March 25, 2013

25 My 10 Favorite Classic Foreign Film Actresses

As a follow-up to last week's post on my favorite classic foreign actors, this week I present my 10 favorite classic foreign film actresses. As before, they're listed in alphabetical order. A signature performance for each actress is indicated by a *.

Harriet Andersson had played small, sometimes uncredited roles in a few films before Ingmar Bergman wrote Summer with Monika (1953) for the twenty year old and the film made her a star. She was the first of several actresses to gain international recognition for their work with Bergman, becoming part of his informal repertory company of film actors and for a time his lover. Her first films with Bergman gave her a screen image of uninhibited sexuality, but Andersson proved herself adept at playing many types, doing some of her best work for Bergman as a schizophrenic in Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and later as the dying eldest sister in Cries and Whispers (1972). She has made a few films in English, most recently Dogville (2003, dir. Lars von Trier).  *Cries and Whispers (1972, dir. Ingmar Bergman). Also recommended: Summer with Monika (1953), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953), Smiles of a Summer Night (1955), and Through a Glass Darkly (1961), all directed by Bergman. She also has a vivid cameo in the longer five-hour version of Bergman's last theatrical feature, Fanny and Alexander (1982).

Stéphane Audran has more than 100 credits on her résumé, yet she is best known for the twenty-four feature films in which she was directed by her husband, Claude Chabrol, to whom she was married 1964-80. In the U.S. she is best known for a memorable supporting turn as the wily inmate of an insane asylum in The Big Red One (1980, dir. Samuel Fuller) and for her appearance in the Venice episode of the TV mini-series Brideshead Revisited (1981, dir. Charles Sturridge). *Le Boucher (1970, dir. Claude Chabrol), as the new school mistress in a small French village being terrorized by a serial killer. Also recommended: The Good Time Girls (1960, dir. Claude Chabrol), Les Biches (1968, dir. Claude Chabrol), The Unfaithful Wife (1969, dir. Claude Chabrol), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, dir. Luis Buñuel), Coup de Torchon (1981, dir. Bertrand Tavernier), Babette's Feast (1987, dir. Gabriel Axel).

Catherine Deneuve appeared in her first film at the age of fourteen under her birth name, Catherine Dorléac. In 1960 she changed her professional name to distinguish herself from her sister, the actress Françoise Dorléac, who died in a car crash in 1967. Her professional breathrough came in the musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, dir. Jacques Demy), which was nominated for an Oscar as best foreign film. Despite her incredible beauty, Deneuve has worked hard at honing her acting skills and has worked with some of the finest European directors. Of her few English language films, probably the best known is Dancer in the Dark (2000, dir. Lars von Trier). *Repulsion (1965, dir. Roman Polanski), as a disturbed young Frenchwoman living in London who is slowly slipping into psychosis. Also recommended: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964, dir. Jacques Demy), Belle de Jour (1967, dir. Luis Buñuel), Mississippi Mermaid (1969, dir. François Truffaut), Tristana (1970, dir. Luis Buñuel), The Last Métro (1980, dir. François Truffaut), My Favorite Season (1993, dir. André Téchiné), A Christmas Tale (2008, dir. Arnaud Desplechin).

SETSUKO HARA (b. 1920)
Setsuko Hara had been working in Japanese films for nearly fifteen years and had forty credits before making Late Spring, her first film with the director Yasujiro Ozu, in 1949. She went on to make six films altogether with Ozu, and even though she has worked with the top Japanese directors, it's for those six films that she's known in the West. In Japan she earned the nickname the Eternal Virgin because of the unmarried girls and young widows she typically played. The year after Ozu's death in 1962, she retired from films at the peak of her popularity in Japan and has lived a quiet and private life since then. *Late Spring (1949, dir. Yasujiro Ozu), as the young daughter so devoted to caring for her widowed father that she refuses to marry and make a life of her own. Also recommended: No Regrets for Our Youth (1946, dir. Akira Kurosawa), Early Summer (1951, dir. Yasujiro Ozu), Tokyo Story (1953, dir. Yasujiro Ozu), Late Autumn (1960, Yasujiro Ozu—a semi-remake of Late Spring, but here Hara plays the widowed parent of an overly devoted daughter).

