The fiery first lady of our French theatre
With explosive Gallic temperament, plus beauty and talent, Denise Pelletier is
Quebec’s best-known actress. But to thousands she’s better known as a homely housewife—Cecile Ploufte of TV
BY DOROTHY SANGSTER
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BASIL ZAROV
Speeding along a lonely road near her home in St. Marc-sur-le-Richelieu two years ago, a Montreal actress named Denise Pelletier was forced to the ditch by a heavy black car that swung across her path. It was three o'clock in the morning, and not long before a girl had been assaulted near this spot. Frozen with fear, the actress watched three hulking youths in leather windbreakers swagger toward her. The leader flung open her door, turned a blinding light on her face, and slammed the door shut.
“Let her go,” he ordered his companions. “It's Cecile Plouffe.”
Thirty-one-year-old Miss Pelletier has spent fourteen years on the stage, portraying seductive mistresses, sophisticated matrons, innocent young girls and bitter old maids, but Montrealers see her every week as Cecile, the middle-aged married daughter of Roger Lemelin’s television series. The Plouffe Family, and that’s the role her fans remember. They may applaud her, as they did last winter, as the avaricious wife in Théâtre du Nouveau Monde’s exciting production of the Molière comedy, Le Malade Imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid). They may cheer her, as they did this spring, as the Duchess in An Italian Straw Hat. They have thrilled to her magnificent performances as St. Joan (in English) and Athalie (in French). But when all’s said and done, like the youths on the road to the Eastern Townships that frightening night two years ago, they continue to identify her with a homely, stingy, frustrated, puritanical working-class wife named Cecile.
“Sometimes,” says attractive, unmarried Denise Pelletier, recently chosen Quebec Queen of the Wine Festival and one of Canada's ten best-dressed women for 1957, “it's more than I can stand.”
Last summer, for instance, she was less than delighted when a busload of Quebec tourists, screaming, “It’s Cecile Plouffe,” drew level with her open-top car on the French Riviera and an old woman almost fell out of the window yelling. “Hello, Cecile! How’s the baby?”
Charge Miss Pelletier with being out of character on stage, however, and she sees red. When
Ken Johnstone, the English translator of the show, recently remarked that a certain Friday night performance was more Pelletier than Plouffe. he was treated to a public dressing-down in the Ritz Carlton that made his ears tingle.
“You hate me! You have always hated me! I never want to speak to you again!" Denise denounced him with flashing eyes, heaving bosom, ringing voice and no small portion of the fire and imagination that have led one director to refer to her as "a little volcano, compressed from the inside." (A week later, they were good friends again.)
Fire and imagination have made Denise Pelletier, from the time she was seventeen, an actress worth watching.
In Tit-Coq, her performance as Germaine, the spinster cousin of Marie-Ange, was so powerful that some people insist that the author of the play, Gratiën Gelinas. rewrote the part to suit her talents. Gelinas denies that there was any re-writing, but says, "Denise is probably the most powerful of our actresses, in the sense of her own personality. She gave the role of Germaine a sense of bitterness and boiling frustration that I could never have expected from anyone else.”
Jean-Louis Roux, who played opposite her in the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde production of L'Echange, says: “Elle a brûlé les planches! (She burned up the stage!).” But occasionally directors have found to their sorrow that Miss Pelletier burns up the stage in a way that isn't in the script.
Jean-Paul Fugère, who directed the Lemelin series during its first year on television, recalls a dramatic climax in Plouffe Family affairs when Onesime Menard, the bus driver, is presumed dead and the news is brought home to his wife, Cecile. Fugère believed the scene should be played in a certain fashion. Denise insisted on playing it her own way.
“Her portrayal of Cecile’s grief was shattering,” Fugère admits, “although I still think it would have been better my way, and flouting my direction tended to demoralize the rest of the cast.” He and Miss continued on page 44
In Tit-Coq she held out for pulchritude and portrayed a spinster with eye-catching curves
Pelletier didn’t speak for the rest of the season. The feud ended when they both found themselves on the same plane, bound for France, and Denise was so excited at the thought of seeing Paris for the first time that she forgot to stay angry.
