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Standing Ovation

Jennifer Aspen on Marion Cotillard in 'La Vie en Rose'

Jennifer Aspen on Marion Cotillard in 'La Vie en Rose'
Photo Source: Bruno Calvo
It's very hard to say what your absolute favorite performance is because there are so many stellar ones, but my personal choice is Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose." The physical character work is so immense, detailed, and extraordinary that it knocked my socks off. She goes from a young singing street urchin to a world-renowned diva to an incredibly old-looking woman dying of liver cancer who still wants to perform even though her body is failing her. That's quite a journey, physically as well as emotionally.

The aspect that really hits me is she breathtakingly captured this need to perform. I understand that because there are so many actors -- particularly Broadway performers -- for whom the show must go on. They work through injuries and heartache because they have to. That drive is so important, and she captured that in her eyes, her body, and her voice.

One scene particularly stands out for me. It's one take, several minutes long. It's a tracking shot that follows her through several rooms of Piaf's apartment. She wakes up thinking Marcel, the love of her life, is with her, and she goes to get him coffee. As the camera follows her, she realizes that was a dream. He's not really in the room, and it's revealed to her he has died in a plane crash. She runs back to the bedroom and falls apart. Then it appears that she goes right back onstage. She goes from being elated, happy, and fulfilled to weeping and screaming at this horrible news in one take, no cuts. Just thinking about it chokes me up and gives me chills.

There's another scene that's very affecting. Piaf died at 47 -- the same age as Judy Garland, coincidentally -- and toward the end of the movie, she looks like she's 90 and she says she won't perform at the Olympia. A composer is brought in who plays her a new song, "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien," which becomes her signature. The song means so much to her as she hears it; she says, "It's mine, it's me, I must do it," and she lights up. It's as if she takes 30 years off her frame with this urge to perform. Then it cuts to backstage for her final performance, and there's a close-up on her face as she's coming onstage to sing that song. Her eyes have this absolute joy as she's pushing this broken and diseased body to the stage -- it's exceptional. You can feel the caving in and the disease. She looked exactly like a resident at an elderly home. That's how people hold themselves there, and you can feel their pain. And Marion Cotillard is this beautiful, vibrant young woman.

I long to be able to do that kind of work. Cotillard made me see how much work a great performance takes because she paid so much attention to detail. In addition to everything already mentioned, she sang that entire soundtrack in a voice that closely resembled Piaf's and sounded wonderful. She took the voice from its beginnings, when Piaf was a street urchin who has a natural gift but doesn't impart a lot of meaning to the songs, to a seasoned star who performs all over the world to a singer whose voice still comes through even though she's very ill. Just taking that journey with the singing is an extraordinary feat.

I got all the craft and care that went into that performance, and I have no excuse to do anything less or at least attempt it in anything I do. I'm really grateful for performances like that and artists who give them to us.

Jennifer Aspen co-stars in ABC's "GCB" and will be seen in the upcoming Disney film "Girl vs. Monster." Her additional TV credits include "Glee," "Rodney," "Party of Five," "Bob Patterson," "Come to Papa," and "Claude's Crib." She made her professional debut at the Pasadena Playhouse in "The Lion in Winter."

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