When the new NBC miniseries remake of Rosemary's Baby, set in Paris starring Zoe Saldana, debuts May 11, the role of Satan-worshipper Mrs. Castevet, played with exquisite oddness by Ruth Gordon in the original 1968 version, will be played by French model turned actress Carole Bouquet. She's perhaps best remembered in the U.S. for her turn as a Bond girl in 1981's For Your Eyes Only, but in France, she's a grande dame star on par with Meryl Streep or her own countrywoman, Catherine Deneuve.
Let's take a look at some other giants of French popular and media culture who are known only perhaps to a few Francophiles Stateside. Next time you're with your Frenchie friends, you'll impress them when you say, "Ah, Jamel Debbouze, je l'adore, il est super drôle, vraiment marrant, ouais? Carrément génial, top, classe!" (Go ahead ... try it!)
What David Beckham is to the Anglo soccer world, Zidane — a 41-year-old retired footballer of Algerian descent, whom everyone calls "Zizou" — is to the Francophone world. He's been named the best soccer player of the past 50 years by the Union of European Football Associations and has even been called the best player in the world by Pelé himself. Now a coach and director for Real Madrid, he's made millions on top of his playing salary doing huge ad campaigns for the likes of Adidas, Volvic, and Dior. He's most famous for head-butting a rival player who insulted him during the 2006 World Cup; a giant sculpture of the much-loved head-butt moment stood outside Paris's Pompidou Center in 2012.
In a country that's still acclimating itself to people of color in a wide variety of roles, Noah, 53, a tennis champ turned pop star of part-Cameroonian descent, is sort of like a black John McEnroe who morphed into an insanely beloved blend of Bob Marley, Billy Joel, and Oprah. He was the last Frenchman to win the French Open, back in 1983, and since then has gone on to have a hugely successful pop career with his mellow, easy-on-the-ears blend of reggae, folk, and world music. His hits like "Donne-Moi Une Vie" are the kind of songs that three generations of French families will sing along to in the car on a road trip. He's also a major popular voice for progressive and pluralistic politics, having made no secret of his loathing of the right-wing, anti-immigration politics of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy. He helms a ton of charities to help underprivileged kids in Paris's poor, immigrant-heavy banlieues (the suburbs that ring Paris) and around the world. And he's the father of Chicago Bulls player Joakim Noah. His music is a bit bland, but he's a French mensch whom even bigoted old white folks from Alsace-Lorraine can love.
Lest you think that everything French is classy compared to the trashy U.S., rest assured that l'Héxagone has its own smarmy (albeit less steroidal) reality-TV culture, as embodied in Loana (she goes simply by the first name), who gained French notoriety on the first season of the country's first-ever reality show, Loft Story, in 2001, when she had sex in the pool with one of her housemates. Kardashian-like, she's since parlayed that fame into a string of books, albums, and other TV shows, while, Lohan-like, she's also had a string of breakdowns, bouts with alcohol and medication abuse, and financial problems. Being from Cannes, she confirms the Parisian belief that people from the South of France are tacky and trashy, a parallel to how New Yorkers often view people from Miami or Dallas.
France's version of an Oprah crossed with an Elizabeth Warren — that is to say, a powerful, influential black woman who's also a progressive political firebrand — would be Taubira, 61, the minister of justice, a native of French Guyana. In a country where it's still rare to see people of color in the political high ranks, she ran for president in 2002, drawing only 2.3 percent of the votes — but enough to make her viewed, that year, as a spoiler who allowed a far-right candidate to nearly nab the presidency. (She incurred the same center-left wrath that Nader did for "spoiling" Gore's win in 2000.) In the last year, she's become a rock star with French gays for fiercely pushing through the country's gay-marriage law despite lassitude from her own left-wing ranks and racist blowback from the country's Catholic right. (They'd line up to protest her appearances brandishing "bananas for the monkey.") Go to 2:19 to see her dressing down her white male anti-gay-marriage opponents in parliament by invoking liberté, egalité, et fraternité; the impromptu speech earned her a standing ovation and sealed her icon status.
France's Stephen Colbert is the handsome, impish Barthès, who every night parodies and punks newsmakers and politicians on his Petit Journal TV show. In 2008, during the U.S. presidential election, he got French folks in New York to hold up giant posters behind TV cameras spelling out CASSOULET FOREVER, sending Google searches of that word (a classic French dish) skyrocketing. A few years ago, when conservative politician Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet complained on TV that French schoolkids were wasting their time with nutrition classes "drawing carrots in school," Barthès got a bunch of French kiddies to present her with carrot pictures at public events. (It's funny to watch her reaction with the kids go from gracious to pissed-off.) More recent, Barthès has gotten into some flack when pictures emerged of him doing a quenelle — a highly charged French arm gesture that some say signifies an anti-establishment fuck you, but that also — partly due to its popularization by the controversial stand-up comic Dieudonné M'Bala M'Bala — has taken on strong anti-Semitic, Nazi-salute overtones.
The next big Marion Cotillard– or Jean Dujardin–style crossover megastar to come out of France may well be this handsome, hopelessly charming 36-year-old actor, born to African parents. He'll play Bishop, a mutant, in the upcoming latest X-Men movie. He shot to fame in France in 2011 in Les Intouchables, the country's second-highest-grossing film of all time, and one that made Sy the first black actor to win a César (France's version of the Oscars). American critics rightly lambasted the film for presenting racial roles that felt like a throwback to 1980s U.S. movies like Trading Places, but Sy's charm as a poor, rough black guy who helps an uptight rich, sick white guy release his inner joy was, despite the cliché of it all, undeniable. He's also hilarious in this very famous SNL-type French sketch parodying American-style exercise informercials. It features (on the right) Jamel Debbouze, another French comic megastar who takes a large portion of the credit for the widely held French truism that the only funny people in France these days are of Arab or African descent.
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