Who are France’s most popular actors? While we can all no doubt come up with a quick list of some of the actors and actresses who have made French film renowned throughout the world, discussing these French performers in more detail means making some tough choices. The rich vein of artistic talent in French cinema and the impressive number of outstanding actors complicates the task, of course! Whether they are playing seducers, shy retiring types, hard men, righters of wrongs or femmes fatales, French actors and actresses have made their mark in every era.
Jean Gabin is undoubtedly the ultimate French actor, and his performances remain etched in our memories. Add to this his stage presence and his highly distinctive stentorian voice, which make him a popular star. In Marcel Carnés’ 1938 film Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), he played opposite Michèle Morgan, uttering the now cult line: “You have beautiful eyes, you know.” This declaration of love from a deserter (Jean) to a young woman with an enchanting gaze (Nelly) was heard around the world.
Yves Montand achieved the rare feat of combining a successful singing career with great fame as an actor. Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la peur (The Wages of Fear) and the unforgettable Jean de Florette, in which Montand plays César Soubeyran, are both worth watching (or rewatching).
In the latter film, ‘Le Papet’, as his character is also known, is both charming and calculating, willing to do anything to keep the spring which irrigates his land to himself. A French actor originally from Italy (he was naturalised at the age of eight), Montand was a genius jack-of-all-trades, who was equally wonderful on a music hall stage or in politically engaged films; in comedies or detective movies. His legendary love affair with Marilyn Monroe only confirmed his talents as a Don Juan…
Finally, no list of the greatest seducers in cinema would be complete without Alain Delon.
Hard men and action films
On any list of the best French actors with foreign roots, Lino Ventura is bound to feature near the top. His portrayal of Uncle Fernand in Les Tontons flingueurs (Monsieur Gangster) is simply unforgettable. Le Clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan), L’Emmerdeur (A Pain in the Ass) and Robert Hossein’s Les Misérables (in which he plays Jean Valjean) are also among his most memorable films.
“Non lo conosco!” (“I don’t know!”): the famous scene from L’Aventure, c’est l’aventure in which, despite himself, Lino Ventura ends up in a stolen car after a road accident, is worth revisiting. Afraid that he will be accused of being an accomplice, he attempts to explain to the police that he doesn’t know the alleged owner of the vehicle, who is played by the inimitable Aldo Maccione (another charmer!). This category of action movie actors also includes Gérard Depardieu, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Reno.
French comedy actors
But what would French cinema be without its comedians? The funny faces, bold gestures and memorable tantrums of Louis de Funès in La Grande Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now… We’re Being Shot At!) or Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez (The Troops of Saint-Tropez) still entertain viewers both young and old. Nor can we fail to mention such comedy greats as Bourvil, Fernandel, Pierre Richard, Coluche, Jean Yanne, and Michel Serrault.
The category of famous French actresses includes a number of foreign-born performers who have acted in French. We’re thinking here of the delightful Diane Kruger, who has proven her talents on so many occasions, the unforgettable Romy Schneider, and Victoria Abril.
It works the other way around, too: plenty of French actresses have won audiences over beyond their homelands. In 1998, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts presented Jeanne Moreau with a lifetime achievement tribute. And let’s not forget Catherine Deneuve! It is impossible not to be moved by the train scene in Les parapluies de Cherbourg (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg) as Catherine Deneuve (Geneviève) begs Jacques Demy (Guy) not to go off to war: “My love, I will wait for you all my life… Stay, don’t go, I’m begging you.”
Equally, Mireille Darc and Sophie Marceau are often cited as archetypes of the elegant and liberated Frenchwoman. The latter enjoys international fame thanks to films like Braveheart and The World Is Not Enough. Isabelle Huppert, Audrey Tautou, Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche (who won an Oscar for The English Patient, by the way!) all represent France brilliantly And finally, Marion Cotillard (who gives a masterful performance as Edith Piaf in La Môme (La Vie en Rose)) is the only French actress to have won a Golden Globe, two Césars and the Lumière Award.
As for French actors in Hollywood, the list of those who have sought to make their name on the other side of the Atlantic is long, but relatively few French actors have really made a career for themselves in the US. The language barrier and audience preferences are no doubt complicating factors, but Simone Signoret, Jean Dujardin, Omar Sy, Marion Cotillard and Christopher Lambert have all been able to pull it off. Christopher Lambert, born in the New York suburbs, had international success with Greystroke: The Legend of Tarzan and then Highlander in the 1980s.
Many actors and actresses began their careers in the theatre, proving that there is no conflict between the two art forms: indeed, mastering the great works of classical drama is a formative step. Isabelle Adjani first played Agnès in Molière’s L’Ecole des femmes (The School for Wives). French theatre actor Michel Galabru also got his start treading the boards. In Bienvenue chez les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks), it was he who gave the horrified response “It’s the North!” to Kad Merad’s Philippe Abrams, about the Nord-Pas-de-Calais.
Galabru was a member of French national theatre company the Comédie Française and distinguished himself in plays by Shakespeare and Marivaux, no less! Jeanne Moreau (from 1948 to 1952) and Annie Girardot (from 1954 to 1958) were also resident members of this prestigious institution. You’ve known each other, You’ve known each other again/You’ve lost sight of each other, You’ve lost sight of each other again/You’ve found each other again, You’ve separated/Then you’ve warmed each other again. This timeless tune from Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, in which Jeanne Moreau plays Catherine, a young woman caught in the Tourbillon de la vie (the ‘whirlwind of life’), has been hummed by people the world over.
Finally, every major French actor has starred in films which have become classics. Here’s a short list of some of France’s most popular stars and their most memorable films:
1) Jean Gabin in La Traversée de Paris (Four Bags Full)
2) Alain Delon in Borsalino
3) Yves Montand in Jean de Florette
4) Lino Ventura in Le Clan des Siciliens (The Sicilian Clan)
5) Bourvil in Le Mur de l’Atlantique (Atlantic Wall)
6) Louis de Funès in La Grande Vadrouille (Don’t Look Now… We’re Being Shot At!)
7) Catherine Deneuve in Le dernier métro (The Last Metro)
8) Isabelle Huppert in La Cérémonie
9) Isabelle Adjani in Camille Claudel
10) Juliette Binoche in Le Hussard sur le toit (The Horseman on the Roof)