In her last big screen role, Quebec actor Andrée Lachapelle played an octogenarian whose father institutionalized her many years earlier because her imagination and creativity led him to conclude she was possessed. “Gertrude,” for that was the character’s name, rechristens herself as Marie-Desneige, a free spirit who finds love in the backwoods and is determined to joyously grab hold of life for as long as she can.
Il pleuvait des oiseaux, known in English as And the Birds Rained Down, was Ms. Lachapelle’s professional swan song, a role she called a “gift from heaven.” White of hair, with blue eyes and a clear voice that in real life perfectly enunciated every syllable, she had been acting ever since she was a little girl in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, with a much-lauded professional career that lasted over seven decades.
Suffering from cancer, she died on Nov. 21, surrounded by family and other loved ones. Her daughter, Nathalie Gadouas, said it was a medically-assisted death, one that her mother requested while she was still of sound enough mind to ask for it. Ms. Lachapelle had turned 88 the week before.
A single mother who had her children out of wedlock at a time when doing so was not done, she somehow managed to balance motherhood with roles that ranged from requisite blonde ingénue early in her career to a broken, drugged-up Albertine at 60 in Michel Tremblay’s play, Albertine, en cinq temps (Albertine in Five Times, in English) and a psychiatrist in the coming-of-age fantasy movie Léolo, director Jean-Claude Lauzon’s last film before he died in a plane crash. And she fiercely ignored the censure of those who rained judgment down upon her for her lifestyle choices.
“At the time, it was terrible,” she told journalist Franco Nuovo on the Radio-Canada program Les grands entretiens in February 2017. “If you only knew the number of silly letters I got, calling me all sorts of names. It hurt me but at the same time, I realized I was free and I decided that my life belonged to me.”
Ms. Gadouas, the youngest of Ms. Lachapelle’s three children with the actor Robert Gadouas (a fourth child, a girl, was stillborn), noted that her mother was extremely strong and led by example, showing her offspring what it meant to live a life according to one’s own principles and values, not what convention dictated.
“We grew up in the theatre with her, sleeping in little cubbyholes during rehearsals and performances when we were young,” said the daughter, a performer in her own right. “She may have worked a lot but she also was so present in our lives, teaching us by example how to respect others and how to be good.”
Sylvie Schirm, a prominent Montreal family lawyer whose father, François Schirm, served time in prison as one of the founders of the Armée révolutionnaire du Québec, the armed branch of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), recalled meeting Ms. Lachapelle around the time her father was released.
“It was December 1982. I was 25 and didn’t know my dad. I’d come to Montreal from Argentina, where I’d been living, to get to know him,” she said. “Andrée was a member of a committee that had formed to support those it considered political prisoners and she invited us to her home for Christmas. There we were, my dad on welfare and Andrée at the top of her career – and instead of having a hoity-toity party, she hosted us and a few other people in need. She was lovely.”
Tweeting his condolences, Quebec Premier François Legault wrote: “She made Quebecers dream over all these years with the characters she played on television, in movies and in theatre.”
Also on Twitter, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed the premier, lauding her lasting impact on the province through her “immense contributions to comedy, theatre, cinema and television.”
Andrée Lachapelle was born in Montreal on Nov. 13, 1931, the adored youngest child of Henri Lachapelle and Célina Lafond. Her father gave up a boyhood dream to be an actor in order to support a burgeoning family and owned a small corner store and restaurant. Her mother, who was 45 at the time of the little girl’s birth, was a housewife who had been widowed with five children before marrying again.
The family lived in the now-hipster Mile End neighbourhood that was then home to much of Montreal’s Jewish community, including future author Mordecai Richler and William Shatner, who would become Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise. With so many kids, there was lots of noise at home, and music and laughter.
When her brothers and sisters put on plays, which they were wont to do, young Andrée was given lines to say almost as soon as she could talk. Later, she took to reciting poetry during the intermissions to keep the audience entertained.
“I never took myself seriously,” Ms. Lachapelle said in that same interview with Mr. Nuovo. “I never felt I was the best, or superior, or the most beautiful, or the most refined.”
Early on, she knew that she wanted to be an actress when she grew up. At the age of 7, she enrolled in a diction class, and she always took part in school plays; her blonde good looks and quiet nature meant she was often cast as the Virgin Mary, or an angel, or even Jesus Christ himself.
At 14, Ms. Lachapelle was accepted as a student at Studio XV, the respected theatre school that was run at the time by Gérard Vleminckx. A few years later, she attended a teachers’ college and obtained a diploma to teach elementary school; for 2½ years, she taught kindergarten and Grade 1 students, which allowed her to pay the bills while pursuing a theatre career that began with unpaid roles in amateur productions performed in places such as church basements.
In 1952, Ms. Lachapelle met Mr. Gadouas, a married actor known for his intensity and innate sense of theatre. With the advent of television, the two portrayed sweethearts in Mr. Gadouas’s adaptation of L’Hermine, a play by Jean Anouilh, performances that turned in a real relationship that lasted more than a decade.
Then, in 1969, Mr. Gadouas died by suicide, an act that profoundly shook Ms. Lachapelle and helped her to realize the most constant relationships in her life were with the stage and screen. She would go on to appear in plays by writers such as Wajdi Mouawad, Samuel Beckett and Tennessee Williams, and in movies such as Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal and YUL 871, directed by Jacques Godbout.
In 1985, Ms. Lachapelle was named an officer of the Order of Canada and in 1997 she was named a Knight of the Order of Quebec.
In the 1990s, she began a relationship with the actor and director filmmaker André Melançon. Upon his death in August 2016, she reflected how he was everything to her – her agent, driver, cook and lover. “He was perfect,” she told Radio Canada. “It’s curious because the more I grew old with him, the more I loved him.”
Ms. Lachapelle leaves her children, Patrice, Catherine and Nathalie Gadouas, three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.