Guy Bcaulne, the present director of the PlouiTes, has run into temperamental outbursts on several occasions. A recent script, for instance, called for Cecile to surprise a burglar in her brother Guillaume’s clothing store. Beaulne directed Denise to wrestle with the intruder. Miss Pelletier refused. "A woman to wrestle with a man on the floor and sit on top of him? It's crazy!” she exploded. “It’s ugly, it’s disgraceful, it’s vulgar, and it isn't even in Cecile’s nature—she’s afraid of everything, Cecile! I won't do it!” No one was surprised when the scene was done her way, the burglar being shoved around by an irate Cecile in a strictly vertical fashion.
“I have a bad temper sometimes,” Denise admits.
Some producers, who agree with her, flatly refuse to discuss any past dealings on the grounds that she's extremely talented and they hope to use her again, one of these days. When that time comes, they want her to be on speaking terms with them.
Gratiën Celinas, who directed her in his own production of Tit-Coq, affirms that what’s between a director and an actor is like what goes on in the confessional — a secret. “Denise is a thoroughbred, and she needs a tight rein,” is all he’ll say.
Actually, Celinas and Pelletier got on well together. The only exhibition of fireworks in Tit-Coq occurred during rehearsal. when Pelletier discovered that Gelinas expected her to flatten down her bosom to look more like the frustrated spinster, Germaine. She hit the roof.
“If you wanted a flat girl, you should have got a flat girl, not me!” she shouted. “You should have got . . . (here, friends chuckle, she suggested an actress known more for stage technique than pulchritude). She’s fifty, and she has nothing! This play may run a year! I’m going to flatten myself for a year? I won’t do it!”
When the first-night curtain went up on Tit-Coq, Germaine was one frustrated spinster with curves in the right places.
One of the few directors who's never had any incidents with Denise is JeanLouis Roux, co-founder of Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde and himself an accomplished actor married into a family of actresses.
“To understand Denise,” Roux says, “you must understand first of all that she is a woman. She has great intuition, and she is not always logical. Once you bear that in mind, you can get anything you want from her on the stage.”
Most directors, by now. are resigned to the fact that Miss Pelletier often arrives late. Some of them swear she sits stubbornly in restaurants for the sheer pleasure of holding things up. When Roux directed her in The Night of January 16th a few years ago, he surmounted the difficulty by calling her half an hour before he needed her. That way, she was always on time.
These days, it's no wonder if Denise is sometimes late, for things are humming in theatrical circles and Montreal actresses never had it so good. Three French - language legitimate theatres (Théâtre Anjou. Theatre Club, and Théâtre du Nouveau Monde) are in constant activity. Molières comedy, Le Malade Imaginaire, played for fifty-four performances this winter to packed houses. Because of the language barrier, which discourages the importing of American programs like the Fd Sullivan Show and Studio One, Montreal tele-
vision studios depend largely on native talent, and six or seven shows along the line of The Plouffe Family are currently scheduled on the French network. Radio, too, makes its demands.
Denise Pelletier is kept hopping from one engagement to the next, from one rehearsal to another, every day except Sunday. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday she rehearses for the French version of Les Plouffes on Wednesday night. Thursday morning and Friday she rehearses again for the English show on Friday night, over the Dominion network. Thursday afternoons are booked for radio talks on Quebec customs. Six nights a week, and usually for a matinee on Saturday, she is on the stage of the Gesu Theatre, downtown, in An Italian Straw Hat.
Trying to write a story about an actress on this kind of merry-go-round is next to impossible, as I discovered recently after six days in Montreal on Miss Pelletier’s trail, and another day as guest in her country home in St. Marc-sur-leRichelieu. At the end of the week it emerged we had been alone together for a total of two hours and twenty-five minutes. The rest of the time had dribbled away trying to locate Miss Pelletier’s friends for interviews and discovering they too had crowded schedules like her own.
My aimless activities during the first three days of my stay, laid out in the form of a diary, run something like this: Tuesday. Arrive in Montreal, check in at Windsor Hotel and locate Miss Pelletier in Canadian Legion Hall, Bishop Street, rehearsing current episode in Plouffe Family affairs: stag party for Stan
Four faces that show
Labrie on eve of wedding to Rita Toulouse . . . Observe cast with curiosity; Mama worldlier, Papa younger, Guillaume stouter, Cecile (Denise Pelletier, in slacks, sweater and ski boots) much more sophisticated looking. Young man in turtleneck sweater, with strange accent, revealed as elderly Uncle Gideon before make-up. Beaulne calls cast to order. Ovide and Napoleon converse in French from script with animated gestures. Cecile flies to Mama and buries head in lap. (Discover three days later, during English version, that dialogue concerns coffins, which terrify nervous Cecile.) Male Plouffes parade room singing unknown song with unintelligible words—mock funeral procession for mischievous Stan Labrie.
