Al Pacino and Marthe Keller are about as intense and tough as any actors in the movie business, and certainly as professional. But when they were cast together in Bobby Deerfield—he as the emotionless Grand Prix driver, she as the life-loving cancer victim—it was an unhappy, snappish set. “We didn’t know if they would end up loving or hating each other,” recalls director Sydney Pollack.
They fought in part because it seemed too pat to fall in love, though both had had their share of location liaisons—Marthe with directors, Al with leading ladies like Tuesday Weld and Jill Clayburgh. Eventually Pollack’s ingenuity in filming Deerfield around their mismatched heights (her 5’8½” to his 5’7″) was mirrored in the comedy of their consummated détente. “Something wrong with your legs?” Pacino wryly asked as she crouched beside him among friends one evening. Later she joked to a reporter: “You’ll never notice the difference in the love scenes. We’re all the same height lying down.” They made the affair official when they began sharing a Manhattan apartment last month. The Swiss-born actress had also completed a blitzkrieg conquest of the U.S. movie world in the process. In less than two years she co-starred in two Robert Evans-produced thrillers, Marathon Man and Black Sunday, in Deerfield and in Billy Wilder’s upcoming romance about a Garboesque actress, Fedora.
Still, Al and Marthe remain an oddly strained coupling of superstars. He is practically paranoid over the glare of limelight, yet both are trapped in it by the public shimmer of a relationship between Hollywood’s 37-year-old crown prince and the new 34-year-old version of Garbo. (The VIP preview of Bobby Deerfield in Manhattan was attended by Jackie Onassis but neither star deigned to show.) “It’s a love-hate relationship. They fight all the time,” says a longtime friend of Keller. “He wants to be the boss, and she will not do anything to upset him.” Pacino seems to choose his women as much for their loyalty as their love, and Marthe is as discreet as her predecessors. “What I feel about Al belongs to me,” she says. “Talking about us seems like playing a striptease with my soul.”
Such an uncovering would expose, if nothing else, a persistent puzzlement. It’s the odyssey of a “homemade country girl,” as she describes herself. “I’m afraid of success,” she says, and she got half smashed before the Marathon Man screen test that launched her in the States. “She reacts like an animal,” says Claude Lelouch, one of her director lovers along the way. “She doesn’t analyze things. She does them and analyzes later.”
Marthe (Al pronounces it Marta) still speaks wistfully of her childhood in Basel, where her German father raised horses and her Hungarian mother made marmalade and “my biggest problem was keeping my socks white on Sundays.” Yet when a skiing accident at 16 dashed her dancing career and forced her into acting instead, she left behind her milkmaid past. “I’m late with everything,” she shrugs. “My first sexual experience was at 20.” She won a scholarship to the Stanislavsky School in Munich, all the while moonlighting as a model and belonging to the Communist party. Then, after learning the classic repertoire with East Berlin’s Schiller Theater Group, she landed in 1968 her first film and first love: The Devil by the Tail and its director, Philippe de Broca.
They lived together for four years, but the relationship was fated to end just before a son, Alexandre, now 5, was born. Until then Marthe had spent most of her adulthood feeling “like stopping my life almost every week.” Of her time with de Broca she now says, “We didn’t love each other. Some people get married because they are afraid to be alone. I’m not—you’re born alone and you die alone.” At the same time she admits: “I believe one should have a man in one’s life, someone you always go to, share with,” and her next was Lelouch. The affair with him ended after one year and the film And Now My Love. Today she is able to keep the demons at bay. “Alexandre brought humor into my life,” she says. “Now when I feel like giving up, I have this little man that doesn’t let me.”
By the time Marthe got to Hollywood, she had become a major Continental star with 15 films, some 50 stage roles, a French TV hit—and both the French and German version of Oscars. Yet she had learned, “the better you eat, the more you pay.” By the end of the “big happy accident”—her description of the last two years of back-to-back filming—she was near physical collapse. After Deerfield and during Fedora, she recounts, “I started feeling crazy—I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror.” Pacino, who had by then returned to Broadway in The Basic Training of Pacino Hummel, closed the show for two weeks to fly to her in Munich when she had to be hospitalized briefly for circulatory problems.
What they have now made together so far is almost an urban pastoral. “I love the energy and electricity of New York,” she says, “but I’m scared of America and this glamorous life. Without Al, I wouldn’t do it.” Pacino, the most reclusive of stars (he sometimes wears disguises on the street to avoid discovery), plays II Penseroso to her L’Allegro. She delights in personally escorting Alexandre to school—and she makes time for ballet classes, coaching with Pacino’s mentor Lee Strasberg, tennis and a book a day (she’s read the Russian novels). She doesn’t employ chauffeurs or nannies, and considers domestic chores her best therapy. (“I don’t believe in America’s obsession with psychoanalysis.”)
Her main extravagance is keeping the duplex apartment she painted herself on Paris’ Left Bank and a chalet in the Swiss mountain village of Verbier, where a herd of dairy cows provides ambience if not profit. “Money has never meant anything to me,” she says. “In Switzerland, the poor are rich. For me, the soul is Switzerland, and success is knowing I can buy a ticket home. The simplicity of the country takes the craziness away.”
For now, Keller is enjoying her seemingly endless professional horizon. Billy Wilder, for one, reports, “You sense that Marthe is special and can go as far as an actress can go.” But who is she really? The lady, making marmalade like her mother and soaking up Switzerland? Or the tiger, hot in pursuit of the very celebrity she purports to fear? If Pacino is similarly confused, Lelouch offers a knowing condolence: “You can’t get bored with Marthe,” he found. She leaves her men with “very good souvenirs.” Not that he pretends to comprehend her truly. “She is the only one who knows her,” he says, “and she knows herself well.”
So to the source. “What I would like is being married to a man I love with 10 children and living in the country,” says Marthe Keller, before adding with a pensive smile: “And then I would leave them all after two days. If I see too many sunsets in Switzerland, I get bored. I’m schizo in a way.”