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Marthe Keller: Legion of Honor Chevalier, Working with 'Unspoiled Monster' Billy Wilder

Marthe Keller actress Legion of HonorMarthe Keller: Actress in more than 40 movies to become Legion of Honor chevalier.

Actress Marthe Keller to become Légion d'Honneur chevalier

Veteran actress Marthe Keller, among whose film credits are Claude Lelouch's And Now My Love and John Schlesinger's Marathon Man, will be inducted as a chevalier (“knight”) in the French Legion of Honor, a civilian distinction that has been around since the days of Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 1800s.

Born in Basel, Switzerland, Keller – whose dream of becoming a professional dancer was shattered by a skiing accident – will turn 67 in about three weeks (Jan. 28, '12). In the last 45 years, she has appeared in more than 40 films, both in leading and supporting roles.

Marthe Keller movies: Hollywood flops

Apart from the aforementioned – ludicrous but financially successful – Marathon Man (1976), in which the Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe nominee was featured opposite pacifist New Yorker Dustin Hoffman and sadistic Nazi Laurence Olivier, Keller had little luck in her several Hollywood try-outs in the late '70s.

  • She was a Palestinian Black September terrorist in John Frankenheimer's failed thriller Black Sunday (1977), toplining Robert Shaw and Bruce Dern – the latter as a demented former Vietnam War captive and Goodyear Blimp pilot.
  • She romanced Al Pacino – who became her real-life companion – in Sydney Pollack's expensive autoracing flop Bobby Deerfield (1977).
  • She was a mysterious, Greta Garbo-ish former actress pursued by William Holden in Billy Wilder's critical and box office bomb Fedora (1978), based on one of the stories found in Tom Tryon's book Crowned Heads.
  • She was wasted alongside George C. Scott and Marlon Brando in a convoluted tale about big business corruption and gas prices in John G. Avildsen's thriller The Formula (1980).

'Unspoiled Monster' Billy Wilder

April 2016 update: Referring to Truman Capote's “Unspoiled Monsters,” Keller would tell Télérama magazine that she met many such creatures during her Hollywood sojourn.

“The worst of which, by far, was Billy Wilder,” she recalled. “Of course, who am I to dare criticize such a genius? Whatever. This genius made me suffer like no one else in the world. He came to see me one evening, a screenplay under his arm. 'It's for you! You're the only one who can play Fedora…' And that's when my private hell began. Each syllable, each gesture were measured in millimeters.”

She added that upon its release Fedora brought her the “most scathing reviews of her life. Today, the film is a classic. They even find me appropriate…”

Besides Marthe Keller, Fedora features William Holden, Hildegarde Knef, José Ferrer, Frances Sternhagen, Mario Adorf, Stephen Collins, and Ferdy Mayne, plus cameos by Michael York, Henry Fonda, and Arlene Francis.

Marthe Keller Fedora directed by unspoiled monster Billy Wilder with Henry FondaMarthe Keller in 'Fedora,' directed by 'unspoiled monster' Billy Wilder and featuring Henry Fonda.

Better cinematic luck elsewhere

At least when it comes to movie awards, Marthe Keller had better luck far away from the Hollywood studios.

In addition to the romantic tale And Now My Love / Toute une vie (1974), a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nominee that has inspired movies as disparate as Krzysztof Kieslowski's Red and Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle, Keller herself was shortlisted for awards for her performances in:

  • The Amateur (1981).
    Dir.: Charles Jarrott.
    Cast: John Savage. Christopher Plummer. Marthe Keller. Arthur Hill. George Coe.
  • Genie Award nomination in the Best Performance by a Foreign Actress category for playing revenge-bent Savage's CIA contact.

  • Dark Eyes / Oci ciornie (1987).
    Dir.: Nikita Mikhalkov.
    Cast: Marcello Mastroianni. Marthe Keller. Elena Safonova.
  • Best Supporting Actress David di Donatello nomination for playing Mastroianni's mistress. (Mastroianni, for his part, was shortlisted for the Best Actor Academy Award.)

  • Fragile (2005).
    Dir.: Laurent Nègre.
    Cast: Marthe Keller. Felipe Castro. Stefanie Gunther.
  • Best Supporting Actress Swiss Film Prize winner for playing a woman in the throes of Alzheimer's.

Marthe Keller discusses 'Hereafter.'

Recent films, early French TV hit

More recently, Marthe Keller was seen in:

  • Clint Eastwood's Hereafter (2010).
  • Wolfgang Murnberger's My Best Enemy / Mein bester Feind (2011).
  • Bouli Lanners' The Giants / Les géants (2011).

Also worth mentioning is Luís Galvão Teles' Portuguese dramatic comedy Elles (1997), starring Keller alongside Carmen Maura, Miou-Miou, and Marisa Berenson as – French-speaking – Lisbon denizens at odds with husbands, children, and life in general.

And, on French television, the 1972 hit La ­Demoiselle d'Avignon…, which made her a star in France. In the miniseries she plays a princess from the country of Kurland, having a long-distance relationship of sorts with a local Avignon archeologist (Louis Velle): he goes to Kurland looking for her, she comes to Avignon looking for him.

Tony nominee and opera director

Marthe Keller's performance in a 2001 Broadway staging of Abby Mann's Judgment at Nuremberg – as Mme. Bertholt (Marlene Dietrich in Stanley Kramer's 1961 film) – earned her a Best Featured Actress Tony Award nomination. (She lost to Viola Davis for King Hedley II.)

In recent decades, Keller has also become a “speaker” in classical music presentations and an opera director. As a speaker, she played Joan of Arc in the oratorio Jeanne d'Arc au Bûcher of Arthur Honegger, recited the spoken role in Igor Stravinsky's Perséphone, and toplined Michael Jarrell's Cassandre, adapted from Christa Wolf's novel as a star vehicle for her.

Her credits as an opera director include Dialogues des Carmélites for Opéra National du Rhin in Strasbourg, Lucia di Lammermoor for the Washington National Opera and the Los Angeles Opera, and Don Giovanni for New York City's Metropolitan Opera.

Philippe and Alexandre de Broca

In the early 1970s, Marthe Keller was in a relationship with filmmaker Philippe de Broca, whose credits include The Man from Rio (1964), with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Françoise Dorléac, and Le Magnifique (1973), with Belmondo and Jacqueline Bisset.

Their son, Alexandre de Broca, is a painter and has done set/production design for a handful of film/TV productions, i.e., Guillaume Casset's animated short Tous les I de Paris s'illuminent (1999), Nicolas Bary's Les enfants de Timpelbach (2008).

Keller has never been married “to avoid the violence of divorce.”

 

Marthe Keller image via the UniFrance website.

Marthe Keller's comment re: divorce via Télérama.

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