They were the darlings of the art house circuit. Their work in a language other than English is some of the greatest ever captured on film. Yet, when it came to making their Hollywood debut, they floundered. French actresses have a terrible track record since their English tends to be heavily accented, and all that glamour and mystique vanishes when you can’t understand a word they say. There are always exceptions, and Oscar-winning French actresses Juliette Binoche and Marion Cotillard showed that, by choosing their English language roles carefully, they could become respected actresses in Hollywood as well. Then there is Gong Li, who knew minimal English and played most of her two Hollywood movies phonetically before giving up. Actresses whose native tongue is one of the Germanic languages tend to have less of an inflection. However, bad choices put the kibosh on the Hollywood careers of Liv Ullmann. and Hana Schygulla. And you cannot turn back the clock.
Liv Ullmann’s Hollywood career began and ended with “Lost Horizon” in 1973. Add to this such insults to humanity as “Pope Joan”, “40 Carrots”, “Zandy’s Bride,” and “The Abdication,” and you begin to wonder if Ullmann was TRYING to end her Hollywood career. Did she have any advisers? Did she have a Hollywood agent? To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “ To have one movie fail is unfortunate. To have a half dozen fail is positively careless.” For Liv, the only thing that will be remembered by American audiences, if they remember her at all, is her co-presenting the Best Actor Oscar of 1972 with Roger Moore at the 1973 Oscars. The world was shocked to see not that category’s winner Marlon Brando on the stage but his chosen surrogate, Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather, and her famous gesture of refusal. Instead of shock, however, Liv wears a beautifully composed and understanding expression. It may rank among her best performances. At least she had that!
Isabelle Adjani, who no one can understand when she speaks in English, was on the cover of Time magazine in the summer of 1977. She was all set to appear in her Hollywood debut, Walter Hill’s “The Driver”. It was a disaster, and her Hollywood career ended where it began. She more than consolidated that mistake with “ Ishtar” and “Diabolique”.
Isabelle Huppert, who no one can understand when she speaks English, thought she was making her Hollywood debut in a masterpiece. Unfortunately, that “masterpiece” was called “Heaven’s Gate”. And the rest is history. She more than consolidated that mistake with such turkeys as “The Bedroom Window”, “I Heart Huckabees”, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”, “Louder Than Bombs,” and “Greta”. OMG! Only in “Amateur” does she deliver a few fleeting moments of quasi-interpretable, English-language-delivered pleasure.
Orson Welles may have called the late Jeanne Moreau: “The Greatest Actress in the World,” but when it came to going Hollywood, her choices were interesting but futile: “ Monty Walsh” and “The Last Tycoon” were middling movies, but Jeanne was embarrassing, particularly as the Greta Garbo-like star in Kazan’s swan song. And again, like many of her Gallic colleagues, she was difficult to understand when she spoke English.
Catherine Deneuve may have made an almost-great horror movie, “Repulsion”, with hip new director Roman Polanski, in London, in 1965, but the dialogue was minimal. Unfortunately, her Hollywood debut consisted of the wretched “Mayerling” with Omar Sheriff and the equally misguided “April Fools” with Jack Lemmon. Again, her magnificent appeal when speaking French was shredded to pieces when she expressed her emotions in English. She did improve, however, and by the time she did Tony Scott’s lesbian chic “Lakmé”- inspired cult classic “The Hunger” with Susan Sarandon and David Bowie, we were ready to accept her as a 5,000-year-old vampire!
The late Marie-France Pisier was riding high after her starring role in the French crossover smash “ Cousin Cousine” in 1976 when she was offered the leading role in Twentieth Century Fox’s big release for the summer of 1977 “Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight” as the ruthless Noelle Page. Unfortunately, under the deadweight direction of Charles Jarrott, the movie sank like a stone in water, and Ms. Pisier was sent back to France, never to return, although her character Noelle did get a lovely theme all to herself courtesy of Michel Legrand. As for TCF, they had a “smaller” movie waiting in the wings that summer, just in case. It was called “Star Wars”.
Gong Li. The wondrous delicate Gong Li was the star of the early nineties art house scene, with one breathtaking Zhang Yimou release after another. The problem was that she could not speak English. That did not stop her from doing two high-profile Hollywood English language movies where she read and “expressed” her lines phonetically: “ Memoirs of a Geisha” and “Miami Vice”. She actually won a few early awards for the former before fading fast. The latter was a disaster, and she left Hollywood.
Fassbinder’s muse and critics’ darling Hanna Schygulla had an amazing decade-long run of art house smashes from “ The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant” to “ Lili Marleen” to “ La Nuit de Varennes” until she decided to go Hollywood with a forgettable performance in a dreadful film “Delta Force”. Why destroy your career like this? Was it the persuasive powers of Golan and Globus (the Weinsteins of their day)? Only Hanna knows.