ANNA MAGNANI (1908-1973)
Anna Magnani got her start in show business working in night clubs and cabarets to finance her studies at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Rome. She had been acting in films for ten years before the overnight success of Roberto Rosselini's Open City introduced the world to both Italian neorealism and Magnani. Her earthy, emotionally charged screen presence always threatened to burst off the screen, but from all accounts it was not far from the personality of the real Magnani, a cigar-smoking, highly superstitious hypochondriac. Tennessee Williams wrote the play The Rose Tatoo for Magnani, but she wasn't able to play the role in the 1951 Broadway production because of her limited skill in English. She was, however, able to star in the 1955 movie version and won an Oscar as best actress for her performance. *Open City (1945, dir. Roberto Rossellini), as a woman risking her life to help the Italian Resistance during the Second World War. Also recommended: The Golden Coach (1952, dir. Jean Renoir), Bellissima (1952, dir. Luchino Visconti), The Rose Tattoo (1955, dir. Daniel Mann), Mamma Roma (1962, dir. Pier Paolo Pasolini).

Giulietta Masina acted not only in films but also on the stage, and in television and radio. She met her husband, the future film director Federico Fellini, when he wrote a popular Italian radio program she starred in. She has fewer than thirty feature films on her résumé, but seven of those were directed by Fellini, and it's those films that have made her reputation. *The Nights of Cabiria (1957, dir. Federico Fellini), as the Roman prostitute with terrible luck but an indomitable spirit that always allows her to bounce back from adversity, the performance which won her the best actress award at the Cannes and San Sebastián film festivals. Also recommended: Variety Lights (1950), La Strada (1954), Juliet of the Spirits (1965), and Ginger and Fred (1986, a weak Fellini film, but a terrific Masina performance), all directed by Fellini.

Orson Welles once called Jeanne Moreau the greatest actress in the world, and for a few years in the late 1950s and early 1960s she easily lived up to this praise. A major international film star, she is also a stage actress (a member of the Comédie Française when just twenty years old), a television actress, a music recording artist, and the director of a documentary on Lillian Gish as well as two feature films. *Jules et Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut), one of the great screen performances, as the woman shared by two best friends, a role that perfectly captures the charisma, erotic allure, and spontaneity she projects in all her screen acting. Also recommended: Elevator to the Gallows (1958, dir. Louis Malle), The Lovers (1958, dir. Louis Malle), La Notte (1961, dir. Michelangelo Antonioni), Eva (1962, dir. Joseph Losey), Bay of Angels (1963, dir. Jacques Demy), Diary of a Chambermaid (1964, dir. Luis Buñuel), Viva Maria! (1965, dir. Louis Malle), The Bride Wore Black (1968, dir. François Truffaut).

MARIA SCHELL (1926-2005)
Of Swiss and Austrian background, Maria Schell was born in Austria, educated in France, and attended drama school in Zurich, Switzerland. An accomplished stage actress who appeared in plays by Shakespeare, Goethe, and Shaw among others, she won the best actress award at Cannes for her performance in The Last Bridge (1954, dir. Helmut Kaütner). A truly international actress, she made films in France, Germany, Italy, Britain, and the U.S. She was the sister of the Oscar-winning actor and director Maximillian Schell. *Gervaise (1956, dir. René Clément), as Emile Zola's Parisian laundress whose life slowly goes to hell under the pressure of external forces. Also recommended: Le Notte Bianchi (1957, dir. Luchino Visconti), End of Desire a.k.a. Une Vie (1958, dir. Alexandre Astruc), The Hanging Tree (1959, dir. Delmer Daves).

