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France Honors Gena Rowlands

On Thursday, December 16, 2010, French Ambassador Pierre Vimont conferred upon Gena Rowlands the insignia of Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters during a ceremony at the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in New York with the following speech.

Dear Gena Rowlands,

It is a great honor for me this evening to recognize someone who is a true legend of its own but maybe, before anything else, a great American actress. To all those who consider themselves as sincere fans of the American movie industry, and I pretend to be one of them, your presence here tonight a perfect testimony to what we love so much in this country : its authenticity, its energy, its vitality, its capacity to move and make one smile, cry, fear, or simply think and dream.

You once confessed in an interview that, as a child, you were clumsy and shy. The journalist to whom you were speaking found that hard to believe. You added that as soon as you became an actress, you had no such problem anymore. Indeed, your strong presence on film did not escape the public’s notice, and was soon to be a source of immense pleasure for us. Could it be that the shy little girl and her metamorphosis is the origin of the passion we feel in your acting ?

You childhood heroine was Bette Davis. The two fo you worked together in the late Seventies in a television film, called Strangers : The Story of a Mother and Daughter. You said (in The Telegraph) that « She was very funny. Just everything you would want Bette Davis to be. » Your admiration for Bette Davis may ave been how your own story started.

You made your film debut in The High Cost of Loving in 1958. Then, together with your late husband, director John Cassavetes, you made then fims, two of whch, A Woman Under The Influence and Gloria, brought you Academy Award nominations.

As we all know John Cassavetes constantly defied standard practices, becoming a symbol of what we could call the American counter cultural independant film movement. Characters were everything to him : they usually took over the narrative of his films, becoming the real centerpiece of his movies, the main reason for his shooting.

And so, in a rather logical way he was a master when it came to directing actors is search of truth on screen. Helped and inspired by you, his wife and muse, and his leading actress, he filmed some of the most electrifying and authentic portraits of women.

Thus you becaume an essential part of the adventure of independent film, its leading lady, its grande dame.

Thoughout your career, you took risks, engaging in intense, complex and above all very human roles that defied stereotypes. You broght them to life with great brio and depth, and made each of them not only an outstanding performance but, more than that, a remarkable illustration of human nature and human condition.

We all have a vivid recollection of your unforgettable performance in A Woman Under the Influence, in which you played the demanding role of an increasingly troubled housewife.

We also remember very well A Child is Waiting in which you were a distraught mother with mentally-challenged child ; Gloria, a stunning and memorable film about an exceptional relationship between a woman and a child ; and Faces, a film exploring a marital breakdown.

You told the press many times about the pleasure you take in following your emotions while acting, and in exchanging identities.

The only thing we can say to emphasize your observation is that we can always feel your depth and honesty when watching you.

The complex position of women in American society emerges from many of your films, as do the conflicted relationships between men and women.

There is no doubt that you have played an important role in bringing these issues to the screen, through your performances of course, but also through your own personal interests.

On this occasion I also would like to recall your work with other filmmakers. To name a few, you starred in Paul Schrader’s Light of Day and we were the leading actress of Woody Allen’s Another Woman. You also worked with Jim Jarmusch in Night on Earth and Forest Whitaker in Hope Floats.

The best actors have had the privilege of playing with you : can I give list, not an exhausitve one, but at least i twill remind all of us what the American movies are made of : Peter Falk, Kirk Douglas, Bette Davis, Rock Hudson, Charlton Heston, Julia Roberts, Mia Farrow, Sean Connery, Sean Penn, Uma Thurman, Holly Hunter, Sharon Stone, Liza Minnelli, Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, Susan Sarandon, Kieffer Sutherland, Winona Ryder, John Travolta… 

Could I add French actors Gérard Depardieu, Catherine Deneuve, and Melvil Poupaud who have had this privilege, too.

Not surprinsingly, your performances have wom you fans across the globe, critical acclaim from the press, and many awards and nominations. I mentioned a few moment ago the Academy award nominations. Among you awards, there a Silver Bea rat the Berlin Film Festival for your role in Opening Night, and two Golden Globes (for Hysterical Blindness and Crazy in Love).

In addition to your film work, you have earned considerable acclaim for your television roles and have won a number of Emmus for your performances.

I wish to emphasize tonight how deeply the French love you. Starting with Gerard Depardieu himself, they admire you as much as you love French cinema, France, and Paris.

We all remember that you received a standing ovation in Cannes in 2006 (you were at the festival to deliver a « leçon d’actrice ») and also at the Deauville festival in 1996 (you came for your son Nick’s film Unhook the Stars in which you play).

It seems that you’ve had a live affair with Deauville as you came back twice : in 2004 (you came for Nick’s film Notebook, in which you play, and for your daughter Xan’s documentary Z channel) and in 2007 (when your daughter Zoe presented her film Broken English, in which you play).

With such passionate parents immersed in the film world, it is not surprising that your three children, Xan, Nick, and Zoe, have embraced careers in film with such interest and talent.


They have praised the upbringing you gave them and their accomplishments testity to it as well.


I’d like to add that your talent does not revolve solely around film ; you have  a talent for life, for beauty, and indeed a joie-de-vivre expressed in your oft-celebrated sense of humor.


Gena Rowlands, it is a great personal pleasure for me to confer this decoration on you.

Gena Rowlands, au nom du gouvernement français, je vous fais Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres.