Emmanuelle Riva, revered French actress who broke an Oscar age barrier, dies at 89

Emmanuelle Riva, whose unflinching portrayal of an elderly woman in the 2012 end-of-life drama “Amour” earned her international acclaim and the distinction of being the oldest nominee for a lead actress Oscar, has died. She was 89.

Riva, a star of early French New Wave cinema whose career spanned more than 50 years, died Friday afternoon in a Paris clinic after a long illness, her agent, Anne Alvares Correa, told the Associated Press.

As Anne Laurent in “Amour,” Riva depicted the slow decline of a proud woman as the ravages of age beset her, a performance film critics lauded both for its power and lack of sentimentality. Alongside French screen giant Jean Louis Trintignant, who played her doting but frustrated husband, the French-language film was a stark portrait of a couple’s love in the last days of life.

“I was ripe. It was the perfect time for me to become this character,” Riva, then 85, told The Times in December 2012. “I wasn’t playing the part … I was being.”

“Amour” earned her top honors from the French and British film academies, and an Oscar nomination for lead actress, a stunning late-career renaissance in Hollywood, which typically leaves little room for non-English films or actresses of a certain age.

“The whole thing is like a fairy tale,” she told London’s Observer newspaper in February 2013 shortly before the Academy Awards ceremony, where Jennifer Lawrence won the statuette for “Silver Linings Playbook.”

“That Riva was able to break through that particular glass ceiling was remarkable,” said former Times film critic Betsy Sharkey. “But her legacy runs deeper. Riva was always drawn to characters who were boundary breakers, risk takers, women of substance. Looking back, it’s as if her entire career was leading up to ‘Amour.’”

Before the Oscar-nominated role, Riva had been best known for her part in the 1959 film “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” in which she played a nameless French actress engaged in a brief, intense affair with a Japanese architect in post-war Hiroshima.

Michael Haneke, the director of “Amour,” sent Riva his script after remembering her performance so many years ago. “She was extraordinary. So beautiful, emancipated,” he told The Times in December 2012 of her “Hiroshima” role. “She wasn’t like the pretty girls that we saw everywhere. She was a real woman.”

After the success of “Hiroshima,” Riva became a darling of French New Wave cinema, playing a tortured widow in “Leon Morin, Priest” (1961), and a miserable wife who tries to poison her husband in “Therese Desqueyroux” (1962), for which she won the lead actress award at the Venice Film Festival.

Despite appearing in internationally acclaimed films over the years, including Krzysztof Kieslowski's “Three Colors: Blue” (1993), she remained largely unknown to all but devoted cinephiles.

“I’ve never wanted to be a star, never,” she told the New York Times in January 2013. “I tried to do things that pleased me. … It is dreadful to see actors reproducing the same image constantly.”

But she also expressed regret for her the “dry spells” in her career, blaming them on her own highly selective nature. “They stopped calling. They forgot me,” she said in the Observer interview. “You make an empty space, and the empty space comes to you.”

She continued to act on the French stage until 2001, and refused to call her Oscar nomination the end to a successful career. “Why should I finish?” she said in a story for the Daily Beast in 2013. “Must I die before I die?”

Born Paulette Germaine Riva on Feb. 24, 1927, in Chenimenil, a village in the mountains of eastern France, she was the only child of an Italian-born sign painter and his wife. She was drawn to acting at a young age, performing in school plays and later for a local theater troupe. “I enjoyed the idea of transforming myself into someone else,” she told the Hollywood Reporter in February 2013.

Her parents objected, so she shelved her ambitions, working as a seamstress after graduating from high school.

But when she saw an advertisement for auditions to a Paris theater school, she knew she had to go. She stood there, “a nice little country girl in a little skirt,” she later recalled, reciting lines out of Alfred Musset’s play, “There’s No Trifling With Love.”

She would go on to make a career out of love stories.

In 1954, she completed her studies and landed her first role on the Paris stage in George Bernard Shaw’s “Arms and the Man.” Four years later, she was cast as the unnamed heroine of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour.”

Despite her roles, Riva was no swooning romantic, and was known for her fierce independence. She never married and lived in the same Paris apartment for more than 50 years.

“I’m still a great savage,” she told the Los Angeles Times in December 2012. “I don’t obey every demand. A savage is someone who goes off into the woods and does what she wants.”

Once asked whether she preferred being called Madame or Mademoiselle, she replied, “I can tell you that I have never wanted to be married and you can call me … as you wish.”

Riva had no children, didn’t own a television or a cellphone and disliked travel, surrounding herself instead with art and books. Above her fireplace, she kept a chalkboard full of quotes she heard on the radio about freedom and time and love.

A published poet, she also produced a book of photographs she took during the filming of “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” which was published 50 years after the film.

In her later years, she often walked the Paris streets to people-watch, or sat with the pigeons that visited her apartment window regularly.

“If I don’t act in another film, who cares? I’m 85, it doesn’t matter. I’m still alive and that feels great,” she told London’s Guardian newspaper in February 2013.

“I think that being an actor is like being a cat,” she added. “You have the opportunity to go out and live nine lives. And then you can come home and sleep by the fire.”

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