Jeanne Moreau, Star of French Film Classics, Dies at 89

Acclaimed French actress Jeanne Moreau, whose films include such masterpieces as “Jules and Jim” and “Diary of a Chambermaid,” has died. She was 89.

The mayor of the Paris district in which Moreau lived confirmed her death.

French President Emmanuel Macron called her “a legend of cinema and theater … an actress engaged in the whirlwind of life with an absolute freedom.” Pierre Lescure, president of the Cannes Film Festival, tweeted: “She was strong and she didn’t like to see people pour their hearts out. Sorry, Jeanne, but this is beyond us. We are crying.”

Moreau was honored with a 1965 Time magazine cover story, rare for a foreign actress, and was compared to such screen greats as Garbo and Monroe. Since her rise to prominence in the mid-’50s, she epitomized the tenets of the French new wave, boasting a womanly sexuality and a fierce independent spirit. Orson Welles, who worked with Moreau on several films, once called her “the greatest actress in the world.”

Major directors scrambled to work with her and often became her lovers offscreen. She starred in films by Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Jacques Demy, Michelangelo Antonioni, Welles, Luis Bunuel and Joseph Losey. In the mid ’70s she turned briefly to directing and even paid homage to an earlier screen legend with a documentary about Lillian Gish.

While still in theater school Moreau was recruited by the Comedie Francaise, where she appeared in Ivan Turgenev’s “A Month in the Country.” During her stint with the troupe from 1948-52, she racked up 22 roles, although she later referred to her classical training as “a prison term.”

She then moved on to the Theatre National Populaire, where she was cast in “Le Prince de Hambourg” and “Le Cid” opposite Gerard Philipe.

During these years she appeared in films beginning with “Dernier amour” in 1949, “Meurtres,” the musical “Pigalle-Saint-Germain-des-Pres,” “L’Homme de ma vie” and “Il est minuit docteur Schweitzer.”

Her stage role in 1953’s “L’Heure eblouissante”(“The Dazzling Hour”), in which she took on the dual roles of a man’s wife and mistress (after her co-star took ill), made her a French theater star, and she continued to dazzle Paris with roles in “Pygmalion,” Cocteau’s “La Machine infernale” and “La bonne soupe.” In her biggest legit break, she was Maggie the Cat in a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” directed by Peter Brook in 1956.

The film roles continued mostly in low-budget vehicles such as “Les Hommes en blanc,” “Le Salaire du peche” and “Echec au porteur.” But in 1957, after seeing her in “Cat,” director Louis Malle cast her in his first feature, “Ascenseur pour l’echafaud” (Elevator to the Gallows), which was critically hailed as a film noir masterpiece upon its re-release in the U.S. in 2005. She quickly followed the film with “Trois jours a vivre” and “Le dos au mur.”

It was her second film for Malle, the racy “Les amants,” in 1958 that made her an international star and icon. She followed it with “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” for Roger Vadim; “Les dialogue des Carmelites”; 1960’s Marguerite Duras-scripted “Moderato cantabile,” which won her a best actress award at Cannes; Antonioni’s “La notte,” in which she played an alienated woman of the upper class; and, most memorably, Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim” (1962), which she and the director financed.

By then, every major director in the world was seeking her services. She starred for Losey in “Eva” — Moreau’s performance as a psychologically disturbed woman has been called her riskiest — and Demy in “La baie des anges.”

She starred with Anthony Perkins in Welles’ Kafka adaptation “The Trial” in 1962, but her first Hollywood role came in the routine “The Victors,” followed by John Frankenheimer’s excellent WWII thriller “The Train” and Anthony Asquith’s comedy “The Yellow Rolls Royce.”

She did a comedic romp for Malle, “Viva Maria!,” with Brigitte Bardot. Next was Bunuel’s brilliant “Diary of a Chambermaid” (1964) and Welles’ “Chimes at Midnight” in 1965. She also appeared in Marcel Ophuls’ comedy “Banana Peel.” She appeared in two Tony Richardson vehicles, “Mademoiselle” (adapted by Duras from a Jean Genet story) and “The Sailor From Gibraltar” (adapted from a Duras novel) that were box office disasters, as was “Great Catherine” with Peter O’Toole, although many applauded Moreau’s performance in “Mademoiselle.”

She excelled, however, in Truffaut’s suspenseful “The Bride Wore Black” and Welles’ “The Immortal Story.”

During the ’60s, Moreau began a recording career and toured in nightclubs. She also sang in Jean Renoir film “Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir.”

But as Time observed, “Moreau forcefully demonstrates the verve, style and flamboyant femaleness that makes her the envy of European sex symbols much greener in years…Too bad that a first-rate actress so often has to squeeze her victories out of second-rate scripts.”

By 1970 good roles were growing scarcer. There were Philippe de Broca’s “Chere Louise” in 1972, Duras’ “Nathalie Granger,” Losey’s “Mr. Klein” and “The Trout,” Elia Kazan’s “The Last Tycoon,” Bertrand Blier’s “Les Valseuses” and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s swan song “Querelle.” During the decade she also directed two films, “Lumiere,” a story of female friendship in which she also starred, and “L’Adolescente,” which starred Simone Signoret. She also helmed a 1984 documentary on Lillian Gish for the American Film Institute.

