Magazine article The American Conservative

Edith Piaf: The Struggles of the Sparrow

Magazine article The American Conservative

Edith Piaf: The Struggles of the Sparrow

Article excerpt


[La Vie en Rose]

Edith Piaf: The Struggles of the Sparrow

WHY IS THE "struggle with inner demons" such a staple of movies about musicians and actors?

Part of the reason is selection bias: producers aren't dying to make "The Johann Sebastian Bach Story" because composing a new masterpiece for Sunday church services each week while fathering 20 children didn't leave Bach much time for self-inflicted drama

Nonetheless, on average, performers really do live more chaotic lives than the rest of us. The detective novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler explained in The Little Sister, his novel about a troubled actress, "If these people didn't live intense and rather disordered lives, if their emotions didn't ride them too hard - well, they wouldn't be able to catch those emotions in flight and imprint them on a few feet of celluloid ..."

Nobody lived a more intense and disordered life than Edith Piaf (1915-63), the Parisian chanteuse depicted in the melodramatic and moving French film "La Vie en Rose." While her contemporary Judy Garland became an icon to male homosexuals (the gay liberation movement began in 1969 when drag queens returning from Garland's funeral rioted at New York's Stonewall bar), Piaf was a national heroine, as French as Johnny Cash was American.

Although many showbiz biopics punch up the drama with fiction, writerdirector Olivier Dahan's big problem was what to leave out to keep "La Vie en Rose" down to 140 minutes. Amusingly, he omitted World War II, which Piaf spent in German-occupied Paris. (The embarrassing reality is that while Piaf did help the Resistance, her career, like many French culturati's, flourished during the Occupation, which was easier in Paris than elsewhere - the more civilized and Francophilie German officers tried to wangle assignments there.)

Many pop stars concoct hardscrabble mythologies to blur their privileged upbringings. For instance, the lead singer of the great leftist punk rock band The Clash gave himself the macho prole name Joe Strummer to obscure that he was the son of a diplomat. Piafs childhood, however, was the real thing.

Abandoned as an infant by her mother, a street singer and prostitute, Piaf was dumped by her father, a circus contortionist, with his madam mother to grow up in a bordello. When the little girl went blind from conjunctivitis, the whores with hearts of gold chipped in to send her on a pilgrimage to Lisieux to pray at the grave of St. …

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