Tuesday, March 7

Jeanne Moreau

France loves its cinema and for years has held three actresses in iconic status.  There's the sex kitten Brigitte Bardot, the beautiful ice queen Catherine Deneuve and the subject of today's posting, one of the great screen goddesses of our time, by far the best actress of the three, the luminous Jeanne Moreau.

I think I originally paid attention to her because she seemed to command it.  Her characters appeared to leap off the screen, and often in the quietest of ways she said look at me, I am acting my heart out for you, look at me.  She could do anything.  She was highly dramatic, was distinctive in comedy, could sing and dance and has directed.  Her characters could be soft, harsh, temperamental, fun, loving or wicked but always, always deeply plumbed and intelligently displayed.  She clearly acted from the inside out and when she was into a role, nothing else in her life mattered except her art.  On the other hand, when it was over, it was over and she quickly and easily moved on.

This is a performer who understands acting completely.  I am not sure if she has ever taught drama but she is one of those who should because she could turn out some brilliant future actors.  She can speak about acting in some of the most insightful ways and is one of the most quoted actresses ever.  We will dot this piece with a few of those nuggets.

From the first time I ever saw her she reminded me of Bette Davis of the 1940s.  I saw similar looks, a passion for acting, a like temperament and that same fierce intelligence. And yet, Moreau, who has admitted that others have noticed the comparison, once said... very nice except I can't stand Bette Davis.

She is one of those proud, sometimes daunting Aquarians born in 1928 in Paris to a French father and an English mother.  Her parents didn't get along at all (her father's family, descended from a long line of farmers, didn't care at all for her mother's flight of fancy over being a dancer) and she and her younger sister went with their mother to live for a while in England. Moreau has somewhat humorously said that had she stayed there any longer than she did, we would think of her as an English actress instead of a French one.

Mother and daughters returned to France shortly before the outbreak of the war and then the mother was forced to stay there (as an alien who reported regularly to the gestapo) and the family lived above a brothel. Young Jeanne was terrified of the life she witnessed and retreated into a world of make-believe, first with books and then with movies and community theater.  Her father forbade her to continue any interest in movies or theater and those of us who revere her are glad his admonitions didn't take hold.

Ultimately she was truly blown away, she said, by acting and determined she would join the profession as soon as she could. She met a drama teacher who got her enrolled in the prestigious Conservatoir National d'Art Dramatique and impressed everyone she met. Within a year she made her debut with the famed Comédie Francaise and during her four years there appeared in 22 productions, virtually everything they produced.

She was arguably France's most acclaimed stage actress and had appeared in a number of films throughout the 50s when she met Louis Malle who had come to see her in a stage production as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.  They began a wild ride of a relationship (she was married and had been since 1949 and Malle was not).  He would make his directorial debut steering her in the well-regarded Elevator to the Gallows and then The Lovers, both 1958.  

I first saw her in 5 Branded Women (1960), having no idea who she was.  I went because it starred two actresses and an actor I very much liked, Silvana Mangano, Vera Miles and Van Heflin.  The story concerns five Yugoslav women who are publicly humiliated (and shaved bald) for consorting with the Germans.  It is one of the few war stories with women as the focus and I very much liked it, although it was never a hit.

⇛  Acting deals with very delicate emotions.  It is not putting up a mask.  Each time an actor acts, he does not hide.  He exposes himself.

In my final year of high school as part of a film studies class I was railroaded into going to see Jules et Jim (1962).  Not happy about it because it was subtitled, I managed to stop whining when I realized Moreau had one of the leads.  I loved the timbre of her voice no
matter what language she spoke and by this time I had fallen hopelessly for most European actresses, especially French and Italian.  There was an earth mother quality to her even as a young actress and I always found her sexy, too, but not in the obvious way Bardot handled it.

As the impulsive Catherine, Moreau falls in love with two bohemian friends, Jules and Jim (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre), and their entwined lives are delightfully examined over the years. New French Wave director, François Truffuat (with whom she also had an affair), called it a subversive film of total sweetness. It is certainly one of the legendary French films of all time and turned Moreau into an international sensation.

