Romy’s career was mapped out for her from childhood. She was born, on 23 September 1938, Rosemarie Magdalena Albach-Retty, to parents who were successful actors living in Vienna. After her parents’ divorce in 1945, she was brought up by her mother, Magda Schneider and her younger brother, Wolfgang. She made her film début in 1953, a small part in Wenn der weiße Flieder wieder blüht. Two years later she took on the role that would earn her instant stardom in Austria and Germany – the Empress Elisabeth of Austria – in the 1955 film Sissi.
Having played Sissi in two subsequent sequels, Romy became nauseated by the saccharine "nice girl" image she had fashioned for herself and was determined to make a fresh start. In 1957, Paramount Studios was ready to offer her a three year contract, but her family intervened, thwarting a promising career in America. Romy’s chance of escape came in the form of Pierre Gaspard-Huit’s 1958 lavish costume drama, Christine, where she starred opposite another young actor whose star was very much in the ascendant, Alain Delon. This was the beginning of Romy Schneider’s hugely successful film career in France.
It was whilst making Christine that Romy and Alain Delon fell in love; their very public engagement was announced to the world in 1959. 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 on learning she was pregnant with his child. Although the separation was painful (Delon couldn’t bring himself to face Romy at their parting; he just left her a note saying goodbye), the two actors later renewed their friendship and remained on the best of terms, with Delon dispensing both moral and financial support during periods of crisis.
Meanwhile, Romy Schneider’s film career forged ahead. She achieved international fame through her part in Luchino Visconti’s segment (Il lavoro) of the 1962 film Boccacio ’70. She would subsequently work again with Visconti on Ludwig (1972), where she once again portrayed Elisabeth of Austria, but in a very different vein to that of the earlier Sissi films of the 1950s. Another legendary director, Orson Welles, was impressed by her talents, and cast her in his 1963 film Le Procès, an inspired adaptation of Franz Kafka’s novel The Trial.
In the mid-1960s, Hollywood beckoned and Romy Schneider made a few notable appearances, in Good Neighbor Sam (1964) and What’s New, Pussycat? (1965). Having failed to make much of a mark in America, Romy returned to France. She had a starring role in L’Enfer (1964), although the film was aborted when its director, H.G. Clouzot, suffered a fatal heart attack. In La Voleuse (1966), she appeared for the first time alongside the actor Michel Piccoli, who would become one of her closest friends. By this time, Romy had married, to the theatre director Harry Meyen, and had given birth to a son, David.
Romy’s career was floundering a little but received a sudden boost when she starred with Alain Delon in Jacques Deray’s stylish psychological thriller La Piscine (1969). The same year, she appeared in Claude Sautet’s Les Choses de la vie, again with Michel Piccoli. 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 moving portrayal of an independent woman in the latter film that Romy won her second César in 1979.
Romy had previously won a César for her role in Andrzej Zulawski’s controversial L’Important c’est d’aimer (1975), regarded by some as her finest performance. Another notable hit was Le Vieux fusil (1975), directed by Robert Enrico and co-starring Philippe Noiret. This film – an uncompromising wartime drama - was not just a huge commercial success, but it also took three awards at the first Césars Ceremony in 1976 (including best film). Other notable film appearances in the 1970s include: Le Train (1973), Le Mouton enragé (1974) and the deliciously gory black comedy Le Trio infernal (1974). Romy 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 the legalisation of abortion.
The 1970s gave Romy Schneider 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 1973, she parted from her husband Harry Meyen on bad terms – she had to surrender half of her personal fortune to him in a divorce settlement in order that she retain custody of their son. Then, in 1976, shortly after marrying her second husband, Daniel Biasini, she lost her unborn child in a car accident. April 1979 brought more devastating news: Harry Meyen decided to hang himself. The impact of the suicide of her first husband can be seen in Romy’s darker, more introspective performances in Bertrand Tavernier’s La Mort en direct (1980), La Banquière (1980) and Garde à vue (1981).
Then came the cruellest blow of all: a mother’s worst nightmare. In July 1981, Romy’s 14 year old son David, the centre of her world, managed to impale himself on railings at his grandparents’ home and bled to death. The actress was almost destroyed by this calamity and she had but one thought: to escape. Once she had finished work on La Passante du Sans-Souci (1982), she fled to the Seychelles with her daughter and new partner, Laurent Petin – relentlessly pursued by journalists. She later returned to France, staying in Yvelynes, Paris, where she hoped 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 Petin. She was 43. There was widespread speculation that she had taken her own life, perhaps through an overdose of sleeping pills, but no evidence was given at the inquest to substantiate this. Romy was buried in the cemetery at Boissy-sans-Avior in France, beside her beloved son. Her passing was keenly felt, but she lives on in her films, remnants of a life that was both wonderful and cruel.
© James Travers 2007
To buy films featuring Romy Schneider:
Romy Schneider is best-known for the following films:
The ActressRomy Schneider has appeared in the following films: