Obituaries

Liliane Montevecchi, French cabaret star who won a Tony for ‘Nine,’ dies at 85

Ms. Montevecchi (second from right) won a Tony for best supporting actress in “Nine.”
Associated Press/File
Ms. Montevecchi (second from right) won a Tony for best supporting actress in “Nine.”

Liliane Montevecchi, a glittering French gamin who became a cabaret star in Paris, a pal of Marlon Brando’s in Hollywood, and the Tony Award-winning ‘‘muse’’ of director Tommy Tune on Broadway, died June 29 at her home in Manhattan. She was 85.

The cause was colon cancer, said her manager, Kathy Olsen. Ms. Montevecchi had been ailing for about two years, Olsen said, and during her time in the hospital had taken to wearing high heels with her medical booties.

‘‘If any entertainer could be described as ‘Paris incarnate,’ it might be Liliane Montevecchi,’’ New York Times culture critic Stephen Holden wrote in 2016.

Advertisement

In a six-decade career, Ms. Montevecchi became a well-dressed symbol of Gallic sophistication and cheeky charm, known for her monochromatic outfits (she preferred red), effortless dance moves (in her late 60s, she boasted she could ‘‘do the splits without even having to warm up”), preference for wine over water, and fondness for couture hats, which she said she wore to cover her thin hair.

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

‘‘If the wind blows,’’ she once joked, ‘‘I look like a rat instead of an elegant woman.’’

Along with Leslie Caron and her onetime rival, Zizi Jeanmaire, Ms. Montevecchi was part of a generation of performers who leveraged ballet success in France into wider popularity. She won the 1982 Tony for best featured actress in a musical for her portrayal of a movie producer in ‘‘Nine,’’ and eight years later was nominated for ‘‘Grand Hotel,’’ in which she played an acclaimed ballerina nearing retirement.

‘‘Yes, there are parallels with my own life,’’ she told the San Francisco Chronicle of her ‘‘Grand Hotel’’ character. ‘‘I was a ballerina. I am the same age as the character. She declines to give the age. And, yes, young men do fall in love with me.’’

As a teenager, Ms. Montevecchi was a prima ballerina in choreographer Roland Petit’s dance company in Paris. She performed at the 1949 coronation of Monaco’s Prince Rainier III and initially spurned overtures to come to Hollywood, telling producer John Houseman, ‘‘I want to die a dancer.’’

Advertisement

But when Petit announced he was disbanding the company, Ms. Montevecchi changed her mind and signed a seven-year contract with MGM.

She appeared alongside Caron in a pair of 1955 musicals, ‘‘The Glass Slipper’’ and ‘‘Daddy Long Legs,’’ before playing supporting roles in such movies as ‘‘Moonfleet’’ (1955), with Stewart Granger; ‘‘Meet Me in Las Vegas’’ (1956), a musical comedy with Dan Dailey and Cyd Charisse; ‘‘The Sad Sack’’ (1957), with Jerry Lewis; and ‘‘The Young Lions’’ (1958), a star-studded World War II drama with Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Dean Martin.

Ms. Montevecchi never quite warmed to filmmaking, saying that the requisite English lessons, singing drills, and repeated takes ‘‘made me cranky.’’

But she struck up close relationships with many of Hollywood’s leading performers, visiting Spain with Brando (“he taught me how to act”), hunting with Clark Gable, hitting the volleyball court with Gene Kelly, and playing cards with Elvis Presley, her ‘‘greasy but sweet’’ co-star in ‘‘Kid Creole’’ (1958).

During the late 1950s, Ms. Montevecchi took classes at the Actors Studio in New York alongside Marilyn Monroe, with whom she shared an agent. She also appeared on Broadway in ‘‘La Plume de Ma Tante,’’ a satire of French society, and in television programs such as ‘‘Playhouse 90.’’ She eventually received an invitation to perform with the Las Vegas outpost of the Folies Bergère, the vaunted Parisian cabaret group.

Advertisement

‘‘When they asked, I said, ‘What?! I’m not going to come down the stairs with feathers in my derrière,’” Montevecchi told the website Woman Around Town. ‘‘But I did — two years [in Las Vegas], five years in France. I was not naked, though. I had too much talent to be naked.’’

Ms. Montevecchi’s admirers included the artist Salvador Dali, who purportedly sent her carnations and then a drawing after seeing her perform; Vegas gangsters, whom Montevecchi said she once ‘‘helped,’’ and who ‘‘protected’’ her in return; and Tune, the Broadway director, who said they first met when she walked into the Folies audience and sat on his lap.

Tune had just directed the Broadway production of ‘‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’’ when he cast Ms. Montevecchi in ‘‘Nine,’’ a loose adaptation of Federico Fellini’s movie ‘‘8 1/2,’’ about a director (played on the stage by Raúl Juliá) struggling to complete his next film. Ms. Montevecchi portrayed his French-accented producer (initially written for a German-accented man), and was given the showstopping number ‘‘Folies Bergère’’ by composer Maury Yeston.

‘‘Miss Montevecchi, herself a former Folies headliner, is a knockout — a glorious amalgam of music-hall feistiness and balletic grace, with Toulouse-Lautrec shadows about the eyes,’’ wrote New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. The show opened on Broadway on May 9, 1982, and ran for 729 performances, receiving Tony Awards for best musical and best original score.

It was followed by ‘‘Grand Hotel,’’ with Ms. Montevecchi playing the ballerina role established by Greta Garbo in the 1932 film of the same title.

Returning to her Parisian roots toward the end of her career, Ms. Montevecchi toured the world with a series of autobiographical shows that featured stories from her Hollywood years and tributes to singers such as Édith Piaf and Mistinguett.

She expressed disappointment, however, that the feather-filled shows she had long appeared in no longer dominated the entertainment worlds of Las Vegas or Paris.

‘‘It’s a pity,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2001. “There are so many nasty things in life. People have become more intellectual and spend all their time in front of computer screens nowadays.’’