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Culture

French film and theatre icon Jeanne Moreau defied stereotyping

© Gerard Julien, AFP | Jeanne Moreau performs at the Carrière de Boulbon on July 5, 2008, as part of the Avignon Festival.

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2017-07-31

French New Wave actress Jeanne Moreau, who died at 89 in her home Monday, epitomised feminist free choice and chafed against the industry’s emphasis on appearance despite being seen by many as a sex symbol for the ages.

Moreau is best known internationally for her role in François Truffaut’s 1962 film “Jules et Jim”, but also starred in some of the most critically acclaimed films of the 20th century.

With her enigmatic dark eyes and sultry pout, Moreau was was often referred to as a sex symbol and had a series of affairs with famous men, but she eschewed the superficiality of her industry. "Physical beauty is a disgrace," she once said in her characteristic rasp.

Indeed, Moreau was a feminist icon, both in her support of women’s rights and in her refusal to be pigeonholed. During the course of her seven-decade career, she acted both on stage and on screen.

Moreau was born in Paris on January 23, 1928; her mother was an English cabaret dancer and her father a French café owner. "I was raised by a passionate and troubled couple, with an English mother who didn’t speak French very well," she said about her childhood in an interview. “My father cheated on her and I was the witness of their arguments. We lived in a cheap hotel in Montmarte. I knew the hookers who came there and when my father kicked me out of the house, they took care of me and became my friends.”

FRANCE 24's Olivia Salazar-Winspear on Jeanne Moreau's legacy

She studied at the French Conservatory of Dramatic Arts and proved a sensation from the start. At 20, she was one of the youngest-ever members of the Comédie-Française and grew to be one of the most renowned stage actresses of the time.

Throughout her life, Moreau defied being pigeonholed, moving between stage and screen and between highbrow and mainstream at will.

'The best actress in the world'

The list of directors she worked with reads like a Who’s Who of cinema and includes Orson Welles, Peter Brook, Truffaut, Tony Richardson, Wim Wenders, Michelangelo Antonioni, Elia Kazan and Luis Bunuel. Her directors tended to speak of her in superlatives. Welles called her "the best actress in the world", Brooks called her “one of the most remarkable actresses I have ever worked with” and Richardson, who left his marriage to Vanessa Redgrave for her, deemed her “more informed, committed and passionate than any other actress I know”.

"Any man who didn't love Jeanne Moreau would have to be blind and deaf. I, of the same feminine gender, have the same admiration and awe and respect," Redgrave conceded.

Moreau was married twice and had one son. She had a high-profile; five-year relationship with designer Pierre Cardin, but they never wed.

Moreau’s work often challenged the moral certitudes of the times. She played a criminal in "Lift to the Scaffold", which featured a jazz score by Miles Davis, and further ruffled feathers in "The Lovers", her first excursion into the sexual frankness that marked much of her later work. That film was cited in a US Supreme Court ruling about pornography, and prompted the famous line from Justice Potter Stewart on the subject: “I know it when I see it”.

Appearing in more than 100 films, Moreau racked up a pile of awards and distinctions, including a César (the French equivalent of an Oscar) – and a Lifetime Achievement Oscar. She twice presided over the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. But she was never content to rest on her laurels. In the 1970s she moved into writing and directing, and she used her standing in the industry to foster the careers of young directors. All the while she continued acting, appearing in her last film, "The Talent of my Friends", at age 87 in 2015.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

Date created : 2017-07-31

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