Catherine Deneuve: more than just a pretty face
Beverly Hills, Calif. — The place oozes money. All the stories you have ever heard about fabulous wealth in Beverly Hills are alive and well and commonplace at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Arabs and movie stars swish through the plush lobby as if it were the servant's quarters back at the mansion, and Rolls-Royces and Mercedes-Benzes jam up the front drive like jetliners in a holding pattern. Suitable surroundings for an interview with Catherine Deneuve, France's ranking film actress and reputedly one of the Western world's most elegant and beautiful women.
The day before, Miss Deneuve had rushed into town for the opening of her latest movie, "The Last Metro," by French director Francois Truffaut, and would rush out again after five days, a gaggle of interviews and stints on talk shows to promote the film. In France, the movie had taken 10 out of 12 Cesar awards (the French equivalent of Oscar), and Miss Deneuve walked off with the best-actress Cesar. "The Last Metro" has also been nominated for an Academy Award as best foreign film.
Credentials such as that can be unnerving, and my planned aplomb had begun to evaporate like Perrier in the desert. From my vantage point next to the elevators, scanning the lobby for patrician looks and blond hair, my costumed confidence was crumbling.
At last, veteran movie star publicist Rupert Allen hove into view and apologized for the delay, saying that a jet-lagged Miss Deneuve had overslept and would finish up (did he say "off"?) the interviewer currently engaging her time in 20 minutes.
A few minutes later, the writer from the Los Angeles Times was shuffled out of her suite as I was shuffled in -- interviews, cafeteria style -- and introduced. As the Times photographer squeezed in another 20 "one last shots," I casually asked if she were doing a lot of interviews.
"How do you like being interviewed?"
"I don't like it at all."
Off to a roaring start. In fact, she keeps a tight lid on her private life and finds it difficult to talk about acting. "People who write like to talk, not people who act," she said. "I don't think it is something you can explain."
As it turns out, she had quite a bit to say, and dressed in black-checked slacks, a classic black blouse -- unclassically untucked -- and bare feet, she seems to take her renowned beauty far less seriously than everyone else at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. She was, in fact, less than pleased when I got around to mentioning it later in the interview.
It is, however, the reason most Americans know who she is.
Miss Deneuve's recognition as an actress in this country is limited. Some of her better European films have been well received here (notably "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," "Belle de Jour," "Repulsion," and a few others), and she has made three American films. Nonetheless, most Americans know Catherine Deneuve as the pretty face and softly accented voice selling Chanel perfume -- and, earlier, Mercury cars -- on television.
Her carrer, however, includes over 40 films, several important acting awards, and an enthusiastic following in Europe. In France, she commands the rank of superstar.
"The Last Metro," she says, "is the top of everything in my career. Not only is it a performance I am proud of but it is the best film I have been in. I am very proud to be in that film."
"I did a film with Truffaut 10 years ago, so I knew him. I knew he was writing "The Last Metro,' and when he was halfway through I knew he was thinking of me for the part. . . .
"It is very exciting to work with someone like him; he is a director actors like very much. He . . . guides actors by his writing, but he does not say, 'I want you to do this' or 'Don't do this or that.' He writes the dialogue and does so many readings with actors so that when you come to rehearse and then to shoot two months later, there are so many possibilities to do something different."
Making a film in Europe is more of "an adventure" than in Hollywood, she says , because relationships between the characters are often more subtle and are given a chance to evolve in readings and rehearsals.
"But it is quite nice to work here. Everything is more prepared here -- perhaps because you have such big budgets or because the movies are so important. I like to work here. I don't think I could do it all the time because I am very French, very different, but in France we miss the organization."
She is also more aware of the differences between French and American audiences and holds no delusions that "Metro" will run away with the box office.
"Very few European films come over here, and the ones that do are not shown in very many places. . . .
"In France, we have every film, from all over the world. That doesn't happen here. If you want to see an old film or a foreign film, you have maybe four or five cinemas [in a city]. In Paris, you can see a different film every day for three weeks. That's not true here. People can only choose from what they have.
"I think one reason is that the American industry thinks audiences want films that are only entertaining, and many Americans think European films are all serious. . . . I think good films, even serious films, must be entertaining. It's a must, even if you are telling people something very important. I mean, if it's to tell them something, then write a book, but if you are going to make a movie, then it must be entertainment."
Although "The Last Metro" crowns her climb to the top of her profession (in Europe, at any rate), Miss Deneuve took her first steps up that ladder with considerable reluctance. The third of four daughters of two mildly successful French actors -- Maurice Dorleac and the former Renee Deneuve --young Catherine Deneuve, born in 1943, was the shyest, most withdrawn member of the family. In addition, her parents, following tradition, kept her away from the stage, and she saw performances -- even by her father -- only on rare occasions.
It was her sister and closest friend, Francoise, who wanted a film career, and brought Catherine into acting. Francoise had been cast for a low-budget film called "Les Portes Claquent" ("Slamming Doors," 1960), and the director was looking around for someone to play her sister.
