One of the most recognizable faces of the French cinema, and also one of its most celebrated, Jeanne Moreau is a legend in her own right. Combining off-kilter beauty with strong character, Moreau came to embody forthright, devil-may-care sensuality in such films as Jules and Jim and The Bride Wore Black. Comparing her to some of her best-known colleagues, Ginette Vincendeau noted, "Where Brigitte Bardot was sex and Catherine Deneuve elegance, Moreau incarnated intellectual femininity."
Born in Paris on January 23, 1928, Moreau was the daughter of an English dancer and a French barman who divorced when she was eleven. Growing up in Nazi-occupied Paris, she began to discover her love of literature and the theatre, and, opposing her father's wishes, she decided to become an actress. While still a student at the Paris Conservatoire, Moreau made her stage debut at the 1947 Avignon Theatre Festival. Shortly thereafter, she was invited to join the prestigious Comédie-Française, becoming on her twentieth birthday the youngest full-time member in the company's history. She stayed with the company for four years, appearing in almost all of their productions during that time. She left in 1951, finding it too restrictive and authoritarian, and joined the more experimental Théâtre Nationale Populaire.
During this time, Moreau began to take bit parts in various films, particularly B-movie melodramas. Initially not considered attractive enough to be a movie star--thanks in part to her lack of interest in make-up--she was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of a director who found her natural attributes to be just what he was looking for: Louis Malle, who directed the actress in her breakthrough film, the New Wave murder mystery Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows) (1957). Following this film, Moreau remained Malle's favorite actress and off-screen lover for the next several years. The pair made headlines with their 1959 collaboration, Les Amants (The Lovers); the steamy tale of a bored housewife's extramarital affair pushed the boundaries of censorship on its U.S. release and led certain American gossip columnists to tag Moreau "the new Bardot." The actress' biggest international success was as the exuberant, free-spirited heroine of François Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1962); five years later, she worked again with Truffaut, starring as an icy murderess in the popular Hitchcock homage The Bride Wore Black (1967). Throughout the 1960s, Moreau worked with some of the cinema's most notable directors, collaborating with Peter Brooks on the 1960 Moderato Cantabile (for which she won a Best Female Performance award at the Cannes Film Festival), Michelangelo Antonioni on La Notte (1961), and Luis Buñuel on Le Journal d'une Femme de Chambre.
Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Moreau continued to work regularly, largely forgoing Hollywood fare in favor of European films. She made some of her more notable appearances in Bertrand Blier's Les Valseuses (1974), Luc Besson's La femme Nikita (1990), and Wim Wenders' Until the End of the World (1991). She also played minor but pivotal roles in The Lover (1992), to which she lent her sandpaper-and-whisky voice as the narrator; Antonioni's Beyond the Clouds (1995), in which she appeared with Marcello Mastroianni in one of his last roles; and Ever After (1998), one of her few Hollywood outings.
Linked romantically with dozens of high-profile men over the decades, Moreau was for a brief period married to Exorcist director William Friedkin. In addition to her acting pursuits, Moreau put her talents to use behind the camera, directing Lumière (1976) and L'adolescente (1979). She has also served twice as the president of the Cannes FIlm Festival jury (1975 and 1995) and has won a number of honors, including a Golden Lion for career achievement at the 1991 Venice Film Festival and a 1997 European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award.