The Artist’s recent Oscar win made me think of the wives of legendary directors who also give unforgettable performances in those directors’ most acclaimed films. Berenice Bejo, director Michel Hazanavicious’ real-life spouse gives probably the most natural performance in a film full of actors who can’t wait to ham it up (cough, Jean DuJardin, cough).
This pairing is not a new occurrence at all. For various reasons, many established directors choose to work with their wives, sometimes because they like the familiarity on set and sometimes because they know their wife will give the best performance. Mostly, it’s because they know they won’t get laid for 6 months unless they give them a part, like the way Kevin Smith keeps casting his talentless wife in every one of his increasingly shitty movies (The surprisingly solid Red State doesn’t count, maybe because she’s not in it).
But sometimes the pairing of the director and his wife can produce pure magic. Maybe because of the way the director knows how to shoot the woman he loves in order to make her look as beautiful as possible, or maybe simply because since the directors themselves are unique and extremely talented people, it makes sense that they would choose someone equally as unique and talented as their spouse.
It’s interesting to note that at least in the case of the 3 examples I’ve thought of, most of these actress shone nearly as much in films directed by people who are not their husband. Nevertheless, they are responsible for some of the most memorable performances.
PAULETTE GODDARD, WIFE OF CHARLIE CHAPLIN
The Tramp’s second wife, the marriage between Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard only lasted 6 years, which was enough time for Goddard to star in two of Chaplin’s most important films, Modern Times and The Great Dictator.
In both of Chaplin’s masterpieces, Goddard’s simple yet elegant and strong female characters represent the moral center of the films. In both films, Goddard plays the poor girl who is oppressed and persecuted by outside forces (The Police in Modern Times and Nazi-like soldiers in Great Dictator) yet hangs onto her pride and self-respect and stands up to the powers that be even if it means she’ll be the only one brave enough to do so.
Goddard’s angelic natural beauty makes it easier on the audience to accept her characters’ inner beauty and strength. Not to mention a keen eye by Chaplin to show her in the most desirable way imaginable, even when she’s supposed to be a homeless girl wearing torn rags and with trash on her face.
A close-up of Goddard’s face in Great Dictator after the barber played by Chaplin gives her a makeover is, in my opinion, one of the most profoundly beautiful visual depictions of a female face.
VERA CLOUZOT, WIFE OF HENRI-GEORGES CLOUZOT
Henri-Georges Clouzot was a director of great thrillers such as The Wages of Fear and Diabolique who is still referred to as The French Hitchcock. He was also known for being somewhat of an asshole who treated her actresses very poorly and apparently seemed to enjoy tormenting them (Another reason why he’s called The French Hitchcock). His wife was apparently not an exception. In fact, it’s said that she took more abuse from him than other actresses Clouzot was not married to.
Vera Clouzot only appeared in three films, all directed by Henri-Georges. Two of these films, the above mentioned Wages of Fear and Diabolique, are perhaps his best and most widely known masterpieces.
Strangely, or fittingly if you consider their relationship, Vera was always given the role of the victim, the weak, insignificant woman who gets pushed around by everybody else and often suffers a tragic end because she couldn’t stand up for herself or was too stupid to figure out how she’s been played by others.
Yet she was always able to infuse her characters with the kind of innocence and naivete that made them so much more sympathetic than the dullards they were meant to be on paper.
She had an ability to produce three dimensional characters through little moments. The scene where she shows the macho Yves Montand her new dress, for example.
GIULIETTA MASINA, WIFE OF FEDERICO FELLINI
If there was any woman who fit Fellini’s own brand of playful whimsy in the most perfect way imaginable, Giuletta Masina is it.
With Fellini’s guidance, Masina was able to utilize her unique, almost cartoonish features to her full advantage in order to bring some of the most impressive naturally comical female performances. In my opinion, Masina’s airheaded yet tenacious prostitute from Nights of Cabiria is one of the top 5 female performances of all time.
Her infinitely expressive face and body language makes her instantly likable as Cabiria, yet the way she brings out the inner pain and anguish hidden inside her character’s seemingly carefree outer shell turns her into a fully-formed tragic figure.
Her performance as the naive and inexperienced assistant to Anthony Quinn’s circus performer is also one of her most unforgettable, powered by the feeling of helplessness Masina infuses her with.
Masina is one of those actresses who was made to be photographed in black and white. When she is shown in color for the first time in Juliet of The Spirits, her irresistible charm and energy is somewhat lost.
In any case, Masina is still considered to be one of the most internationally revered actresses of all time, and for good reason.