The 1974 Festival hosts "a veritable orgy" of a tribute to the leading lady of choice for François Truffaut, Louis Malle and Luis Buñuel.
Photo: Jeanne Moreau responds to reporters' questions at a 1974 Festival press conference.
By Jennifer Preissel
When Jeanne Moreau made her appearance at the 1974 International for a tribute (she was a rather young, though distinguished recipient at the age of 46), members of the mostly male press corps expressed dismay at her seemingly “reserved” appearance—in black boots and a minidress, she looked like “an uncertain young girl at the high school freshman mixer,” wrote John L. Wasserman in the Chronicle, not the capricious nymphette or seductress these critics had imagined from her screen appearances.
However, “fans of Jeanne Moreau had a veritable orgy” at her Festival tribute, Stanley Eichelbaum wrote in the Examiner. The event reached epic proportions—the program of four screenings (The Lovers, Jules and Jim, Bay of Angels and Diary of a Chambermaid), two hours of clips from other films, an onstage question and answer session with the audience and a champagne toast with the actress ranged somewhere between nine or 11 hours, depending on the source. Despite the gargantuan nature of the affair, the Palace of Fine Arts sold out, with tickets priced at six dollars a head. After six hours of patiently waiting for the actress to appear, the “awed, adoring audience” gave her a standing ovation, and the actress “broke into her most dazzling smile in response,” wrote Eichelbaum.
Moreau, known as the Bette Davis of French cinema, had more than earned the honor. Having appeared in more than 50 films, she had worked with many of the greats in international cinema: Orson Welles, Luis Buñuel, François Truffaut, Louis Malle and Jean Renoir, to name a few. Her performances are iconic (Catherine, the woman in love with two men in Jules and Jim; Florence, the duplicitous lover in Elevator to the Gallows; Celestine, the clever domestic servant in Diary of a Chambermaid; Lidia, the discontented wife in La Notte) and affirm Ginette Vincendeau’s assertion that while “Brigitte Bardot was sex and Catherine Deneuve elegance, Moreau incarnated intellectual femininity.”
Earlier in the day, at a press conference in advance of the tribute, Moreau explained to reporters how she became a film actress. She had initially wanted to be a dancer, but when she realized she did not have the talent for it, she decided upon a career in acting. After a six-month stint in drama school, she auditioned for the Comédie-Française production of A Month in the Country and, at the age of 20, won the part of Natacha. She performed with the company for four years before moving on to the Théâtre Nationale Populaire. Garnering acclaim on the stage, she began acting in films. Moreau admitted at a Festival press conference, “I didn’t know anything about films, because I was not allowed to see films or read newspapers by my father.”
Raised by an English mother and a French father, Moreau spoke in unbroken English at her press conference and tribute. At the latter event, she noted that critics had assumed—incorrectly—that her lines in Antonioni’s La Notte were dubbed by a native Italian-speaker. “I feel comfortable acting in any language,” she stated.
Surprising many in the audience, Moreau described herself as a “submissive actress who relies completely on the director.” Her reverence for the director grew out of association with the New Wave, where the director was the considered an artist. “To be an actress . . . you have to submit yourself to somebody who knows about the film in its entirety,” she said. “It’s like going in a tunnel or a fog—the more you go into a film, the more you discover things that you ignored about the film or the director or the people working with you or the things you have inside of you. And these discoveries are not always pleasant, but they build up to make a film.”
She asserted that she did not read scripts when deciding to make films. “The decision is made after meeting the director. It’s a question of professional relationships, it’s a question of feeling. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m not. It’s always an adventure.” Of working with Truffaut, she joked, he “never tells me anything about what he wants. He tells my friends who tell me.”
Her method of preparation seems to match the improvisational, stylized technique utilized by many of her directors. “I do not prepare really. I read the script and then I get ready. It starts with the costumes—it’s very funny. Though it’s the exterior, when you go through the scenes with the director and he says, I want this color, this dress, it’s a way of getting in touch with the person.”
While forthright in discussing her career choices, Moreau remained coy when questioned about her favorite leading man. “I only choose directors,” she said. “They choose actors.” She was evasive when an inquirer asked what her films revealed about her as a person. “It’s important what you think I am, not what I really am,” she responded. Likewise, she deflected any questions about her personal life.
When asked why she chose to attend the Film Festival, Moreau admitted, “At first I was a little frightened to come. Then I was very honored and I said I would come. It was out of curiosity and the desire to meet new people. This Festival is very important for cinema.” In a detailed letter to Festival Executive Director Claude Jarman, she thanked him for the honor of the tribute and then offered specific instructions on which films she thought would best represent her life on film. “I have the feeling that this tribute to my ‘career’ (everything in it has been accidental) ought to be, not only related to filmmaking or filmmakers but ought to give the portrait of a woman who is an actress.” As Jarman recalls, Moreau gobbled up the Festival as voraciously as many of the student attendees. Unlike the majority of stars, who dropped in for tributes appearances and departed the same day, “She loved coming to San Francisco. She just absolutely had a ball. She had a suite at the Mark, and I think she spent four or five days. She said it was great.”
In her interviews, Moreau mentioned that she was planning to direct a film. That she did, returning to the Festival in 1976, with Lumière, a feminist look at four actresses facing varied professional obstacles.
Still acting to this day, (and working with a new crop of French directors, including François Ozon and Olivier Assayas), Moreau did not view acting as an occupation. “A film to me is not a professional experience, it is a human experience,” she said at her tribute. “By acting I do not make a career, I make a life.”