Return to hotel and compose long list of questions for pre-arranged afternoon interview with Miss Pelletier in Club 400. downtown restaurant lately adopted by theatrical crowd as pleasant but expensive home away from home. At Club 400, Miss Pelletier orders strange drink called floater, consisting of brandy on Vichy water, and sèttles down to interview. Discover she is only daughter of notary Albert Pelletier, noted Montreal critic and founder of magazine, Les Idées. Brother is actor Gilles Pelletier, currently on stage in comic version of The Three Musketeers: mother is an accomplished musician.
Interview interrupted by business manager of Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, just passing by, who has brief business to conduct with actress.
Interview resumed. Note that Denise has been with TNM “almost from its •nception,” has appeared in eight or nine
Denise’s varied talent
plays since then, and prefers live audiences to television cameras. Unlike most actresses, she has never kept a scrapbook and cannot reel off her successes.
Interview interrupted by voluble young man in brown suit, who discourses for ten minutes in French and finally departs, still talking. Conversation translated as pertaining to a pier built on government property in front of Miss Pelletier’s country home, resulting in hundreds of summer visitors who drive out, bathe, observe actress bathing, and tell each other, “That’s Cecile Plouffe.” Young man believes something can be done to fence off pier. If not, she intends to build a swimming pool in her backyard where she and friends can swim in peace. “After my work it is my privacy that matters most of all to me,” she says.
Interview continues with discovery Miss Pelletier is just back from Christmas holiday in Mexico with actress friend Denise St. Pierre. In Acapulco, a high diver publicly dedicated his act to her—very flattering. In Mexico City she bought toreador pants, an embroidered blouse and a leather-studded stole. Mexico is wonderful.
Miss Pelletier glances at watch, murmurs, “I’m late,” and dashes off. Interview obviously at an end. Return to hotel, and phone friend Denise St. Pierre, who is not in, and actress Marjolaine Hebert (second friend) who is also out. Drop in at Press Club for nightcap and hope for better tomorrow.
Wednesday. Pick up phone at 8.30 a.m. and discover Jean-Paul Fugère is rehearsing all day at CBC; Marjolaine Hebert (star of Pantomime Quiz) is off to rehearsal; Denise St. Pierre out; Jean Gascon, director Imaginary Invalid, sick in hospital.
Repair to CBC studio 43, where it emerges that Director Beaulne has adamant policy of no visitors. On way out, pass Jean Duceppe (Stan Labrie) who says he and Denise Pelletier studied together under Sita Riddez. Whenever one was playing at a local theatre, the Arcade, the other went along to lead the applause.
Back to hotel, where telephone calls reveal Sita Riddez out, Denise St. Pierre in rehearsal, Marjolaine Hebert still rehearsing, Jean-Paul Fugère still out. Everybody else in cast of the Plouffes,
so order dinner sent up to room and watch the show on television for first time in French.
Consider leaving town on night train. Decide to give it another day. Thursday: Phone Roger Lemelin, author of Plouffe Family, and am rewarded with original thoughts on Denise Pelletier, as follows: “Denise is very dear to my heart. She is difficult to understand. She builds a wall around herself. She is not selfish, but she has her work, and after that comes her private life. She is a woman of great talent who entered the theatre to protect her personality. The man who will succeed with her is the man who can tame her. At the same time she is afraid of powerful personalities, such as mine. She knows I understand her.”
The quote from Lemelin is all that went into my diary for Thursday. The rest of the day was a total loss. I spent it trying to see people who were too busy to be seen and to find people who couldn’t be found.
Friday was just about as bad as Thursday but on Saturday my luck changed, and I realized I’d be writing a story on Denise after all. First, in Club 400 of course, I finally caught up with Marjolaine Hebert and Jean Duceppe, and after a long session with them, and with some other friends of Denise, I drove with Denise herself to St. Marc-sur-leRichelieu to be her week-end guest.