Simone Signoret, the daughter of a Polish-Jewish linguist, stayed behind in France after her father fled to Britain in 1940 and worked during WW II as an extra and bit part player in French films to support her mother and three brothers. The first film to gain her recognition outside France was La Ronde (1950, dir. Max Ophüls), which was shown in Britain and the U.S. (it received two Oscar nominations). The film's openness about sexuality brought it a good deal of notoriety, and Signoret's performance as a Parisian prostitute created her early screen image of sensuality. She made a number of films in Britain and the U.S., winning an Oscar as best actress for her performance in Room at the Top (1959) in a role originally intended for Vivien Leigh. *Diabolique (1955, dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot), as the mistress of a cruel school master who joins his wife to seek revenge, in this classic French thriller directed by the man often called the French Hitchcock. Also recommended: La Ronde (1950, dir. Max Ophüls), Casque d'Or (1952, dir. Jacques Becker), Room at the Top (1959, dir. Jack Clayton), Ship of Fools (1965, dir. Stanley Kramer), Army of Shadows (1969, dir. Jean-Pierre Melville).

LIV ULLMANN (b. 1938)
Liv Ullmann is by birth Norwegian and spent much of her childhood abroad, in places like Tokyo, New York, and Toronto. A trained stage actress, she is especially known for her Nora in Ibsen's A Doll's House. But it is for the ten films she made with Ingmar Bergman beginning in 1966 that she is best known to international filmgoers. Of the several actresses whose careers Bergman fostered, often while having romantic relationships with them, Ullmann is undoubtedly the most widely known. She and Bergman have a daughter together who was born in 1966. She has also directed several films, including two based on screenplays written by Bergman. *The Passion of Anna (1969, dir. Ingmar Bergman), as a grieving woman trying to come to terms with the deaths of her husband and child, playing in a Bergman dream cast: Ullman, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, and Erland Josephson. Also recommended: Anything directed by Bergman, but especially Persona (1966), Shame (1968), Cries and Whispers (1972), Scenes from a Marriage (1973), and Face to Face (1976). Also The Emigrants (1971, dir. Jan Troell) and The New Land (1972, dir. Jan Troell).

Does anyone have any personal favorites you think worthy of inclusion on a list like this? If so, please leave a comment and let me know.


  1. R.D.,

    So would you qualify Garbo for this list? She's foreign born for sure, but wasn't in as many "foreign" films I suppose. I also like Danielle Darrieux and her work with Max Ophuls. I also like Bibi Andersson. What about Ingrid Bergman? Love her. She was in her fare share of foreign films. On Anna Magnani, have you seen her in Rossellini's L'amore? I watched this recently. Very interesting little film.

    1. Jon, when I conceived the idea for these lists, I was thinking only of sound films in foreign languages. Also, I was thinking of actors who acted primarily in foreign language films, so I never really thought of Garbo or Ingrid Bergman, although I like both very much. Darrieux I haven't seen that much of but was impressed with her in "Mayerling" and of course "Madame de." I like Bibi Andersson too. She was on the short list, but I had two of Bergman's actresses already. I have recorded "L'Amore" but haven't watched it yet. It's especially interesting to me because it's about the only film Fellini ever acted in.

  2. Replies
    1. Alida Valli had quite a career and I've seen her play a remarkably diverse range of characters. I always think of her first in "The Third Man."

  3. R.D., a very interesting list which will inspire me to see more foreign language films, as with your list of male actors. I've seen quite a few actresses in one or two foreign language films where I loved their performances, including some of those in your list such as Setsuko Hara and Catherine Deneuve, plus others like Simone Simon, Annabella and Michéle Morgan. But I don't think I've really seen any actresses in enough foreign-language films to say they are definitely my favourites. I was also wondering about Garbo and Dietrich, as in Jon's comment above - I have seen each of them in one great German-language film (silent film The Joyless Street for Garbo and The Blue Angel for Dietrich). Out of more recent actresses I'm a fan of Hanna Schygulla.

    1. Judy, Garbo and Dietrich never really occurred to me for the reasons I explained in my reply to Jon--Garbo because her foreign-made films were silent, Dietrich because her film career was almost exclusively in Hollywood. I've been impressed by what I've seen of Hanna Schygulla too, but that hasn't been enough for me to feel comfortable including her on the final list, although she was certainly under consideration. I've long admired her performance in "The Marriage of Maria Braun" and saw her not long ago in "Effi Briest" and thought it was another masterful performance.

    2. Oh yes Hanna Schygulla is great!!!! Love her.

  4. Well, of course I'm partial to Deneuve, but what a list! Moreau was awesome in just about everything--especially The Bride Wore Black. I might add Danielle Darrrieux, as I love Madame de...

