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Why Molly Ringwald translated an infamous story of film exploitation

ByTeam BB

Apr 16, 2023

Molly Ringwald. The name sparks a 1980s flashback: Jake Ryan and that 16-candled cake; Claire the reluctant prom queen pouting her way through detention; Duckie. For a generation of moviegoers, the red-haired actress embodied teenage angst.

In the three decades since she became a fixture of John Hughes films, Ringwald has built a wide-ranging career: Broadway productions, a Godard film and the TV series “Riverdale,” among other projects. In 2012, she turned to writing, publishing the novel-in-stories “When It Happens to You.”

Ringwald, 55, has also translated two books from French. Her latest is “My Cousin Maria Schneider,” by Vanessa Schneider. The book, originally published in France in 2018, chronicles the life of Maria Schneider, the actress who starred in Bernardo Bertolucci’s controversial 1972 film “Last Tango in Paris” when she was 19.

In a much-discussed, infamous scene, Maria’s character is sodomized by Marlon Brando. Schneider wasn’t informed beforehand about what exactly would be done to her in the scene — “because,” Bertolucci later said, “I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress. I wanted her to react humiliated.”

After Schneider’s death in 2011, Bertolucci pleaded for forgiveness: “She was much too young to have been able to withstand the impact and the unpredictable and brutal success of the film … Her death came too soon, before I could kiss her tenderly and tell her that I feel as close to her now as I did on day one, and ask for her forgiveness,” he said. To which Vanessa Schneider retorts on behalf of her cousin: “You wouldn’t have wanted his excuses. Even less his kisses.”

Schneider never quite recovered from the Brando scene — in a 2007 interview, she said that she felt “a little raped” or the notoriety that followed. Despite appearing in other films, including “The Passenger” (1975) opposite Jack Nicholson, Schneider’s acting career was forever marred by that single experience, what “My Cousin Maria Schneider” calls a “bad tattoo.”

Maria struggled with addiction and flitted in and out of her first cousin Vanessa’s childhood home — and her life — over the years. In their last moment together, Vanessa and Maria sip Champagne and take snapshots at Maria’s home, just before Maria died of cancer. The book, written in the present tense as if Vanessa is writing directly to her cousin, has a sad immediacy. Still, there are wonderful moments of enduring joy, connection and discovery.

In a recent video interview from her home in New York, Ringwald talked about what drew her to this book and why she thinks it’s important. (This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

Q: How did you get involved with this project?

A: My editor came to me with the idea after I had translated the French novel “Lie With Me.” I had known the story of Maria Schneider a little bit and was already interested in her. At first I said no, it will take too much time — and then I just couldn’t get it out of mind. They came back to me during covid when I had a lot of time, and I was so happy that they did, because I really wanted to dig into it.

Q: Maria’s story may not be familiar to some people outside the film industry, particularly in the U.S. Why do you think it’s important to tell?

A: She was a wonderful actress, and she was very outspoken for her time. I think this great injustice was done to her, and it’s important that her side of the story is known.

She obviously suffered a lot because of that. The onus was on her — she was the one who was naked most of the time [in “Last Tango”] and she was the “dirty one.” And yes, she knew going into the film that it would be daring and controversial, but I feel like that scene was unfair, and I don’t feel like that was ever really acknowledged.

There haven’t been a lot of French MeToo stories. As a culture, France — and even a lot of women there — have been dismissive of the movement.

Q: How did you become so fluent in French?

A: I went to a French school, Le Lycée Français in Los Angeles, and I lived for quite some time in France. I started studying French just before filming “Sixteen Candles,” and my studio teacher for the movie was chosen for French.

It’s funny when people ask, “how are you so fluent in French?” because I don’t know that I will ever consider myself entirely fluent in French. I am always learning new words, and I think it will be like that my entire life. It’s also different when you’re translating, because you are there with the text: I do a crude translation to start and then I go back, putting it through a sieve, over and over.

Q: I found the book very emotionally compelling. How did you feel working on it?

A: This book was really emotional for me. As an actor I had that feeling, I was lucky. Not to say that I haven’t had my fair share of difficult situations and positions I shouldn’t have been in at a young age. But I was lucky.

I was also lucky to have the family that I had. Maria didn’t have that great support system starting out, and was very alone. I was very emotional, also, about Vanessa’s story — of loving someone who is so destructive.

Q: The author writes of her own apprehensions revealing these details about Maria’s life: “I worry that you [Maria] won’t approve of the story I’m telling.” Did you have similar concerns?

A: Vanessa did say it — a number of times in the book. I may even have cut one of them. I get why she feels that way. The book was written with a lot of love and admiration — and sadness — and I feel like she captured a complete human being. Yes, she idolized Maria as a child, but she really loved seeing everything — all of the flaws. I’m not sure Maria would totally love it — but maybe she would.

Q: Maria died in 2011, long before MeToo. What do you think she would make of the movement?

A: I don’t think anyone can know that. But I think that she probably would have been glad that the tide sort of changed. She was recognized before she died, which I thought was really nice. [She received the medal of Chevalier, Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2010.] She’s complicated: In one way she was wild and without boundaries, and in another she was [politically] conservative, so she was a complicated woman.

Q: The book brought to mind the recent documentary about Brooke Shields, “Pretty Baby,” which explores her lack of agency as a child actor. Did you make any connections to that film?

A: Yes, but it’s complicated. I know Brooke, though not very well. I worked with Susan Sarandon on my first film, and it wasn’t so long after she had done “Pretty Baby” with Brooke, and she said that she felt kind of terrible that Brooke didn’t really have the protection that a little girl needs in that situation. I think Brooke is pretty open about that. I didn’t think so much of Brooke [while working on this book], I thought of myself.

Q: Yes, tell me how the book connected to your own experiences.

A: I know a lot of the players in this book. I even met with Bertolucci; I was supposed to do “Queen’s Gambit” originally when I was younger, so I had this feeling as I was translating of, phew, got out of that one!

Also, just feeling grateful that I am here. It [acting] is a really difficult job, and Maria says that in the book. She’s interviewed and says no one should do this job if they’re not secure in the head. It can be very psychologically damaging, so I feel lucky that at my age I am still acting and writing and translating. I feel pretty good. And I have a family.

Q: Given your own experiences in Hollywood, was anything triggering for you while you worked on this book?

A: I mostly overwhelmingly felt a great deal of relief — that my story is different. I didn’t find it triggering in that way. I also felt lucky, it feels weird to say, lucky that I wasn’t raped like a lot of actresses are — that that is even something one would even have to think just seems awful — but I am, and I fully acknowledge that.

I wouldn’t say that I didn’t have some difficult situations, because I did, but I didn’t feel triggered so much as relieved. And sadness. By the end of this project, I felt so much affection and care for Maria. It was really sad the way that her life unfolded, even though at the beginning of the book she says, “I had a beautiful life.” She wasn’t comfortable seeing herself as a victim.

Q: Are you planning to translate or write more books? What are you working on now?

A: The next book that I write is going to be a memoir. If I do write a novel, which I think I will, it won’t be for a while. I am doing too many other things right now — I just finished doing the second season of “Feud” about Truman Capote and “the swans,” and the last season of “Riverdale.” I have been doing quite a bit of acting. Directing is definitely on my list, too: I think it’s time.

My Cousin Maria Schneider

By Vanessa Schneider. Translated by Molly Ringwald.

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