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Original caricature by Jeff York of Catherine Deneuve (copyright 2017)

Dear Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,

This is my second open letter to the AMPAS submitting the name of someone I believe deserves their Governors Award this year. My first letter nominated David Lynch, a filmmaker who has not only created classic movies like THE ELEPHANT MAN, BLUE VELVET and MULHOLLAND DRIVE, but more importantly, he established a stylistic approach to storytelling that has influenced two generations now and changed the way the industry looks at thrillers and even television with his groundbreaking 1990 series TWIN PEAKS. (He, more than anyone, is the person responsible for television becoming more cinematic in its narrative and style the past 30 years.)

Now, I am putting forth the name of an actress who has equally been as important and unique in pushing what cinema can do. She has not only been a ginormous international star for six decades but truly is iconic, even a living legend. She also happens to be one of the best actresses on the planet, changing the way screen acting is applied with subtlety and mystery that makes her one of the industry’s most compelling thespians. And, to top it all off, this stunner has been one of the most gorgeous women on the planet for all the years that she’s been in the public eye. Of course, I’m talking about the one and only Catherine Deneuve.

Resume-wise, Deneuve has made major theatrical releases for six decades now and at 73, remains one of the most important actresses working today. Any time she stars in a film it is an event, be it in her home country of France, or anywhere in the world. And a look at her body of work reveals an actress who’s done an amazing range of film types, from musicals to horror to character studies to political thrillers. She may not be as well known to moviegoers such as Meryl Streep or Bette Davis, but she should be, and one of the jobs of the Governors Awards is to recognize those talents that should never be forgotten even if Oscar has somehow managed to overlook them over the years.

Deneuve’s single Oscar nomination was as a Best Actress nominee for the film INDOCHINE back in 1992. (The character study did manage to win the award for Best Foreign Language Film.) Still, Deneuve did at least win the Cesar Award for that role. She’s also been nominated for the “French Oscar” 12 times and has won it twice. The actress has won numerous awards across the globe, including several lifetime achievement honors, not to mention two special jury prizes from the Cannes Film Festival (In 2005 and 2008). More importantly, Deneuve’s work has stood the test of time with a dozen of her films considered either classics, cult classics, or at the very least, critically revered works the world over.

Starting with her ingénue turn in the Cannes Palm d’Or winning THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG in 1964, she became a worldwide sensation. From there, Deneuve went on to make a host of significant French films including THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT (1967), BELLE DU JOUR (1967), MISSISSIPPI MERMAID (1969), LE SAUVAGE (1975), THE LAST METRO (1980), HOTEL AMERICA (1981), THIEVES (1996), PLACE VENDOME (1998), and EIGHT WOMEN (2002). Along the way, Deneuve made classic films in the English language too, including REPULSION for Roman Polanski (1965), THE HUNGER for Tony Scott (1983), DANCER IN THE DARK for Lars von Trier (2000), and the animated PERSEPOLIS for Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi (2007).

Studying Deneuve’s work, one sees an actress who truly helped revolutionize screen acting and her style is used by actors the world over today. In almost all of her screen work, Deneuve is subtle, mysterious, holding secrets that beg you to pay attention, think more, and wonder about her characters’ motivations. She has always been an actress who pulls you towards her, rather than projecting emotions and theatricality outwards. And that was very different up until her time.

In the ’30s through the ’50s, acting was very noticeable, overt, and even easy to read. The likes of Bette Davis and Marlon Brando, as outstanding as they were, made their performances quite obvious. We knew what they were thinking onscreen. And their actions were a natural extension of such thought processes. Yes, they added nuance and depth to their characterizations, often making bold or unexpected choices, but such stars rarely left us wondering what their characters were up to. Quite the contrary, as Davis could size up a leading man with one glance of her contemptuous eyes. Brando would physically invade another actor’s space to show his domination. All in all, such acting is strong, but it also works on the stage. Deneuve has not done stage acting, and what she does onscreen can only work in such a close-in art form.

With Deneuve, the intent of her characters remains mysterious. As an actress, she holds back, never giving away too much. Her screen persona is understated. There is always something enigmatic about her, akin to only the great Greta Garbo who was as always cool and contemplative onscreen. But when Deneuve acts in such reserve, her performances register in a more realistic fashion. It’s a more naturalistic way of acting. And it perfectly befitted the times she was acting in.

Generations were shifting, politics was becoming messier, and the societal norms expected of men and women were changing constantly. If an actress like Marilyn Monroe wore every emotion on her sleeve in the 1950s, by the ’60s and ’70s, Deneuve left very little on her sleeve. You could read some of what was going on in her characters by looking into Deneuve’s eyes, but not all of it. The more demanding times and stories demanded equally complex and nuanced approaches in acting onscreen.