    1. Kim, the beauty of Deneuve is nearly overwhelming. If I had to pick one favorite on the list, it would almost certainly be Moreau. The only actress I can think of who approaches Moreau's onscreen intensity is Bette Davis.

  5. A friend of mine was weeding out his DVD titles and gave copies of "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and "Repulsion" both of which I had never seen. I know, no excuses for that. Really looking forward to both.

    A few years ago I did see "The Young Girls of Rochefort" and really enjoyed it. I thought Deneuve was ravishing in it, as was her real-life sister, Francoise Dorleac, who I was sad to learn died far too young.

    Some intriguing names and titles here, like your list of favorite foreign actors. Looks like your readers have some good viewing tips at hand.

    1. Kevin, Deneuve has had an amazing career. Another actress with her looks might have been content to try get by on that alone, but Deneuve has always struck me as making a real effort to get her acting skills down. One thing I find interesting about her is that even though she isn't known primarily for her work with one director like so many on these lists, she has often worked with the same director in more than one, sometimes several, films. That indicates to me a good working relationship between director and actress.

      Another remarkable thing about her career is its longevity. She's still making films, and she's just as radiant as ever and still applying herself to each role without ever trying to show off. I recommended so many films of Deneuve's that I hesitated to add any more. But if I had, the next two would have been "The Young Girls of Rochefort" (not a bad movie, as some have said, but it's no "Umbrellas" and suffers in comparison--and it is a chance to see Deneuve and Dorleac in the same movie) and "Donkey Skin," both directed by Demy.

  6. Bravo, Richard, Giulietta made the list! She is my favorite, bu all the others are wonderful, especially the ones who worked with Bergman and Truffaut. Only Setsuko Hara is new to me.
    Oh, even having Norwegian parents, Liv Ullmann was born in Tokyo, wasn't she?

    1. Le, Giulietta Masina made far fewer films than anyone else on the list, and I had to dig to find as many to recommend as I did. But she's so good--and so distinctive--in the great films she did make, especially "La Strada" and "Cabiria," that there was never any doubt in my mind that she would be in the top 10. You're right, Liv Ullmann was born in Tokyo, where I believe her father was working at the time.

  7. Loved this post and your previous one on foreign-language actors! I strongly concur with the following picks (fave films listed after the actress): Simone Signoret (ROOM AT THE TOP), Jeanne Moreau (THE BRIDE WORE BLACK), the awesome Giulietta Masina (NIGHTS OF CABIRIA), and Stéphane Audran (LA FEMME INFIDELE). Though she's not from the classic era, I feel compelled to mention Asian actress Brigitte Lin. However, since the topic specifies "classic," I'll opt for Cheng Pei-pei (I prefer GOLDEN SWALLOW over COME DRINK WITH ME).

    1. Rick, thank you so much. It seemed that for the actresses especially it was difficult to choose one performance as a signature performance, and in most cases, especially with the actresses who made lots of films, one of the other performances I named would have been as good a choice. This allowed me the opportunity to let favoritism have its way! I know the lists were quite Eurocentric, which reflects my own viewing history more than anything else. I've never seen Cheng Pei-Pei or even any of the films listed for her on IMDb, so you've given me something to be on the watch for.

  8. Master class list R.D. Each and every choice does belong, though my own picks reveal some modest shadings. Your own presentation and qualifying rhetoric is magnificent.

    1. Setsuko Hara
    2. Liv Ullmann
    3. Rene Maria Falconetti (based on only ONE performance, but for me the greatest performance of all-time in the cinema by a man or woman)
    4. Harriet Andersson
    5. Giulietta Masina
    6. Simone Signoret
    7. Louise Brooks
    8. Hideko Takamine
    9. Marlene Dietrich
    10. Anna Magnani
    11. Maria Schell
    12. Ruan Lingyu
    13. Ingrid Bergman
    14. Isabelle Huppert
    15. Jeanne Moreau

    1. Sam, a great list from someone who's certainly qualified to speak out on this subject, and it's great to see how similar our lists are. I've managed to see Hideko Takamine in only two films, "Twenty-Four Eyes" and "When a Woman Ascends the Stairs," and she was sensational in both. When I wrote a post a year or so ago on the 50 greatest film performances by an actress, I included her for "Twenty-Four Eyes." It's one of my great regrets that so few films with her, or directed by Naruse (who directed her in both the films I mentioned as well as quite a few others), are available on Region 1 DVD.