Over the years I have seen few of her French films but I have tried to catch her English-language films that have been available. Luckily she has made far more films in English than Bardot or Deneueve. Still, Moreau has worked mainly and often in her home country and throughout Europe.  

Orson Welles called her the greatest actress in the world and he directed and co-starred with her in The Trial (1962), about a modest fellow who stands trial without being aware of what he's accused of.  A study of excess European surrealism and despite a cast that includes Tony Perkins, Romy Schneider and Elsa Martinelli, it remains one of my all-time hated films.

⇛  I never come out of a film the same as I went in.  Each time I discover new capacities for feelings and emotions I never knew I had.

Never one who needed the biggest role in a film, Moreau accepted a small one as a hotel owner caught up in the conflict of war in John Frankenheimer's gripping The Train (1964).  With two other acting giants in the leads, Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, the plot concerns French art treasures being sent to Germany during WWII.

The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964) is not a bad film but I suspect if Moreau had to cut it from her resumé, she'd survive.  It is an episodic piece with a huge name cast who are the various owners of the title car over the years. Moreau and Rex Harrison starred in 
the least memorable piece although the lady rarely looked more glamorous.

Malle talked Moreau and Bardot into playing surprise strippers in war-torn Central American for Viva Maria! (1965).  Both actresses play characters named Maria and they are dynamite together, reminding me, at least, of a French version of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. One may find a tribute to Robert Aldrich's 1954 western, Vera Cruz.  Its weak point was having George Hamilton as leading man.  It remains one of the actress's most high-profile performances.

Monte Walsh (1970) was the subject of my last piece so we won't duplicate our efforts. Moreau and title star Lee Marvin enjoyed a romance during the filming and she wanted him to move to Paris. She has said that he was more male than anyone I've ever acted with.  He is the greatest man's man I have ever met and that includes all the European stars I have worked with.  Moreau had romantic involvements with a number of her directors (bisexual director Tony Richardson left Vanessa Redgrave for her but they never married) and writers and costars.  She had a celebrated relationship with designer Pierre Cardin and a liaison with jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis.

⇛  I'm a passionate woman who falls in love very easily.

In 1977 she married American film director, William Friedkin of The Boys in the Band, The French Connection and The Exorcist fame.  They had met when he was in Paris scouting locations for The French Connection.  It would be her third (and final) marriage and she was as surprised as anyone that she did it.  They thought they had a lot in common... certainly film making, passion, intelligence.  She would apparently later call their two-year union painful and violent although it's been said they broke up because he wanted her to quit working and she purred you've got the wrong femme fatale.

⇛  I never use the word "career."  It's a journalistic term.  I can't separate creation from life.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's unpublished last novel, The Last Tycoon, was made into a film in 1976.  I thought the gritty, nasty look at behind-the-scenes Hollywood, loosely based on the life of MGM wunderkind, Irving Thalberg, was great fun but it was woefully overlooked for some reason.  It focuses on a richly-woven performance from a young and rather handsome Robert DeNiro and featured Robert Mitchum, Ray Milland, Jack Nicholson, Theresa Russell and Dana Andrews.  Moreau plays a Bette Davis-type (hmmm) actress opposite Tony Curtis' fading matinee idol in a movie within the movie.  It wasn't a perfect film but I found it audacious and utterly watchable.  How could one resist such a cast and direction by none other than Elia Kazan?

I hadn't seen a Moreau film in a number of years when I read that she was going to play the owner of a weird brothel and bar in Querelle (1982). Moreau was excited to be directed by Germany's Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the darling of the New German Cinema movement. She was always looking to stretch her wings and never veered away from something daring. She was most always eager to hitch
 her star with some new director who may be part of some new cinema movement.

Querelle shines a light on the seedy inhabitants of the bar but mainly focuses on a gay thief and murderer, excitingly played by Brad Davis. Its gay scenes are graphic and Moreau likely could have cared less that she took a few hits for being part of a film that was largely considered pornographic.

