schneider was 19 when she was cast opposite Brando, who was 48.
Bertolucci's "Last Tango in Paris" was controversial at the time of its release in 1972 for its sexual content, and Schneider later struggled with her image as a sex symbol, refusing to appear in a nude scene ever again.
In a 2007 interview with Britain's Daily Mail newspaper, she said the Italian director was over-rated.
"He was fat and sweaty and very manipulative, both of Marlon and myself," she said.
"I was too young to know better. Marlon later said that he felt manipulated, and he was Marlon Brando, so you can imagine how I felt. People thought I was like the girl in the movie, but that wasn't me.
"I felt very sad because I was treated like a sex symbol - I wanted to be recognised as an actress and the whole scandal and aftermath of the film turned me a little crazy and I had a breakdown."
Bertolucci said he had wanted to apologise to the actress.
"Her death came too early, before I could embrace her tenderly once again, tell her I felt as close to her as the first day and apologise," he told ANSA news agency.
"Maria had accused me of robbing her of her youth and only now I'm asking myself whether she was right. In fact, she was too young to deal with the unpredictable and wild success of the film."
According to online biographies, Schneider struggled with drug abuse in the 1970s, but turned her life around with the help of a long-term partner. She deliberately did not say whether it was a man or a woman.
Although Schneider appeared opposite Jack Nicholson in "The Passenger" in 1975, her subsequent acting career consisted mostly of undistinguished, low-budget European films such as "Memoirs of a French Whore" (1979) and "Mama Dracula" (1980).
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White in London, Nick Vinocur in Paris and Silvia Aloisi in Rome; Editing by Patricia Reaney)