      Isabelle Huppert is another of your choices that caught my eye. She's been exceptional in everything I've seen her in, even when I wasn't that enthusiastic about the movie. Her acting and choice of roles have a wonderful fearlessness and lack of ego that I like. She seems to relish taking her characters to places another actress might be afraid to go.

  9. I greatly enjoyed your previous post on foreign film actors, but being partial to women in film, I really enjoyed this one. You really picked the creme of the crop here. All are such magnificent actresses, Maria Schell and Setsuk Hara being the ones whose work I'm least familiar with. I was especially pleased to see Stephane Audran on your list. She's remarkable and I fell in love with her in an American film before i ever discovered her foreign work (I think I'm the only person on the planet who thought she was hilarious in "The Black Bird"). Ullman, Deneuve, Magnani...such a roster!

    1. Ken, so glad you liked the post, as I know you are a connoisseur of actresses. Maria Schell and Setsuko Hara are the two whose films are the least shown and most difficult to locate. "Gervaise" and "Le Notte Bianchi" are available from Criterion, and from time to time TCM shows "The Hanging Tree," an underappreciated Western with Gary Cooper. The Setsuko Hara films I named are available from Criterion too. I haven't seen "The Black Bird" but love Audran for her coolness and grace. "Le Boucher" adds to this a vulnerability that isn't typical of her roles. I could easily have added a few more actresses but wanted to limit it to ten, so did end up with those who are for me the creme de la creme.

  10. Most of my choices are in agreement with your but here they go.

    Catherine Deneuve
    Jeanne Moreau
    Sophia Loren
    Bibi Andersson
    Liv Ullmann
    Anna Magnani
    Isabelle Huppert (a little more recent but she is a wonderful actress)
    Stephane Audran
    Giulietta Massina
    Simone Signoret

    1. John, thanks for your thoughts on this subject. I know that you watch a lot of foreign language movies and so are well informed on the subject. The couple of actresses you name that weren't on my list were on the preliminary list, but I just couldn't find room for them, especially as I wanted to include some whose work isn't so well known (I'm thinking in particular of Maria Schell and Setsuko Hara). I'm especially pleased to see Stephane Audran on your list. I'm a little surprised that she's been mentioned by so many who left comments because so much of her work was done with her then-husband Claude Chabrol, and he doesn't seem to be as well remembered in the U.S. today as the foreign film superstar directors like Bergman and Fellini.

  11. Another great set of recommendations for foreign films. Am so glad to see Jeanne Moreau and Maria Schell make your list... but how could they not?

    1. Silver Screenings, thank you. I'm glad you like Maria Schell and rate her alongside Jeanne Moreau. She should be better known. For those not familiar with her, I would highly recommend "Gervaise," which is fairly easy to locate (my library has a copy, and that's where I first got it from) and besides having such a wonderful performance by Schell is also an excellent film.

  12. R.D., Going through your list I realized how partial I am to the French (Audran, Deneuve, Moreau and Signoret). If the list were strictly French I would add Danielle Darrieux (La Ronde, Le Plaisir, Madame de…) and the mesmerizing Arletty (Hotel du Nord, Le jour se leve, Children of Paradise, L’air de Paris). I also remember Isabelle Adjani in the '70s - Adele H., Herzog's Nosferatu - and, in English, The Tenant and The Driver.

    Beyond France, I find Giulietta Masina completely unique and irresistible.

    1. Eve, I know what you mean! I'm a real Francophile and had to be careful that the French didn't dominate either the actor or actress lists. I think this might be in part because we Americans have had exposure to French cinema since the 30s. Most other national cinemas didn't get our attention until the postwar years and especially in the 50s and 60s. Then, too, some national cinemas like those of Japan and India produce tremendous quantities of films but they're not well known outside their own countries except for the work of superstar directors like Kurosawa and Ray who became popular because of their exposure at Western film festivals.