Sixteen-year-old Catherine, on vacation from school, landed the part -- her first feature role. (She had played bit parts in two earlier films.)
However, she had no ambitions to go into films (she wanted to be an interior designer) until she met Roger Vadim, who cast her as virtue, Justine, in his "Le Vice et la Vertu" (1962), and encouraged her to pay more attention to acting. She listened, but not much.
"What are her plans?
"I have no ambition," Miss Deneuve answers candidly. "I am sure that I should, but . . . I do films when they are proposed.But I never go and look for them." Beauty, she readily admits, picked up where ambition fell off.
Nonetheless, critics have credited her with being a first-rate actress. Only a pocketful of her movies have made it to the American screen.The first of those , "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg," was one of the most significant to her: It was warmly received in the United States, but more important, its director, Jacques Demy, sparked a love of acting in her.
Altogether, Miss Deneuve has worked in three American films, the most successful being "The April Fools" (1969) with Jack Lemmon. (The other two were "Hustle" in 1975 and "March or Die," 1977. Neither was very well received.)
Through the '60s and early '70s, she became a slightly reluctant sex symbol playing to European audiences, a sex symbol who was also a very good actress, though not every appraisal of the Deneuve mystique is flattering. Some feel her minimal use of facial expression, referred to by one director as "a constant deadpan," lends her an air of mystery and intrigue, an ambiance often likened to Greta Garbo's. But others find her lack of expression "glacial," and one critic commented that in "The Last Metro" "her idea of showing emotion is blinking rapidly."
Critics notwithstanding, in "The Last Metro" she proves that emotion can be conveyed with a shift of the eyes, a turn of the mouth. Francois Truffaut has said that one of his ambitions in filmmaking is to portray Catherine Deneuve as a responsible woman. Judging from most reviews of her "Metro" performance, he has succeeded, giving her a role in which she excels but in which her looks play no crucial part.
"People say I am always playing the same kind of part, but I think this one is very different."
The story of "The Last Metro" is set in Paris, 1942, during the Nazi occupation. Miss Deneuve plays Marion Steiner, a popular film actress who is running her husband's well-known stage theater. Her husband, a Jew, has apparently fled to unoccupied France, but we learn early on in the movie that Lucas Steiner is actually hiding in the theater's basement. The "slice of life" plot follows the theater group as it assembles a production. Since Lucas can hear the rehearsals from his hiding place in the basement, he is able to direct the play through his wife. Meanwhile, she is reluctantly falling in love with her costar, played by Bernard Depardieu.
How would she describe Marion Steiner?
"In my mind? She was a complex person. It is someone who was made to assume [roles] she was not made for. From the beginning she became a stage actress but she was not a stage actress. She became a director but she was not a director. She managed a theater but she never knew how.
"I think that is a good reason why she is more sympathetic than you would think, because she is assuming things she was not made for. She is trying to do the best, trying to be at the heart of the situation, which in the context of the occupation is very difficult.
"And she is someone who has a secret, and she keeps her secret until the end of the film. This is a mysterious film because everybody has got a secret, which gives the film a great quality.
"It seems very simple, the life in this theater, but everything is more than what the people say. It is more than the way things appear on the surface. It keeps the film moving because it entertains you, because you have something to hope for, something to wish for. . . . I liked Marion Steiner for that. I liked that you had to take more than simply what she was doing and saying."
Adding to the tension (the husband hiding from the Gestapo, two men belonging to the resistance movement, and more than one secret love affair in progress) is the backdrop of the Nazi occupation. It is an oft-repeated subject of French movies, and Truffaut is said to have wanted to make a film dealing with the occupation. He has done so, indirectly, in "The Last Metro." The German soldiers appear only occasionally, but their presence overshadows the activities of Mrs. Steiner's theater group.
"I think part of the success of 'The Last Metro' is that it does not really tell the story of the occupation," Miss Deneuve said. "It tells the story of a troupe during the occupation. . . . It shows you things, and it lets a lot of people think what they want to think . . . without really pushing too hard. Films are always telling the story of the occupation, but it is never the story people remember."
In the midst of this talk about Nazis and Paris, she received a phone call from "The Tonight Show." The caller wanted to touch on the questions Johnny Carson would be asking her on the show later that evening.
When she put the receiver down, Miss Deneuve let out a long sigh and rolled her eyes toward the ceiling. "He wants me to talk about love, and I know that he means romantic love. Well, I will talk about it, but not the way he wants," she says, with more than a touch of irritation in her voice.
She comments that in America she often runs into a stereotype of French women in general, and of herself in particular. "They think a French woman is charming, has good taste, is classy . . . something like a Chanel ad. . . . But I am more than these things. In America, people tell me how much they like my work, but they have never seen my movies."
I asked how she felt about her reputation for beauty -- a description that stuck when a Look magazine writer said, "She may well be the most beautiful woman in the world." Another roll of the eyes. "Well, I get tired of being asked about it, of course.I hope tha t people think I am more than that. I think I am."