Marjolaine Hebert and Jean Duceppe told me Denise is generous, sentimental, impulsive, kindhearted and trigger-tempered. Once, when a policeman refused to let her make a left turn on St. Catherine Street, she deliberately threatened to run him down! (“He just said, it’s a good thing we all love you so much.’ He didn't even give her a ticket!” marvels Jean.)
When Marjolaine was undergoing plastic surgery as the result of an automobile accident, her friend Denise phoned the hospital and sobbed, “I don’t want them to change your lovely face. I like it just the way it is.”
"Denise a le cœur sirr lu main,” Marjolaine says, which translates roughly into the statement that Miss Pelletier would give you the shirt off her back.
When a dog of indeterminate color and breed took a liking to her one day
as she emerged from a CBC rehearsal, she took it home, fed it, washed it, and permitted it to follow her around town for days, much to her friends’ amusement. Only when it persisted in crying all night did she finally give it away to a farmer. When a second dog, Moulki, was run over at St. Marc, she couldn’t face the fact of its death for weeks. When friends asked how Moulki was, she told them it was fine. It was almost a month before she admitted the dog had been killed.
Jean Duceppe, as Stan Labrie on the Plouffe show, sees Denise week in and week out, but his most amusing memories of her come from their early days together, touring Quebec. He says, “Things were always happening to Denise. 1 remember once in St. Joseph de Beauce she was sitting in a rocking chair and she rocked it right offstage into the audience. She told them. ‘I’m sorry. It was an accident,’ climbed back onstage, and started rocking again.”
On one occasion when she was left dead on centre stage by a murderer a weighted curtain descended on her neck with such force that it stunned her. Audiences saw the supposed corpse, tears streaming from her eyes, screaming, “Help! Help!” while flustered stagehands frantically attempted to raise the curtain again.
Duceppe says, “Denise has always had trouble controlling her laughter if anything is funny. Everybody knows about her tendency to laugh. Some directors have never forgiven her for it. Once she got the part of Mary Magdalene in a religious play on the sole condition that she wouldn’t laugh. We were playing in Thetford Mines, I remember, and she had this line, ‘Let me put the perfume on Your feet.’ It came out, ‘Let me put my feet on Your perfume.' I had to carry her offstage, she was laughing so hard.”
After ten years playing with such renowned companies as Montreal Repertory, Les Compagnons, L’Equipe and Le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Miss Pelletier has finally learned to control her laughter. But not, apparently, her impulses. She bought her two-hundredyear-old house on the Richelieu River
on a sudden whim on a Sunday afternoon two years ago.
As she explained it late Saturday night, driving me out to St. Marc, “I was just driving past with my friend Micheline LeBourgne and there was this old house, and I love old houses, so I went in and bought it.”
Miss Pelletier’s house is the love of her life, although she admits she doesn’t know if it’s paid for yet. Her business manager takes care of such things. Here at St. Marc, in a setting of yellow painted walls, white muslin curtains, lamps made of inverted flowerpots, and copper pots on big stone fireplaces, she is free to entertain her friends with wicked imitations of Miriam Hopkins making an entrance or singer Vic Damone doing his specialty number, You Can’t Take That Away from Me. Here she can browse through her thick cookbook by Curnonsky, Prince of Gastronomes, for mouth-watering tidbits like gourmet toast and marinated mushrooms, or concoct Pelletier originals from odds and ends left in the icebox by her housekeeper.
Best of all, out here at St. Marc she can argue for hours with a friend like journalist Henriette Duliani. Is or isn’t the heroine of Graham Greene’s novel, The End of the Affair, a saint? (“Of course she is! A woman who sacrificed like that? She’s a saint, I tell you!”) Is Madeleine Renaud of the famous Barrault company losing her voice, or did she have laryngitis on a recent show? (“It was laryngitis, I tell you! She was fine next night!") Is the popular Parisian chanteuse who recently came to town really just 'une fille du concierne" or is she better born? (“Oh well, if that’s the way you feel, we will never agree!”)
Sometimes an argument is carried on with such mutual fire and conviction that Denise and her guests have stopped speaking to each other by bedtime. This doesn’t worry anybody too much. Most of Miss Pelletier’s friends know from experience that if she’s mad tonight she’ll be over it by tomorrow, or next week, or maybe not until next month. In any case, one can expect an overflow of Gallic temperament from someone who is generally acknowledged to be the Tallulah Bankhead of French Canada. ★