By the ’80s and ’90s, she had slowed down considerably, gracing such films as “La Femme Nikita,” “Until the End of the World,” “The Summer House” and “The Proprietor” with her presence.

In 1985 she made her U.S. stage debut in a revival of Tennessee Williams’ “Night of the Iguana,” but the production folded out of town on its way to Broadway. In 2001 she adapted Margaret Edson’s “Wit” for the French stage and directed the production.

Moreau won a Cesar for best actress in 1992 for her performance as an irrepressible con artist in “The Old Lady Who Wades in the Sea.”

She continued her long association with Marguerite Duras by providing the narration for both the English and French versions of Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 adaptation of Duras novel “The Lover”; in 2001 she played the novelist and filmmaker in “Cet amour-la.”

As she entered her 80s Moreau remained busy onscreen. She starred in “Disengagement” and “One Day You’ll Understand,” films by the Israeli filmmaker Amos Gitai. She also worked in French television, starring in 2013’s “Le tourbillon de Jeanne.”

The actress also continued to make appearances in English-language films on occasion, showing up in 1993’s “Map of the Human Heart”; “I Love You, I Love You Not” (1996), in which she played Claire Danes’ grandmother, a Holocaust survivor; and 1998 fairy-tale reworking “Ever After,” starring Drew Barrymore.

Moreau’s lineage was only half French, her mother Anglo-Irish from Lancashire. She was born in Paris, although she spent part of her childhood in the tiny village of Mazirat in France’s Allier region. While attending the Lycee Edgar Quinet, she stole away to see her first play, Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone” and determined to be an actress. She auditioned for the Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique and made her stage debut in an Avignon festival production of “La Terasse de midi.”

Moreau was head of the jury at the 33rd Berlin Film Festival in 1983, won an Honorary Golden Berlin Bear at the fest in 2000 and picked up an honorary Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2003 and an honorary Cesar in 2008.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences saluted Moreau in a tribute held in October 1998, and in 2002 she was interviewed by James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio.”

She was married twice, first to actor, director and screenwriter Jean-Louis Richard (1949-51) and then to American film director William Friedkin (1977-79). She is survived by a son, actor Jerome Richard.

Elsa Keslassy contributed to this report.

More Film

  • Fig Tree review

    Palm Springs Reviews: 'Fig Tree'

    It’s a question integral to much of the current international immigration debate: When war breaks out, who gets to flee and who’s left with nowhere to run? As a child, writer-director Aalam-Warqe Davidian was among a majority of Ethiopian Jews who emigrated to Israel. In her loosely autobiographical feature debut, a teenager facing similar circumstances [...]

  • Jeff BridgesJeff Bridges, who stars in

    Film News Roundup: Jeff Bridges Wins American Society of Cinematographers Honor

    In today’s film news roundup, Jeff Bridges is honored by cinematographers, the “Arctic” filmmakers get a first-look deal and releases are set for “Vault,” the Seth Rogen-Charlize Theron comedy and “What Lies Ahead.” BRIDGES HONORED The American Society of Cinematographers has selected Jeff Bridges as the recipient of the organizations’ 2019 Board of Governors Award. [...]

  • Cate Blanchett's 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette'

    Cate Blanchett's 'Where'd You Go, Bernadette' Moved Back to August

    Annapurna Pictures has moved its Richard Linklater literary adaptation “Where’d You Go, Bernadette,” starring Cate Blanchett back five months from March 22 to an Aug. 9 release. A rep for Annapurna explained that August has served well as a launching pad for release of female-skewing films such as “Crazy Rich Asians,” “Florence Foster Jenkins” and [...]

  • Kumail Nanjiani Issa Rae

    Kumail Nanjiani, Issa Rae to Star in 'Lovebirds' Romantic Comedy

    “The Big Sick” star Kumail Nanjiani and “Insecure” star Issa Rae will topline Paramount’s romantic comedy “The Lovebirds.” The project will reunite Nanjiani with “The Big Sick” helmer Michael Showalter, who’s on board to direct from a script by Aaron Abrams, Brendan Gall, and Martin Gero. The project goes into production at the end of [...]

  • Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce

    Mj Rodriguez, Nico Santos to Announce GLAAD Media Award Nominations

    Mj Rodriguez and Nico Santos are set to announce the nominees for the 30th annual GLAAD Media Awards. The “Pose” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” funny man will make the announcement during a live-stream from the AT&T Hello Lounge at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, Jan. 25. “The images and stories recognized by the [...]

  • 'The Pledge' Review

    Film Review: 'Pledge'

    “Privilege comes with sacrifice” says one character to another in “Pledge” — exactly the kind of noble sentiment authority figures always voice to hush the protests of those about to be sacrificed. This third feature for director Daniel Robbins is no delicate flower of cinematic art, but a lean and mean shocker that tells its [...]

  • John Lithgow

    John Lithgow-Blythe Danner's 'Tomorrow Man' Bought Ahead of Sundance Premiere

    In one of the first deals for the upcoming Sundance Film Festival, Bleecker Street has acquired North American rights to the John Lithgow-Blythe Danner romance “The Tomorrow Man.” The movie will hold its world premiere at the fest, which opens on Jan. 24 in Park City, Utah. The distributor is planning a May 17 release. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content