 The love, suffering and happiness I experience in life appear in my movies, become an integral part of them.  When I see a film after I've made it, I see my own life before me.

It would be another decade before I saw her again.  She worked extensively in Europe with a highlight being a small part in La Femme Nikita (1990) and a large role in The Old Lady Who Walked in the Sea (1991).

In 1993 Moreau, Joan Plowright and Julie Walters appeared in an episode of a British anthology series called Screen Two, which
was so popular that it was released in Europe as a film and retitled The Clothes in the Wardrobe. Then it was thought it would be right for American audiences and when it opened here it had another new title, The Summer House.  It stands today as my favorite Moreau performance.

A wedding is planned and the bride's mother has an exotic friend (Moreau, of course) who will attend.  Things get disrupted, however, when the friend proves a little too exotic in dress, speech and manner for the local ladies and then loudly declares the marriage would be all wrong.  I sense this character lives a life similar to the actress.  It was a charming little film.

I also adored her as Claire Danes' loving grandmother in a warm drama with some social conscience called I Love You, I Love You Not (1996).  Shared stories between grandmother and granddaughter are at the heart of the piece.  There's a lot of grief and heartache and prejudice attached to what also has a sweet romantic touch.  It doesn't always stitch together well but one cannot deny the magical quality of both Moreau's and Danes' lovely performances.  

I have not seen my favorite French icon in a new film since.

One might wonder what she would have accomplished playing Varinia in Spartacus (1960) or Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967) or Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975), but Jean Simmons, Anne Bancroft and Louise Fletcher, respectively, can thank Moreau for having turned them all down.

Over the years she has received so many awards and honors and attended countless tributes and retrospectives of her astonishing career.  She has enjoyed a singing career and has dabbled in writing for years.  

As for those other French actress icons, Bardot's sex appeal may have limited her career and her fame.  Deneuve was unquestionably one of the world's great beauties and a good actress most of the time.  Both of them tended to make just French films exclusively. Moreau may not have been their equals in sex appeal or beauty, yet she still had both. She also worked all over the world and her career lasted longer and had more recognition because she has always been a far superior actress. 

⇛  I've worked hard.  I'm passionate and my world is cinema, acting, theater, creativity, art, painting, books, music, sculptures, landscapes, movements of people in the streets.  Everything.

I can hardly believe she will be 90 early next year.  I'll bet she's still feisty and opinionated and each day is a new revelation to her.  She never was one for nostalgia.

 Everything I have I have wanted.

Next posting:
Odd careers


  1. Hi, I've just discovered your blog and I LOVE IT, it is very me, as per my own one (osullivan60.blogspot.co.uk). Loved reading about Sarah Miles (one of my own favourites as per my posts on her), Moreau etc. Going back for more now.

  2. Mike, how exciting... a fellow movie blogger. I will check yours out immediately. Thanks for your kind words. And fellow readers here, please check out his blog.

  3. Thanks a lot of times for this post on J. Moreau I never read so much about her life even though I had almost 13 years of French Magazine CINEMONDE. You're perfectly right: she is one of those actresses that , like Davis, Kerr and few others , might save a film just with a cameo appearance. I love JULES AND JIM and the extremely refined LES AMANTS ( THE LOVERS) but I cannot mention MADEMOISELLE ( 1966/ 67 maybe) by Tony Richardson. I cannot say it's a bad movie; I'd rather say it's very unpleasant. A very difficult role but not for her. If You have the chance to see this movie don't forget to give a look to Ettore Manni. A very famous actor in Italy and Europe but I do not think that anybody ever heard of him in USA. He started with very good movies in 1952 and very good directors such as Antonioni, then, I guess for money reasons, he did a mountain of - I think you call them Peplum and sandals movies- the movies are what they are but Ettore... I'm sure that ancient Romans never used skirts so shorts GRAZIE ANCORA E CIAO!