Oscar 2007: Marion Cotillard in La Vie en Rose

It is with great pleasure that I nominate Marion Cotillard, the brilliant French actress who embodies the legendary singer Edith Piaf in the biopic “La Vie en Rose,” as the first bona fide Oscar contender in 2007.

“La Vie en Rose,” which played to great critical acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival in February, amd served as opener of French series in N.Y. and L.A., will be released by Picturehouse on June 6 in a platform mode.

There have been plays and TV programs but not a big-screen entertainment that tries to illuminate the great artist, who died in 1963 at age 47, and the context in which she lived. I have reviewed “La Vie en Rose” in a separate column, but here, I'd like to sing the praise for Cotillard, who gives an emotionally intense full-bodied performance that dominates the film and elevates it way above the routine showbiz biopic (a genre onto itself).

Though not perfect, the movie is extremely enjoyable and I highly recommend it as both a showcase for Cotillard, who's bound to become an international star, and a useful chapter in musical history, specifically highlighting the uniquley grand Gallic tradition of chanteurs and chanteuses (Piaf, Charles Aznavour, Yves Montand, Jacques Brel, and Barbara).

At the end of “La Vie en Rose,” we hear Piaf's signature song, “Non, je ne regrette rien, and it's such an exhilarating moment that it gave me the goose bumps. I was flooded with memories–as a very young boy, I heard Piaf singing in Paris in the early 1960sand almost reduced to tears.

Edith Piaf's life was full of drama and melodrama, pain and suffering, bursts of creativity and spiral downwardin short, a life that calls for screen adaptation. From the streets of Paris's cutthroat Belleville district to the dazzling limelight of New Yorks glamorous concert halls, Piafs life was a constant battle to sing and to survive, to live and to love.

Abandoned and raised in a brothel; blind, briefly, in childhood; on the road with her father, before winding up in the Pigalle district of Paris at the prey of a pimp. And just when her career takes off, she is accused of murder and has to start back at the bottom.

Ediths magical voice made her a star on both sides of the Atlantic. Her passionate romances and friendships with the greatest names of the period–Yves Montand, Jean Cocteau, Charles Aznavour, Marlene Dietrich, boxing world champion Marcel Cerdan–made her a household name as much as her memorable live performances and beautiful renditions of songs she made famous internationally, La Vie en Rose, Milord, Hymn to Love, and many more. But in her audacious attempt to tame her tragic destiny, the Little Sparrow–as she was nicknamed–flew so high that she could not fail to burn her wings.

Marion Cotillard has been acting for a decade or so (See filmography below). You may recall her radiant appearance in Ridley Scott's 2006 “Good Year,” as Russell Crowe's love interest. Unfortunately for her, the movie was both an artistic and commercial flop and thus seen only by few.
Earlier, Cotillard was in Abel Ferrara's “Mary,” a film that never got proper theatrical performance, and in Tim Burton's “Big Fish,” which also didn't fulfill expectations).

Thus far, she is mostly known for her French films, some of which were blockbusters, like the “Taxi” movie series. She had been nominated for prestigious awards and won the Cesar (French Oscar) for her supporting role

With strong critical and audience support, “La Vie en Rose” may catapult her to international stardom. Cotillard has better command of English than many of her peers (always a problem for French actresses who want to work in Hollywood).

The writer-director Olivier Dahan wanted to make a film about what drives an artist, digging deep into the inner instincts and compulsion to perform. To that extent, he chose the right subject, for Piaf is the perfect example of an artist who placed no barrier between her life and her art. The fusion between her existence and her work was the very foundation of Piaf as a true artist.

Few people know how Piaf looked like a young woman. The prevailing image of her is from the 1950s and early 1960s, as the frail woman, always in black dress. Like Judy Garland, Piaf was an icon, a rare performer who had broad appealmen and women, young and old. Her unique voice and stature fascinated people across social and cultural barriers.

In many ways, Piaf was the archetype of the truest of artists. Usually, when artists begin to self-destruct, their art regresses, but Piaf was an exception. There was almost inverse correlation between Piaf's state of health and the quality of her singing. As her body waned, her art rose higher and became purer. Even in decline, everything was there in her voice and her will to sing and perform. She never gave up.

Like most tormented artists, Piaf clearly had happy times as well, and “La Vie en Rose” tries to balance the good and the bad moments, even if ultimately, she comes across as the quintessential suffering artist.

I don't want to denigrate Piaf's career and life, or to place Cotillard in a category, but there has been a whole tradition of Hollywood movies about suffering artists, particularly women.

As I showed in my book, >b>All About Oscar: The History and Politics of the Academy Awards (2003), the most prevalent ingredients of Oscar-winning and Oscar nominated roles are showbiz and suffering.

Reese Witherspoon and Sissy Spacek

If Cottilard is nominated for an Oscar, which she clearly deserves, she will join a long list of honorable actresses. Most recently, Reese Witherspoon won the Oscar for playing June Carter, the singer-songwriter and Johnny Cash's second wife, in “Walk the Line.” In 1980, Sissy Spacek won Best Actress for Coal Miner's Daughter,” in which she played singer Loretta Lynn. Witherspoon was in similar age to Spacek's at the time, and both actresses did their own singing, which is always a plus.

The prototype of showbiz with suffering is still the movie A Star Is Born (in its various reincarnations), the story of a young actress who ascends to stardom while her husband's career goes on the skids. Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland were both Oscar-nominated for the same role in the 1937 and 1954 versions, respectively.

Other Oscar-nominated actresses include

*Greta Garbo, as opera singer conflicted between the love of a wealthy “patron” and a young clergyman, in Romance;

*Eleanor Parker, as the crippled singer Marjorie Lawrence in Interrupted Melody;

*Susan Hayward, as the alcoholic singer Lillian Roth in I'll Cry Tomorrow;

*Vanessa Redgrave as Isadora Duncan, a dancer who dies prematurely in an accident, in Isadora

*Diana Ross, as the heroin-addicted, racially oppressed singer Billie Holliday in Lady Sings the Blues;

*Bette Midler, as the drug-addicted rock star (loosely based on Janis Joplin's life) in The Rose;

*Jessica Lange, as the doomed, anti-establishment actress Frances Framer in Frances, who, tormented by an overbearing mother, turns to the bottle and is put in an asylum;

*Jessica Lange as country singer Patsy Kline who finds her untimely death in a plane crash in Sweet Dreams;

*Mary McDonnell, as the selfish paralyzed soap opera star in Passion Fish;

*Debra Winger, as Joy Gresham, an American divorcee who falls for Oxford literary critic, C.S. Lewis (Anthony Hopkins), only to die of cancer, in Shadowlands

*Angela Bassett, as the abused singer Tina Turner in the biopicture, What's Love Got to Do With It;

*Meryl Streep, as a pill-popping actress caught in a problematic relationship with her mother-celeb, in Postcards from the Edge;

*Judi Dench, as Altzheimer-afflicted writer-philosopher Iris Murdoch, in Iris;

*Nicole Kidman as the Camille-like courtesan-actress, dying of tuberculosis, in Moulin Rouge.