Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Memories of Jeanne Moreau (and Sam Shepard)

It’s not true, as some Hollywood onlookers claim, that Jeanne Moreau was once cast as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Yes, her name came up as producer Larry Turman and director Mike Nichol contemplated having Benjamin Braddock lured into bed by a genuine Française. This would have been nicely in keeping with the French cinematic tradition of sophisticated older women initiating naïve young men into sexu­ality.  But Turman and Nichols decided between themselves that the story of The Graduate needed to be an all-American one, and so Moreau was never offered the role.

It’s no surprise, though, that they considered Moreau for the role that eventually went to Anne Bancroft. Born in 1928, she would have been just the right age in 1967 to play a still-sexy woman with a daughter in college. And Turman and Nichols, both fans of the innovative new European cinematic movement known as the Nouvelle Vague (or New Wave), surely had seen Moreau in some of her most iconic roles. In 1958, she was directed by Louis Malle in Les Amants (The Lovers), playing a bored wife and mother who upends her comfortable marriage in the arms of a much younger archaeologist she’s just met. By the film’s end she has turned her back on her previous life, abandoning husband and daughter for an uncertain existence with her new flame.

 In the U.S. The Lovers was particularly known for its role in a landmark obscenity case A screening of the film in Cleveland Heights, Ohio led to a criminal conviction of the theatre manager for public display of obscene material. He appealed to a deeply-split U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice Potter Stewart (not known as a flaming liberal) wrote a soon-to-be-famous commentary on Jacobellis v. Ohio.  Stewart refused to label The Lovers pornographic, saying that, while he could not narrowly define pornography, “I know it when I see it.” (Happily, while few of the justices could agree on their own definition of what makes something obscene, Jacobellis won his case.)

The other film for which Moreau will never be forgotten is François Truffaut’s provocative Jules and Jim, which startled moviegoers in 1962 via its depiction of a lethal love triangle, with Moreau’s Catherine at its apex. (The two young men involved were Henri Serre and Austria’s Oskar Werner, who would later make a big impression in Stanley Kramer’s Ship of Fools.)  The film’s inventive stylistics, coupled with its insights into the extremes of human behavior, assured it of serious attention from every film-lover out there.

As Moreau grew older, she won the respect and the friendship of such leading writers as Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, and Marguerite Duras. She acted for Orson Welles, once vocalized with Frank Sinatra at Carnegie Hall, and was briefly married to William Friedkin of The Exorcist fame. If Wikipedia is to be trusted, she had affairs with everyone from Pierre Cardin to Miles Davis. As recently as 2012 she was still making movies. When she died yesterday at the ripe old age of 89, no one could say that she hadn’t lived a full life.

Rest in peace, as well, to Sam Shepard, a talented actor (a Best Supporting Actor nominee for The Right Stuff) who was also one of our best contemporary playwrights. His tough, spare dramas of hard-scrabble family life were performed by major actors and won major awards (like the 1979 Pulitzer Prize for Buried Child). Shepard’s personal life included a two-decade relationship with Jessica Lange that produced two children. How sad that he succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease at the not-so-advanced age of 73.

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