Jean Renoir (15 September 1894 – 12 February 1979) was a French film director, screenwriter, actor, producer and author. As a film director and actor, he made more than forty films from the silent era to the end of the 1960s. His pictures Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939) are often cited by critics as among the greatest films ever made. As an author, he wrote the definitive biography of his father, the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Renoir, My Father (1962). Jean Renoir was ranked by the BFI's Sight and Sound poll of critics as the fourth greatest director of all time.
Renoir was born in the Montmartre district of Paris, France. He was the second son of Aline (née Charigot) and the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. His elder brother was Pierre Renoir, a noted French stage and film actor, while his younger brother Claude Renoir (1901–69) produced some of his films. Renoir was also the uncle of Claude Renoir (1913-1993), the son of Pierre, a cinematographer who worked with Renoir on several of his films.
A week after the disastrous premiere of The Rules of the Game, in July 1939, Renoir went to Rome with Karl Koch and Dido Freire, subsequently his second wife, to work on the script for a film version of Tosca. This he abandoned to return to France in August 1939, to make himself available for military service. At the age of 45, he became a lieutenant in the French Army Film Service, and was sent back to Italy, to teach film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and resume work on Tosca. The French government hoped this cultural exchange would help maintain friendly relations with Italy, which had not yet entered the war. As war approached, however, he returned to France and then, after Germany invaded France in May 1940, he fled to the United States with Dido.
In Hollywood, Renoir had difficulty finding projects that suited him. In 1943, he co-produced and directed an anti-Nazi film set in France, This Land Is Mine, starring Maureen O'Hara and Charles Laughton. Two years later, he made The Southerner, a film about Texas sharecroppers that is often regarded as his best American film and one for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Directing.
In 1945 he made Diary of a Chambermaid, an adaptation of the Octave Mirbeau novel, Le Journal d'une femme de chambre, starring Paulette Goddard and Burgess Meredith. The Woman on the Beach (1947) starring Joan Bennett and Robert Ryan was heavily reshot and reedited after it fared poorly among preview audiences in California. Both films were poorly received and were the last films Renoir made in America. At this time, Renoir became a naturalized citizen of the United States.
Renoir made his last film in 1969, Le Petit théâtre de Jean Renoir (The Little Theatre of Jean Renoir). The film is a series of four short films made in a variety of styles and is, in many ways, one of his most challenging, avant-garde and unconventional works.
Thereafter, unable to find financing for his films and in declining health, Renoir spent the last years of his life receiving friends at his home in Beverly Hills and writing novels and his memoirs.
In 1973 Renoir was preparing a production of his stage play Carola with Leslie Caron and Mel Ferrer when he fell ill and was unable to direct. The producer Norman Lloyd, a friend and actor in The Southerner, took over the direction of the play, which was broadcast in the series program Hollywood Television Theater on WNET, Channel 13, New York on February 3, 1973.
In his memoirs My Life and My Films (1974) Renoir wrote of the influence exercised upon him by his cousin, Gabrielle Renard, the woman seen in the portrait by his father above. Shortly before his birth, she came to live with the Renoir family, and helped raise the young boy. She introduced him to the Guignol puppet shows in the Montmartre of his childhood: "She taught me to see the face behind the mask and the fraud behind the flourishes," he wrote. "She taught me to detest the cliché." He concluded his memoirs with the words he had often spoken as a child, "Wait for me, Gabrielle."
In 1975 he received a lifetime Academy Award for his contribution to the motion picture industry and that same year a retrospective of his work was shown at the National Film Theatre in London. Also in 1975, the government of France elevated him to the rank of commander in the Légion d'honneur.
Jean Renoir died in Beverly Hills, California on February 12, 1979. His body was returned to France and buried beside his family in the cemetery at Essoyes, Aube, France. He was survived by his son Alain and three grandchildren, John, Peter and Anne.
On his death, fellow director and friend Orson Welles wrote an article for the Los Angeles Times, "Jean Renoir: The Greatest of all Directors." Renoir's son Alain Renoir (1921-2008), was a professor of English and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley and a scholar of medieval English literature.
Jean Renoir has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6212 Hollywood Blvd. Several of his ceramics were collected by Albert Barnes and can be found on display beneath his father's paintings at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.