Annie Girardot: Actress who eschewed glamorous roles in favour of portraying 'everywoman'

While many French women have an ambivalent attitude towards the national screen icons Brigitte Bardot and Jeanne Moreau, they embraced the sparrow-like Annie Girardot, with her feather-cut hair and gravelly voice, for the "everywoman" quality she brought to the wide range of strong-minded characters she portrayed in over 120 films. "I played a judge, a lawyer, a taxi driver, a cop, a surgeon," said Girardot, France's most popular and bankable actress of the 1970s. "People didn't come to watch a beautiful, vamp-like creature, but simply a woman. I've always done my own shopping and the housework. I was never a glamorous star."

There, the popular comedies she made with directors like Michel Audiard, Philippe de Broca and Claude Zidi were big box-office draws, and have been perennials of French television schedules ever since, shown again alongside tributes to her last week. She also brought considerable depth, vulnerability and steeliness to dramas such as Docteur Françoise Gailland (directed by Jean-Louis Bertucelli in 1975), Les Misérables (1995, one of six films she made with her friend Claude Lelouch) and Michael Haneke's disturbing La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher, 2001), the three films for which she was awarded a César, the French equivalent of the Oscar.

However, The Piano Teacher aside, many of Girardot's films didn't cross the Channel, or the Atlantic for that matter, and she remained best known internationally for her remarkable performance as Nadia, the prostitute caught between Alain Delon and Renato Salvatori in Luchino Visconti's Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli (Rocco And His Brothers, 1960). She married Salvatori in 1962 and appeared in several Italian films in parallel with her cinema career in France, but he was abusive and the couple separated. Never business-minded, Girardot admitted she took many roles "just to pay the bills. Work, work, work, that was my life for years," she said.

In the early 1980s she lost a fortune when Revue Et Corrigée, the musical show she put on and starred in at the Casino de Paris, flopped, and she subsequently battled alcoholism, depression and drug addiction. However, she remained a formidable presence on stage and on set and continued acting until the onset of Alzheimer's robbed her of the ability to memorise lines.

She was born in 1931, the second child of a single mother who placed her with a foster family for three years while she trained as a midwife. "We lived in hospitals and maternity homes," she said of her childhood. "My mother understood the kind of teenager I was, and that acting came naturally to me." After passing her baccalauréat, Girardot studied nursing in Caen but soon moved to Paris, where she juggled attending the Conservatoire National Supérieur D'Art Dramatique during the day with evening and weekend appearances at Montmartre cabaret venues. In 1954, she joined the Comédie-Française, the prestigious national theatre company, where she excelled in La Machine A Ecrire (The Typewriter), prompting the play's author, Jean Cocteau, to call her "the finest dramatic temperament of the postwar period."

Her first notable film parts came in two atmospheric "polars" starring Jean Gabin, Gilles Grangier's Le Rouge Est Mis and Jean Delannoy's Maigret Tend Un Piège (Maigret Sets A Trap, both 1957). Visconti directed her opposite Jean Marais in a French stage adaptation of William Gibson's Two For The Seesaw in 1958, yet she still had to audition to secure her breakthrough role in Rocco. She reluctantly resigned from the Comédie-Française to concentrate on film work but periodically returned to the theatre and, in the 1980s, was acclaimed once again for her performances in Molière and Ionesco plays.

Throughout the 1960s, Girardot showed her versatility as she portrayed the wife of a TV reporter with a roving eye, played by Yves Montand, in Lelouch's Vivre Pour Vivre (Live For Life, 1967) and Jean-Paul Belmondo's "other woman" in the same director's Un Homme Qui Me Plaît (A ManWho Pleases Me, 1969). She played two very different maids, one seduced by Michel Piccoli in Marco Ferreri's Dillinger è Morto (Dillinger Is Dead, 1969) and the blackmailing chatterbox of the irresistible Audiard comedy Elle Boit Pas, Elle Fume Pas, Elle Drague Pas, Mais... Elle Cause! (1970). In André Cayatte's Mourir D'Aimer (To DieOf Love, 1971), she was moving as a schoolteacher who has an affair with a pupil, with tragic consequences. Based on a true story, the film was seen by 10 per cent of the French population, though François Truffaut denounced it as exploitative.

Girardot acted with Philippe Noiret in several films, including Edouard Molinaro's curio La Mandarine (Sweet Deception, 1972, also starring Murray Head), Jean-Pierre Blanc's farce La Vieille Fille (The Old Maid, 1972), as well as de Broca's Tendre Poulet (Dear Inspector, 1977) and its follow-up On A Volé La Cuisse De Jupiter (1980). Her portrayal of the overworked Docteur Françoise Gailland, whose cancer diagnosis forces her to reconsider her priorities, again struck a chord with French cinemagoers.

Girardot's private life occasionally mirrored the ill-advised choices and predicaments of some of her film heroines. "I am incapable of playing parts that don't match what I feel or what I want," she said. Throughout the 1980s and into the early '90s she lived with Bob Decout, who was 17 years her junior, and the lyricist and director of the Revue Et Corrigée débâcle, and also directed her in the feature film Adieu Blaireau, another box-office failure. Yet the undomitable actress bounced back with several television series, a part in Bertrand Blier's Merci La Vie (1990) and her successes with Lelouch and Haneke. In 1989, she published her autobiography, Vivre D'Aimer (To Live For Love).

In 2008, a documentary about her Alzheimer's plight, Ainsi Va La Vie (There Goes Life) was broadcast on French television and she became the public face of the disease. Last year, Girardot's daughter and granddaughter revealed that she remembered nothing of her acting career, with Lelouch the only name from her heyday that brought a vague sense of recognition. Paying tribute, Lelouch said Girardot was "perhaps the greatest actress of French cinema since World War II. She will remain my most beautiful memory, as a director and as a man."

Annie Suzanne Girardot, actress: born Paris 25 October 1931; married 1962 Renato Salvatori (died 1988; one daughter, deceased); died Paris 28 February 2011.