Thursday, April 27, 2017

Edwige Feuillère - La Grande Actrice Française

On November 13, 1998, the day that Edwige Feuillère died, France mourned. A beloved icon of the silver screen and the grand dame of the Paris theater had passed on and the wave of tributes that poured in befitted a political head of state. 

"Many actresses have been called La Divine, but none deserved it as much as Edwige Feuillère," wrote James Kirkup. Indeed, her talent was world-renowned and some critics, after seeing her perform live, considered her the greatest actress of the 20th century. She was Katharine Cornell, Greer Garson, Anne Baxter, Googie Withers, and Ann Sothern all rolled into one...and yet she was completely, and uniquely, Feuillère...with long slender hands, a beautiful smile, mesmerizing eyes, and a commanding film presence. 

The New York Times wrote for her obituary, "Stunningly beautiful in her youth, gracefully elegant in old age, Ms. Feuillère was remembered as much for her powerful well-modulated voice as for her expressive eyes and magnetic presence". 

Edwige Feuillère ( pronounced Edweej Foolyair ) had an impressive career which spanned over 60 years. During that time she starred in several notable plays which will be forever associated with her name : "La Dame aux Camelias" ( Camille ), "L'Aigle a deux Tetes" ( The Eagle with Two Heads ), and "La Folle de Chaillot" ( The Madwoman of Challiot ).

Feuillère was born Edwige Louise Caroline Cunati in Vesoul, France in 1907. Her mother was Alsace-born but her father was an Italian, and since he was drafted by the Italian army during World War I, Edwige spent much of her childhood in Italy. After the war, her family moved to Dijon, France, where Edwige performed in school plays and later studied acting at the Dijon Conservatoire. She met her husband Pierre Feuillère, a fellow acting student, while studying at the Paris Conservatoire in 1928. Two years later they married, but Pierre was a suicidal drug addict and the union lasted only two years. She never remarried and instead devoted herself to acting. 

Feuillère did not become an overnight success on stage or in films, even though she was made a member of the prestigious Comédie Française as early as 1931. It was her success in Edouard Bourdet's "La Prisonniere" at the Theatre Heberthot in 1935 that really gained her recognition as an actress. That same year she scandalized the public by appearing nude in the film version of the historical drama Lucrèce Borgia ( Lucrezia Borgia ). 

Feuillère's regal presence lent a classical stature to modern plays, which were often modeled on Greek themes, and playwrights such as Jean Giraudoux and Jean Cocteau continually pursued her to act in their latest works. Edwige had many roles that she would perform again and again on stage. She brought out a special quality in the characters she took on, making them uniquely her own. After having performed a part once, she would become known for that character. 

Her greatest stage triumph was as a femme fatale in Paul Claudel's "Partage de Midi". It was a lengthy and immensely difficult part which had long been admired for its dramatic poetry but was often considered unperformable. Director Jean-Louis Berrault transformed Claudel's metaphysical text into one of the most memorable coups de theatre of the century, and Feuillère's performance was never replicated. 

In 1939 she played Margeurite Gautier in Alexandre Dumas' "La Dame aux Camelias" in Paris. This would become her most recognized role which she would perform throughout the next twenty years. The play's director, Jacques Hebertot, accurately predicted, "You will carry this role throughout your life, a slave to the success it will bring you." Feuillere was also considered the "definitive Phaedre" and performed scenes from this Racine classic as well as many other of his works throughout her career. 

In film, she portrayed a charming spy opposite Erich von Stronheim in 1937's Marthe Richard au Service de la France ( Marthe Richard ), an elegant traveler in La Damme de Malacca ( Woman of Malacca ), and an adventuress in J'étais une Aventurière ( 1938 ). In Max Ophuls' 1940 melodrama Sans Ledemain ( Without Tomorrow ) she gave an excellent performance of a jaded woman abandoned with a load of debts by her shady husband.

