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#BornThisDay: Actor, Jeanne Moreau


Moreau in “Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud” (1958) via YouTube


January 23, 1928Jeanne Moreau:

“Nostalgia is when you want things to say the same. I know so many people staying in the same place. And I think, my God, look at them! They’re death before they die. That’s a terrible risk. Living is risking.”

Moreau was the very essence of French Cinema, French life, and the French attitude. She was famously unsentimental and believed in living in the moment. She did not like the romanticizing and continued celebration of the French New Wave era that she helped define.

A director, screenwriter and singer as well as a stage and screen actor, Moreau was first noticed by movie fans for a series of roles in films considered part of the French New Wave, most famously Jules Et Jim (1962). She made Hollywood films also, including The Last Tycoon (1976) and Orson Welles’ Chimes At Midnight (1965). She was embraced by her gay fans for her work in Querelle (1982) directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and starring Brad Davis, adapted from a novel by gay writer Jean Genet.

She had that sensual, pouting mouth, Gauloises smoky voice, and her combination of sharp intelligence and smoldering sexuality were embodiment of how we envisioned of a French woman, although she was half English. Her mother, Kathleen Buckley, was a dancer and it was while she was performing at the Folies Bergère in Paris that she met a chef, Anatole Moreau. She became pregnant, they married, and their daughter was born in Montmartre. Moreau:

“I’m very proud of being half English and I think as time passes my best English qualities are more and more visible. I’m pleased I can be outrageous as only the English can be.”

I wonder if outrageous meant being her own woman, expressing her opinions unreservedly and having many well-publicized love affairs.

When she told her father of her acting ambitions, he called her a whore, but her mother supported her, and she entered the Conservatoire National Supérieur d’Art Dramatique when she was 17-years-old. (Moreau’s father only reconciled to his daughter’s profession a few years before he died in 1975.) By the early 1950s she was established on stage and became a major player at the Comédie-Française.

Her stage triumphs included Jean Cocteau’s La Machine Infernale, with Jean Marais; Eliza Doolittle in G.B Shaw’s Pygmalion, directed by Marais; and Maggie in Tennessee William’s Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, directed by Peter Brook, where she was seen by the 25-year-old film director Louis Malle.

Moreau achieved screen stardom only with her 20th film, Malle’s first solo feature, the noir Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud (Elevator To The Gallows) as an actor who represented the spirit of emerging feminism. Her status was consolidated in Malle’s drama Les Amants (The Lovers)  in 1958. The films were controversial; Les Amants was subject of an obscenity case in the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1960, Moreau won the Best Actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Peter Brook’s Seven Days… Seven Nights. She won many other awards including a BAFTA Award for Viva Maria! (1965), and the César Award for The Old Lady Who Walked In The Sea (1992).

It was Jules Et Jim that made Moreau an international star. Directed by François Truffaut, the stylish film is set during WW I and is the story of a love triangle between Moreau’s character, Catherine, and friends Jules (Oskar Werner) and Jim (Henri Serre). It remains hugely influential, becoming synonymous with the French New Wave movement and regularly appearing on Best Films Of All Time lists.


Moreau, with Henri Serre and Oskar Werner, “Jules Et Jim” (1962), photograph by Ronald Grant


She made more than 75 films in a career that lasted six and a half decades. Her final feature film was O Gebo E A Sombra (Gebo And Shadow) in 2012, playing opposite the great Claudia Cardinale. It was directed by Manoel de Oliveira , who was 103-years-old when it was made.

Moreau had strong and lasting friendships with prominent writers: Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Henry Miller and Marguerite Duras. She was married to filmmaker Jean-Louis Richard (1949–1964) and then to American film director William Friedkin (1977–1979). Bisexual director Tony Richardson left his wife, Vanessa Redgrave, for her in 1967, but they never married. She also had affairs with Malle and Truffaut, fashion designer Pierre Cardin, and jazz musician Miles Davis.

In Les Amants, Moreau is wonderful as the bored provincial wife finding sexual gratification outside marriage. But, with its nude love scenes, it was one of the causes of the end of her affair with Malle. Moreau:

“Louis could no longer stand to see me as others then saw me, and as only he had seen me until then. I knew that if I played the love scenes just as Louis wanted, he would love me as an actor, but hate me as a woman. I could not play them without betraying him.”

However, they remained good friends for the rest of their lives, and Malle directed Moreau in two further films, Le Feu Follet (1963) and Viva Maria! (1965).

She directed two well-made, rather old-fashioned films, Lumière (1976), which is about life of actors, and The Adolescent (1979), inspired by childhood during the Nazi occupation. In Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle (1982), based on Genet, she plays a greedy or grasping madame of a brothel, who sings Everybody Kills the Thing He Loves.

In English films, she plays a lesbian in Vicious Circle (1985), an adaptation of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis Clos, and in The Clothes In The Wardrobe (1993), she is a free-spirited woman bringing brightness into a dull English family. She also continued to bring her heady combination of passion and intelligence to a new generation of French directors, such as Luc Besson’s Nikita (1990).

Few film actors could compete with Moreau in the longevity of her allure. She plays a witty and lecherous con artist in The Old Lady Who Walks In The Sea (1991), in François Ozon’s Le Temps Qui Reste ( 2005), she is the sympathetic confidante to her dying gay grandson; and in Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo Et L’Ombre (2012), she delivers in an amusing small role.

In 2016, photograph by Rudy Waks, via youTube


She was a good friend of Sharon Stone, who presented an American Academy Of Motion Pictures life tribute to Moreau in 1998. Orson Welles called her “The greatest actress in the world”.


“People, especially women, worry so much about ageing. But I tell you, you look younger if you don’t worry about it. Because beyond the beauty, the sex, the titillation, the surface, there is a human being. And that has to emerge.”

Moreau was 89-years-old when her final credits rolled July 30, 2017.


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