Critic's Notebook: Jeanne Moreau, Woman of the World

Jeanne Moreau in 'Jules and Jim' (1962)

THR's chief film critic remembers an actress whose sophistication and deep well of life experience defined her both onscreen and off.

It was impossible to know Jeanne Moreau without being enthralled, excited, impressed and quite certain that you were in the presence of someone who knows more about the world than you do. Deep experience of life and love defined her screen persona and exuded from her every pore, and serious wisdom came along with that. More than anyone I've ever known, she convinced me that nothing in human experience was foreign to her, a quality that served her magnificently in life and work.

Moreau, who died Monday after 89 abundantly full years, was one of those special people who put her talent into her work and her genius into her life; on some special occasions, these became intertwined. She brilliantly created some of the most arresting female characters of mid-century cinema, most famously in Louis Malle's The Lovers and Francois Truffaut's Jules and Jim, and to these I would add her bleach-blonde gambler in Jacques Demy's Bay of Angels. And in the annals of French cinema, I would argue that Moreau was the only actress who could have possibly conveyed the same convincing world-weary, time-tested wisdom about love that Arletty embodied to perfection in Children of Paradise.

I was fortunate to get to know Moreau pretty well when I was working on foreign acquisitions and publicity for Roger Corman's New World Pictures in the mid-1970s. After the company's great success with films by Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut, we began picking up more foreign-language films, one of which was Moreau's first film as a writer-director, Lumiere. In addition to creating the ad campaign and stirring up interest, I was tasked with escorting Moreau to interviews and events (no translator was needed, of course; her mother was an English-born dance hall girl), so I quickly began to spend considerable time with this extraordinary woman.

Even then, when she was nearly 50, her voice had a sand-paperish edge from all the smoking, and she'd let herself go a bit; in fact, from the beginning, she always looked a bit older than she was, which helped her generate the image of an experienced and sage woman of the world. Still, she evinced no outward need to dominate or always be the center of attention or conversation, as she asked plenty of questions and always inquired into others' thoughts and feelings. Despite some resemblance, both in stature and looks, in this regard she was no Bette Davis.

The highlight of our working relationship was a trip to attend her film's screening at the San Francisco Film Festival. A film about four actresses, one of them played by the director, Lumiere was a good, entirely creditable directorial debut, sun-drenched and well-observed (how could it not be, given its subject matter?), and was warmly embraced by the crowd. What mattered to Jeanne, however, was one member of the audience, who came backstage, smothered her in a huge embrace and lavished upon her the only praise that mattered to her that night. It came from her old friend Tennessee Williams, whose bourbon-honeyed accent and instantly intimate manner of speech was incomparably disarming. Back in the 1950s, she had co-starred in the Paris production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and they had been fast friends ever since. Also there that night was Andy Warhol, who came up to offer a rather bashful, awkward hello but then seemingly didn't know what to say and wandered out into the night. It was a brilliant evening.

Shortly after this trip, Jeanne invited me to accompany her to a Friday night dinner at the Hollywood Hills home of her former director and lover, Tony Richardson, who had left Vanessa Redgrave for Jeanne back in the mid-'60s when they made two perfectly dreadful films together, Mademoiselle and The Sailor From Gibraltar. From the moment we arrived at the house, which was festooned with giant Hockneys and other valuable modern art work, Tony was distant to the point of rudeness with his former intimate friend, paying far more attention to his eight or 10 other guests, all of whom were young, male and very good looking. Jeanne was the only female invited, and when we were seated at the far end of the long table, far from Tony, she started fuming, chain-smoking instead of eating and wondering why she was invited at all. She had been under the impression there would just be three or four of us, that she'd have the chance to engage again with her partner-in-crime from a decade earlier, but no such luck. We headed out into the night at the earliest opportunity.

Maintaining a low profile, Jeanne stuck around Los Angeles and then was seemingly here to stay; she had married William Friedkin. She had never mentioned his name to me, even to say that she was seeing him, let alone planning to marry. She was known to have had many affairs, often with directors with whom she worked, but after a very early marriage (one day before giving birth to her only child, in 1949), she had become such a renowned woman of the world that one never imagined she would ever settle down again.

But here she was, “Madame Friedkin,” as someone rather derisively referred to her, occupying a sprawling home just above UCLA in Bel-Air and, as I learned over numerous lunches at a small, entirely untrendy Japanese place (no longer there) on Sawtelle Boulevard that was a favorite of hers, writing her autobiography. Her husband still not recovered from the shock of his first big-budget flop, Sorcerer, after the giant successes of The French Connection and The Exorcist, Jeanne was in a quiet, reclusive period, dwelling in her past, trying to summon up memories from her exceptionally eventful first 50 years and write about them meaningfully. From what she said, it wasn't easy for her.

Except for one dinner at the house with her and her husband, I only saw her under these circumstances. Correctly or not, I got the impression that her two years in Los Angeles represented an unusually isolated, perhaps even lonely period in her life, with much of it devoted to a memoir that she ended up never finishing and tossing out, never to be read by an outsider.

Then she was back in France, where she became busy again. I saw her once in Paris, then in Cannes when she presided over a tribute to Truffaut after his death in 1985. But I always tried to keep up from afar.

“Living is risking,” Jeanne once said in an interview with The Guardian. Perhaps she thought it every day, or at least every day that proved worthwhile to her.