Woman of Malacca ( 1937 )
Feuillère kept herself busy throughout the 1940s, averaging two films per year while starring in numerous stage productions both in France and England, notably in L'Aigle a deux Tetes, which she appeared in over 200 performances. In this production she played a queen who falls in love with her would-be assassin, a young man that resembles her late husband. It was a role that Jean Cocteau had created for her. She reprised her performance in Cocteau's 1947 film adaptation starring opposite the handsome Jean Marais, who became a dear personal friend. 

Other notable film productions of the 1940s included De Mayerling a Sarajevo ( Mayerling to Sarajevo ) where she portrayed Countess Sophie Choteck, wife of Archduke Franz Ferdinand; the screen adaptation of La Duchesse de Langeais ( 1942 ); and L'Honorable Catherine ( 1942 ). 

L'Aigle a deux tetes ( 1947 )
During World War II, Parisian society had such a watchful eye on Edwige the First ( a nickname the French critics gave their number one actress ) that when she wore an evening gown in public for the first time after abstaining from formal wear throughout the war years, all Paris "smiled again". Fashion houses throughout the city stocked up on scarce fabrics, anticipating an after-war boom in sales now that Edwige signaled that evening wear was once again appropriate. 

"I wish American producers would bring their plays here," Edwige stated in a 1946 Collier's magazine article. "I have met so few American actors. I would like to meet more." The New York play Arsenic and Old Lace was playing to standing-room only audiences in Paris at the time. Intellectual Parisians, like Edwige, were thoroughly familiar with American writers. She was able to quote passages from the works of Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Faulkner and was intensely interested in American novels, plays, and actors. 

She also desired to visit America, especially Hollywood, but wanted to remain in France until the war years were over. This reason made her decline the 7-year contract offered by Louis B. Mayer, head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios. It proved to be a rather foolish career move as Mayer would have surely seen to it that only the best scripts would be used in quality productions to showcase her acting ability ( and knowing Mayer, they would have been based on literary classics as well ). Instead, many of her films were mediocre and beneath her ability. 

As Mlle. Julie in "Olivia"
But Feuillère was not particular about the film roles offered to her, and in her freedom she tackled anything from comedies ( the delightful Les Fruits de l'été ), crime films ( Quand la femme s'en meme ), and capers ( OSS 117 ) to classical historical dramas ( Le Duchess de Langeau ). A true thespian, she loved acting for the sake of acting and the more challenging, or different, the part was the more it thrilled her. She gladly accepted roles that other actresses would have refused for fear of their careers being endangered. 

This desire to broaden her range led her to star in the 1951 screen adaptation of Dorothy Strachey's sensational book Olivia which centered on a schoolgirl's crush for her teacher, the charismatic Mlle. Julie. This role earned her accolades ( including a BAFTA nomination for Best Actress ) and she followed it up with an even more daring performance as an older women who introduces an adolescent to love in Le Blé en Herbe ( 1953 ). Feuillère was brilliant in the role and deftly suggested prurience sans impropriety. 

Le Blé en Herbe ( 1954 )
Off-screen, Edwige had little interest in the glamorous lifestyle often associated with movie stars and her 1977 autobiography "Les Feux de la Memoire" revealed her to be humorous and modest about her talent. She concentrated on stage work throughout the 1960s, appearing once again in "Partage de Midi" in London, touring with Jean Marais on stage, and starring in Giraudoux's "La Folle de Chaillot" which she later reprised for television. Edwige embraced television and often appeared in mini-series during the 1970s and 1980s, notably Les Dames de la Cote and later Edwige Feuillère en Scene ( 1993 ) a television movie based upon her popular stage show in which she replayed scenes from her most famous roles. 

Edwige retired from the stage in 1992, but continued to be recognized for her contributions to the French stage being awarded the Legion d'honneur, the Molière prize, an honorary César, and was named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres. 

Upon hearing of the death of her good friend Jean Marais, Edwige suffered a heart attack from which she never recovered and she passed on five days later, at the age of 91. 

Fortunately, many of her films are available for viewing on Youtube, and even without an understanding of French one can appreciate her acting style. 

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