Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The greatest living actress

In these giddy post-Oscar days, it's important to keep things in perspective. Seeing Claude Autant-Lara's rare 1949 film Occupe-toi d'Amélie (left) a few days ago in Paris, for instance, I was reminded once again that Danielle Darrieux—who's turning 92 in May and was just the object of a 100-film retrospective at the Cinémathèque Française—is the greatest living actress.

American readers/viewers familiar with her most likely know Darrieux from her star turns in Max Ophüls's The Earrings of Madame de…, La Ronde and Le Plaisir, all from the 1950s, as well as from her appearance in Jacques Demy's Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, where she played Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac's mother. But she's so much more: She embodies both the very history of French cinema and a certain idea of the country itself—witty, elegant, alternately suggesting wounded melancholy and irrepressible grace. Few actors share her versatility. (Meryl Streep perhaps? Let's check back in 30 years.)

Oh, and Darrieux could sing, too. She started her career in a string of musicals in the 1930s and stayed faithful to the genre with Demy in the 1960s and all the way through François Ozon's 8 Women in 2002. She even made it to Broadway in 1970, when she replaced Katharine Hepburn in Coco.

In this clip from Norman Taurog's 1951 movie Rich, Young and Pretty, Darrieux performs "There's Danger in Your Eyes." (In the film she plays Jane Powell's mother despite being only 34; a few years later, she'd be Richard Burton's mom, even though he was only seven years older than she was.) And here she sings a setting of Aragon's "Il n'y a pas d'amour heureux" in 8 Femmes.

A quick note about Occupe-toi d'Amélie: The film, extremely rare for decades because the Feydeau estate thought it took liberties with the play, is an absolute jewel. Autant-Lara constantly plays off the porous border between stage and life by setting things up as a play within the film—and a play in which the spectators periodically interrupt the action, Purple Rose of Cairo–style. The pace is downright dizzying as well: This is how farce needs to be done, with speed but also absolute precision.

No comments: