Jeanne Moreau, French Actress Who Irked U.S. Censors, Dies at 89

  • She became the embodiment of French cinema and glamour
  • Won international fame in Francois Truffaut’s ‘Jules and Jim’

Jeanne Moreau, the French actress whose seductive beauty caught the eye of directors such as Orson Welles and Michelangelo Antonioni and incurred the wrath of U.S. censors, has died. She was 89.

She died Monday, according to the Associated Press, citing a statement from the office of French President Emmanuel Macron. No details were given.

Jeanne Moreau as the empress Catherine The Great.

Photographer: Terry O’Neill via Gertty Images

Moreau became the embodiment of French cinema and glamour, acting in dozens of plays and more than 140 movies. Rivaling the sensuality of Brigitte Bardot, Moreau often played a femme fatale or woman of easy virtue and was closely linked to the New Wave, a group of auteur filmmakers in the 1950s and ’60s who included Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Louis Malle.

At age 30, Moreau won the award for best actress at the Venice Film Festival for her role in Malle’s 1958 film “The Lovers,” in which she played a bored upper-class wife who rediscovers love in adultery. One semi-nude sex scene included a shot of her face during orgasm.

In the U.S., the movie’s screening resulted in the criminal conviction of a theater manager for showing obscene material. On appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in Jacobellis v. Ohio (1964) that the film wasn’t obscene and was constitutionally protected.

Rising Star

Truffaut’s 1962 love tragedy “Jules and Jim” brought Moreau international fame. Based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, it followed a love triangle between two friends and an impulsive woman, Catherine, before and after World War I.

“She has all the attributes of a woman, together with all the qualities one expects in a man, with none of the inconveniences of either,” Truffaut once said of Moreau.

Welles, who directed her in three of his movies, called her the “greatest actress in the world.”

Referred to “Mademoiselle Moreau” by French media until late in her life, her first marriage was to film director Jean-Louis Richard when she was 21. The day after her marriage, she gave birth to a son, Jerome Richard, who became a painter.

“I’m not made to have children,” she said in a 2011 interview with French newspaper L’Express. “I like other people’s children very much. I’m more a grandmother than a mother.”

The marriage to Richard lasted two years, as did her second marriage, to U.S. film director William Friedkin in 1977. Moreau also had affairs with Malle and Truffaut as well as fashion designer Pierre Cardin, among others.

Early Life

Moreau was born Jan. 23, 1928, in Paris. Her father, Anatole-Desire Moreau, owned the Cloche d’Or brasserie, where comedians and artists came to eat near the red-light area of Paris. Her English mother, Kathleen Buckley, was a dancer.

After spending her high-school years at the College Edgar Quinet in Paris, Moreau attended courses as at the Conservatoire National d’Art Dramatique as an “auditrice,” which allowed her only to listen to what was being taught and watch students performing, as she didn’t pass the entry exam.

She made her debut in 1947 at the Avignon Festival and joined the Comedie-Francaise’s troupe a year later, soon becoming one of its leading actors. Her first major part there was as a prostitute in a 1950 dramatization of Andre Gide’s novel “Les Caves du Vatican.” It earned her the cover of Paris Match magazine.

Conspiring Lover

In Malle’s 1958 feature film “Elevator to the Gallows,” Moreau portrayed a woman who conspires with her lover to kill her rich husband. In the most powerful sequence, we see her wandering through Paris, looking for her lover, who has been trapped in an elevator after committing the “perfect crime.”

In 1960, she won an award for best actress at the Cannes Film Festival for her role in “Seven Days...Seven Nights”, a drama directed by Peter Brook.

In Antonioni’s “La Notte” (1961), Moreau played yet another frustrated wife, unable to communicate with her husband, portrayed by Marcello Mastroianni. Again, she roams the streets -- this time of suburban Milan, where the couple had once been happy.

The last of Moreau’s most memorable films was again directed by Truffaut. In the 1968 movie “The Bride Wore Black,” she eliminates each of the five men who accidentally killed her husband minutes after their wedding.

As time passed, her roles became smaller, though she carried on, unafraid to show her aging face: “There is nothing more pathetic than to cling to the image of your past,” she said.

In 1998, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Moreau for her life’s work. In the same year, France’s Academie des Beaux-Arts elected her to the new chair of movie artists, created on that occasion.

“It’s an incredible gift, the energy of life,” she said in a 2011 interview with the Guardian newspaper. “You don’t have to be a wreck. You don’t have to be sick. One’s aim in life should be to die in good health. Just like a candle that burns out. You see?”

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