Part of the reason that Deneuve could hold our attention too was due to her stunning beauty. She’s always been a knockout with a strong chin and cheekbones, a pert little nose, and a mane of blonde hair that frames her face perfectly. Deneuve’s body has always been fit and firm, yet not too curvy or buxom to the point where her body overwhelms the rest of her. Even so, it’s always been those eyes of hers that have kept her so alluring. Sometimes they’re windows to her soul, but often they are riddles, refusing to give in to all of our queries. Large, dark, and unblinking, Deneuve’s eyes are the greatest weapon in her actor’s arsenal.

For starters, when Deneuve fixes her gaze on a costar, they don’t always tell us just one thing. Her eyes may start uncertain, but then we see the brain start to work behind them. By the end of a close-up, those eyes may have gone from inquisitive to knowing to perhaps even judging. Deneuve was always keenly aware of what a performance required in close-up, let alone between the line readings or the stage actions written on the page. She knows that staring, pausing, hesitating in movement, these are the things that distinguish great screen acting.

Frankly, it’s one of the reasons CGI cannot replace an actor, no matter how good it can render Peter Cushing in ROGUE ONE or a younger Kurt Russell in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOLUME 2. Eyes have too many nuances, and Deneuve’s seem to have more than most. Her visage would be impossible to recreate, by another actor or computer programmer. Deneuve may play characters at times that are sweet, sour, angry, vulnerable, and even villainous, but there is always a part of them that remains untouchable. She steadfastly remains just out of reach. Our need to know Deneuve onscreen is only trumped by her refusal to give too much away.

Such a unique skill adds layers upon layers of intrigue to any film she graces. Why does her character of Genevieve marry a man she’s not in love with in THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG? Is it because of her pregnancy, while the child’s father is away at war, leads her to hedge her bets on who will provide for her and her baby? Yes, of course. Genevieve also wants to be taken care of since she comes from a broken home and a smothering single mother who doesn’t make her feel secure. Deneuve suggests both possibilities in the way she plays her, but she also adds a sense of regret to each scene, a hesitation in almost every action which suggests that Genevieve doesn’t know how to be instinctual. She has never been able to connect with pure emotion. That’s quite an accomplishment in a musical, one where every move and line must be choreographed to music and timing, yet Deneuve manages to fill in between the lines even with all of Jacques Demy’s specific direction.

In REPULSION, another film with a strong directorial hand, this time by Roman Polanski, Deneuve manages to imbue her character of Carol with more complexity than is written or directed as well. Carol is a beautiful but shy salon manicurist who is driven to homicidal impulses by the constant assault of the ugly world around her, particularly entitled men. Polanski directed Deneuve to look downward in her performance, giving her character an unwillingness to make eye contact with those badgering her. Yet even with that specific direction, Deneuve managed to use her limited eye contact to speak volumes.

She uses her fleeting glances at those around her to suggest that Carol was not only repulsed by them but bored as well. Deneuve’s choices suggested that Carol’s violent outbursts broke up the monotony, giving her the power to add something unexpected to her static life. It’s amazing that Deneuve could play a character like Genevieve in Cherbourg who so ardently pursued such a staid existence, and then turn around a year later and portray Carol, a woman driven mad by such.

And as Deneuve logged her fifth and sixth decade onscreen, she infused her characters with even more wariness. In THE LAST METRO, her eyes mourn throughout, for the lot of being married to a Jewish man she must hide during the Nazi occupation of France, but also for the burden of being a woman who is always having to take care of so much. In this case, her character must not only risk her life daily to protect her spouse, but she must also run the theater and all of the many tasks that come with it.

Even in a lush, artsy frightener like THE HUNGER, the eyes of Deneuve’s vampire suggest fatigue has set in. She too has spent too much time logging responsibility. Having to be so beautiful and so powerful as a creature of the night for all those centuries takes a toll. It’s such complexity in her approach to even a villain character that draws us closer to Deneuve, to empathize, to try and understand who she’s playing more thoroughly.

For six decades, Deneuve has exhibited extraordinary film work. She has maintained an international star status when few men or women have lasted as long or done nearly as much. Most importantly, Deneuve helped change screen acting with a style that gave the medium more by holding back. She kept audiences enthralled by refusing to coddle them. I cannot think of a better way to honor such an amazing cinematic feat than by awarding the Academy’s 2017 Governors Award to Catherine Deneuve.

Jeff York

Film critic for The Establishing Shot
Critic and host of the Page 2 Screen podcast for the International Screenwriters Association
Member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle

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