Liliane Montevecchi, a Tony Winner for 'Nine,' Dies at 85

Liliane Montevecchi - H Photofest 2018

The Paris-born former prima ballerina became an MGM contract player in the 1950s but found more enduring fame three decades later on Broadway.

Liliane Montevecchi, a veteran stage and screen performer who personified elegant old-world French glamour with an extravagant touch of camp, died June 29 at her home in New York City of colon cancer. She was 85.

A rail-thin, angular beauty with legs that went on forever, Montevecchi was born in Paris in 1932 and began dancing at age eight, starting her international career in the ballet company of Roland Petit.

She was lured to Hollywood in the 1950s, one of several foreign-born ballerinas to make the transition in that decade, along with Leslie Caron, Moira Shearer and Zizi Jeanmaire. Montevecchi became an MGM contract player, landing small roles in The Glass Slipper with Michael Wilding, Daddy Long Legs with Fred Astaire, Moonfleet with Stewart Granger, The Sad Sack with Jerry Lewis, King Creole with Elvis Presley and The Young Lions with Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin. But unlike Caron, her screen career failed to blossom into significant fame, though she attended classes at The Actors Studio in New York alongside Marilyn Monroe.

Montevecchi made her Broadway debut as a replacement in the 1958 musical sketch revue La Plume de Ma Tante, a satire of French society. Soon after, she accepted a star spot dancing in the Folies Bergere, first in Las Vegas and then on tour before appearing at the original Paris music hall through much of the 1970s.

Her greatest success came with her return to Broadway in 1982 as one of the coterie of gorgeous women orbiting around film director Guido Contini, played by Raul Julia, in the stunning original production of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's musical Nine, based on Federico Fellini's Otto e mezzo.

Montevecchi played Liliane La Fleur, who led a showstopping number appropriately titled "Folies Bergere" that ended with her wrapping herself in a 30-foot feather boa. (Watch Yeston give a detailed account of the evolution of that song in this video interview.) She won the Tony Award for best featured actress in a musical, beating out castmates Karen Akers and Anita Morris in the same category. Nine also won Tonys for best musical, original score, costume design and for Tommy Tune's stylish direction.

Reuniting with Tune and Yeston seven years later, she played a central character in the large ensemble of the smash hit Grand Hotel, a musical based on the Vicki Baum novel and the all-star 1932 MGM film. Recreating the role played by Greta Garbo onscreen of fading ballerina Elizaveta Grusinskaya, Montevecchi received a 1990 Tony nomination for best actress in a musical. She reprised the role in 2015 in a 25th anniversary concert at New York's 54 Below.

She continued to act in film, television and on stage in subsequent decades, including playing the Wicked Witch of the West in a 1999 Radio City Entertainment tour of The Wizard of Oz, which featured Mickey Rooney in the title role. She appeared as Solange LaFitte, singing "Ah, Paris!" in a celebrated all-star 1985 staging of Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman's Follies at Lincoln Center, reprising that role in 1998 at the Paper Mill Playhouse.

On screen in her post-MGM years, she had a cameo in Oliver Stone's Wall Street and in How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, she played the wife of a diamond magnate who flirts with the much younger character of Matthew McConaughey. Her final film role was in 2016's 4 Days in France.

Montevecchi was a regular on cabaret stages in New York and internationally right up until last year, touring in semi-autobiographical shows in which she sang in both English and French. In 2013 she was honored by the French Minister of Culture as an "Officer of Arts and Culture" to France and the world at large.