Orson Welles called her “the world’s greatest actress.” She worked with the likes of Welles, Louis Malle, Francois Truffaut, Wim Wenders and Michelangelo Antonioni – some of the finest directors of the 20th century. I am describing French actress Jeanne Moreau, and I'm doing this short spotlight in my "Because" series because she is passionate. I'm also doing it because, as part of its Summer Under the Stars film festival, Turner Classic Movies is devoting the entire day Friday, Aug. 8, to Moreau, and I had the pleasure of writing the intros for the primetime line-up.
Up first for the night at 8 p.m. is “The Trial” – the only one of the evening I haven’t seen. It was interesting to learn about how director Orson Welles came to make the movie in my research. It was the first film he’d done with complete autonomy since his epic directorial debut, “Citizen Kane.” And he only did it because it was on a list of films the producers were willing to finance. It is based on a Franz Kafka novel about bureaucracy, tyranny and persecution – as so many Kafka works are. Moreau has a small part as the mysterious neighbor of the protagonist, played by Anthony Perkins. She was able to get some advice out of Welles about her desire to direct films herself someday. He advised her to wait until the need to direct became more painful. She starred in a few more films for Welles and in 1976 made her directorial debut with “Lumiere.”
Up next is one of my favorite Moreau films and one of her most famous roles – even though she’s only on the screen for a short time. It’s “Elevator to the Gallows” directed by Louis Malle. Malle is often credited with “discovering” Moreau because her career began to take off after “Elevator to the Gallows,” in which she plays a woman who has convinced her lover to kill her husband. [I give her an honorable mention for her performance on my list of cinema’s top femme fatales I posted recently.] But Malle denied the credit for Moreau’s cinematic ascendence – saying she was already a well-known stage and B-movie actress in France when he cast her in “Elevator.” There’s a killer score from Miles Davis that makes Moreau’s scenes wandering around the streets of Paris looking for her murderous lover make her seem like the coolest, yet most vulnerable femme fatale ever.
The third film of the night is the one that made Moreau an international sensation – her seminal performance in a landmark French New Wave film – “Jules and Jim.” She plays the free-spirited, tempestuous Catherine, the central figure in a love triangle between her and two very different best friends – the shy Jules, played by Oskar Werner, and the outgoing Jim, played by Henri Serre. She captivates the audience as effectively as she captivates her two suitors. Director Francois Truffaut said in his biography, “In all my 20 years of cinema, the filming of ‘Jules and Jim,’ thanks to Jeanne Moreau, remains a luminous memory, the most luminous.”
The fourth feature will be a provocative melodrama that sparked a landmark Supreme Court decision on obscenity – Louis Malle’s controversial “The Lovers.” Moreau plays a bored, wealthy wife and mother dealing with a massive mid-life crisis. She handles it as movie’s expect people to handle such milestones – embarking on a torrid affair with some random archeologist who helps her when her car breaks down. The extended sex scene they share was what caused all the uproar in 1959 when it was released, resulting in censorship bans in the U.S. (expected) and in several European countries (What!). When an Ohio theater manager was arrested for showing the film, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where the majority surprisingly decided the movie’s artistic merit outweighed any obscenity charge. By today’s standards, the movie probably would’ve gotten away with a PG-13 rating. There is some nudity, but at the time, just the shots of Moreau’s face experiencing such illicit pleasure were enough to send the upright, forthright squares into a tizzy. Of course, the controversy did nothing but make the movie more successful at the box office, but many critics were praising the film from the beginning – especially Moreau. The New York Times gushed, and I’m paraphrasing, that Moreau seemed to be living, not playing, the part.
Check out the movies tonight on TCM starting at 8 p.m. EDT. I’ll wrap this up with one my favorite quotes from Moreau, one of my favorite quotes ever –
“Like every human being, I have everything in me – the best and the worst.”
– Jeanne Moreau
More recommended Moreau
"La Notte" (1961) - Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
"The 400 Blows" (1959) - Director: Francois Truffaut
"Diary of a Chambermaid" (1964) - Director: Luis Buñuel