from Sunday Herald Sun (Australia) / by Lawrie Masterson
EDITH Piaf’s descent into drugs, booze, chronic arthritis and cancer was savage and swift. She died at 47, although in her final years she “looked 70 and acted like a child”, according to Marion Cotillard, the French actor who plays her with such distinction in La Vie En Rose.
“What surprised me most about her was the consecutive happiness – huge happiness – and then tragedy,” Cotillard said. “Her life was like this wave of amazing things and then deep, deep drama.
“Towards the end, the doctors told the people around her they couldn’t explain how she was still alive. I think it was passion and love that kept her going. She was full of those things.
“When I started on the project I didn’t know anything about her except a few songs and the (Piaf trademark) little black dress. But then I discovered the tyrannical behaviour and I didn’t want to look at it because it was a dark side that I didn’t accept.
“Then one day I read the script again and there is a line where she is asked whether she is afraid of death and she says she is more afraid of being alone – and I understood.
“I don’t excuse her behaviour because I don’t have the right to excuse or not. My aim was to understand her.”
The glamorous Cotillard came to understand the self-destructive Piaf so well, New York Times critic Stephen Holden recently called her performance “the most astonishing immersion of one performer into the body and soul of another I’ve ever encountered on film”.
Olivier Dahan’s film about “the Little Sparrow” is a breakthrough for Cotillard, until now best known outside France as the woman to whom Russell Crowe’s character lost his heart in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year.
That movie failed to click with audiences, but La Vie En Rose looks set to help 31-year-old Cotillard’s career explode, with her name already mentioned for consideration for major awards.
“I knew I would have to work a lot,” Cotillard says of the role that transformed her from cool beauty to the tiny dynamo stricken by tragedy and illness almost all her life.
“But I love to work, so it was perfect. I couldn’t push myself over the limit like she did, but I love my job and I have strength.”
Revered as one of the greatest singers France has produced, Edith Piaf was born Edith Giovanna Gassion.
She spent part of her formative years being raised by occupants of a Paris brothel and on the road with her father, who eked out a living as a street performer. At various times she is said to have been blind and deaf. At 16 she gave birth to a son, who died in infancy.
Piaf was “discovered” by nightclub owner Louis Leplee and made her first record in 1935. Her legacy includes standards such as La Vie En Rose, Hymne a L’amour, Milord and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
From poverty, she rose to mix with Jean Cocteau, Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich – and to classify her behaviour as “difficult” would be one of the great understatements.
She is credited with fostering talents such as Yves Montand (she was his lover) and Charles Aznavour and, post-World War II, she became internationally acclaimed and appeared in concert at venues such as New York’s Carnegie Hall.
She married twice, but the man regarded as the great love of her life, champion boxer Marcel Cerdan, was killed in a plane crash in 1949. Her second husband, Theo Sarapo, is still alive and agreed to co-operate with the production of the film.
“He was a marvellous guy and I heard from some of Piaf’s friends that he really loved her,” Cotillard said.
A talented singer who believes she could hold down a lead role in a musical, Cotillard’s tastes lean towards Radiohead and Amy Winehouse.
She says she needed the best part of a year, not just three months, to train her voice to sound anything like Piaf. In the end she lip-synched, but it was hardly a cop-out. Even altering her hairline and having to spend up to five hours a day in make-up paled into insignificance.
• La Vie En Rose opens on Thursday.