Remembering Actress Jeanne Moreau, Icon Of French New Wave Cinema | WBEZ
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Remembering Actress Jeanne Moreau, Icon Of French New Wave Cinema

Jeanne Moreau was an actress of the French new wave who broke the rules both on screen and off. She died Monday in Paris at the age of 89.

As a young woman, Moreau kept her acting a secret from her father, who disapproved. When he found out, he hit her and kicked her out of the house, and she never went back. In 1993, Moreau told Fresh Air, "It helped me that he reacted so violently. It gave me the drive to resist."

Moreau starred in Louis Malle's The Lovers (1958), Luis Buñuel's Diary of a Chambermaid (1964), Orson Welles' The Trial (1962) and Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962), widely considered the most important film of her career.

In 2001, Moreau became the first woman to be inducted into France's Academy of Fine Arts.

Interview Highlights

On how her mother helped her pursue acting against her father's wishes

On one side, my father was against it, and on the other side, my mother helped me. ... She covered my lies because, very early, I led a double life. ... I studied to be an actress, and my father didn't know. And I acted on the stage, and my father didn't know. He discovered it when he saw my picture on the front page of a newspaper. And my first play was a huge success, and I was on the front page of all the daily newspapers. ... Well, he threw me out. [I stayed] in a hotel ... [for] six months.

On whether her father ever accepted her being an actress

Never. Never. Never. He was proud when I had an official decoration, you know, the Legion of Honor and things like that. But he used to say, "I can't understand. What has she got that is so special?" He thought I was a very good cook, that he appreciated. And it's true, I'm a very good cook. That was his limit.

On how her new wave films were different from anything she'd done before

It was totally different. In fact, I started filming at the same time as I started acting on stage. I'm from the stage. My only ambition was to be on stage. I had never seen a film. It was forbidden. It was considered scandalous. I was not allowed to go to see films, and I was not allowed to read the newspapers. That's the way I was brought up. As you can see, it's a very, very restricted discipline. So I started filming. And I must say, the new wave brought about a total different approach, a total freedom.

The old films I had made, I never met the director. I was contacted by the producer. I would meet the costume designer, the cameraman. And then maybe two or three days before the first day of [shooting], I would have a meeting with the director. ...

And when I was approached by Louis Malle — at the time, I was doing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Tennessee Williams, on stage, directed by Peter Brook. A very young man came to visit me with his two producers, and he was 24 and I was 29. And he came up and he explained [to] me what sort of film he wanted to do: very small budget, very small crew, hand camera, no makeup, shooting with [a] very light electrical group in the Champs-Élysées at night. Oh, I thought, God, isn't that marvelous? No makeup! Because the big problem [was] I didn't look like any of the stars of the time. I was supposed to be not very good looking. I had those signs under my eyes, the drooping mouth, and it took hours to make me up.

Later in her career, Moreau (pictured here in 2008) appeared in 1990's 'La Femme Nikita' and 1998's 'Ever After.' (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)

On how filming the love scenes in Louis Malle's The Lovers affected her romantic relationship with the director

My main preoccupation was my relationship with Louis Malle at the time. We were lovers, and I was, I mean, I was passionately in love with him. And immediately [when] we started the film, I had a very strange feeling. It was as though the more I would give to Louis Malle as a director, the more I would open up to that character on screen, the less would be left of our personal relationship, you know? ... I had the impression that as the sand was falling on the lower part [of an hourglass] then the last grain of sand would be the end of our relationship, and I was right. ...

I was giving up something that was very personal and secret and intimate between me and him. And it's as though it was sacred. And I had the impression I was giving it to him as a film director to go exactly where he wanted to go as a filmmaker, and I had to pay the price. Maybe it's my Christian background, you know, Catholic background, but it worked that way. So I didn't bother to think about: Is it going to be scandalous or what? No. I wanted to be as close to the truth, the beautiful truth of lovemaking and sensuality.

And I say "sensuality", I do not say "sexuality", because the thing I regret nowadays — it's that sex has deprived how people relate to sex of their beauties, of that sacred, spiritual, beautiful glory of each human being, just to be considered like a piece of meat, a slice of steak. What is great in making love, it's that you mix both, the senses and the love, and that's it.

Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted this interview for the Web.

Copyright 2017 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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