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Fantine from Les Miserables

Updated on September 5, 2014
Fantine in the original illustrations for Victor Hugo's novel.
Fantine in the original illustrations for Victor Hugo's novel. | Source

The Good Girl Who Loved the Wrong Man

Fantine, is the tragic heroine of Les Miserables and mother of Cosette. The latest actress to take on this role on the big screen is Anne Hathaway, who plays Fantine in the movie musical of Les Mis. She was a choice that may have surprised those who didn't know Hathaway could sing, as Fantine is perhaps most remembered by those who have seen the staged production for her song of grief, I Dreamed a Dream. Come meet some of the other actresses who have played Fantine on both stage and screen, and learn a little more about this Victor Hugo heroine if the early 1800s.

What Was Fantine's Background?

A Few Facts about Fantine

Victor Hugo set his novel Les Misérables in the first 3 decades of the 1800s. Fantine is the first main character to appear in the book, although not the oldest. She was born in 1796. Jean Valjean at the time would have been about 27 years old and it was this year that he was first sent to Toulon as a convict. Javert would have been 21 years of age.

Fantine was either an orphan or had been abandoned, either way she grew up living on the streets and was given her name by a stranger (nobody knew her surname). Despite this, she was a pretty little girl and managed to find some honest work before going to Paris at the age of 15. There she found work as a seamstress and fell into the company of 3 other young women from humble backgrounds and a group of four wealthy students.

Anne, Countess Cowper, 1815
Anne, Countess Cowper, 1815 | Source

What Did Fantine Look Like?

Victor Hugo's 'Angel' of Womanhood

Victor Hugo appears to have painted his ideal woman in his literary portrait of Fantine, who was known as The Blonde because of her striking hair. Her description reads like a cliched portrait of a female angel or a goddess. In Hugo's words, her hair is gold and wavy, her teeth are like pearls. (Remember, though, people often had very bad teeth in those days -- her boyfriend had none! -- so her lovely teeth would have been remarkable.) Fantine is also very 'good' in a way that was respected more in her age than in our own -- despite having an older lover she was in every other way modest and virtuous, but also had a sunny personality.

Hugo's beautiful heroine sounds too good to be true (maybe this is why I've always found the character of Fantine slightly annoying). However, she liked the finer things in life that her older student lover could give her, and by having a relationship with him she set herself up to be a fallen woman who would be harshly judged by polite society, even if she was no different from other girls of her own background. To her credit, she was described as being truly in love with Felix Tholomeys, even though he was 30 years old (she would have been 18 or 19) and had lost his hair and teeth already.

This image shows a young Russian woman and her child and dates from 1818, when Cosette would have still been an infant.
This image shows a young Russian woman and her child and dates from 1818, when Cosette would have still been an infant. | Source

Fantine as Mother of Cosette

Devoted but Desperate Parent

Fantine's boyfriend ends their relationship in a cruel prank, played by all four of the men on all four of the girls, having promised the young women a "surprise". The men leave the girls waiting while they apparently go to fetch the surprise, but they do not return and instead a letter is delivered saying that they have gone back to lead respectable lives. The other girls seem to laugh this off but for Fantine it is devastating as she is expecting a baby.

A year later she is already worn down, and the fine clothes she liked to wear have been turned into beautiful baby clothes for Cosette while she wears rough work clothes. She has to work to support Cosette, but an unmarried mother will have a hard time finding work so she has to lodge Cosette with the Thénadiers in order to appear to be respectable herself. She pays for Cosette's keep, but the couple are greedy and ask for more, while secretly treating Cosette as a servant and dressing her in rags.

Fantine's fate is a sad one. She has a job in Valjean's factory but when she loses this work because of gossip about her she has to sell herself in order to send money for Cosette. She ends up on the wrong side of the law, sick and without any hopes left. It is at this point that she again meets Valjean, who is determined to make amends and help her and her child.

Fantine on Stage

Fantine on the Stage

The Cast of Les Miz on Broadaway, the West End, and Around the World

Although Fantine was famous in the novel for her golden hair, she has been played by a variety of actresses both naturally fair-haired and dark-haired (some wearing wigs). Melba Moore was the first African American to play the role of Fantine in Les Misérables on Broadway.

My own favorite Fantine to date has been Lea Salonga, a talented muscial theater star from the Philippines who gave the role a great deal of warmth and passion.

Meet Lea and other famous Fantines of musical theater history below.

Read LuPone's Auto-Biography

Patti LuPone: A Memoir
Patti LuPone: A Memoir

Patti shares an insider's view of life on stage and behind the scenes. It's all here, the success and the disappointments, and that famous battle with Lloyd Webber for the part of Evita.

 

Patti LuPone

The first Fantine who debuted in the Royal Shakespeare Company's London Barbican production of Les Misérables was Patti Lupone. Patti is a great name in muscial theater who also played the lead in Evita and took the 2005 Broadway role of Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd.

Patti is a dark-haired Italian-American and a petite 5' 2". She played Fantine wearing a tightly curled blonde wig which set a trend for many future interpretations of Fantine on the stage.

Her more recent work has been in TV movies and she also has a role in 2012 movie Parker. Like Fantine, LuPone has also been subject to gossip when a fake Patti LuPone set up an account on Twitter. You can keep up with the real Patti LuPone on her website.

I Dreamed a Dream

This is Fantine's story-telling moment and big number in Les Miserables. It's also the song that catapulted Susan Boyle to fame. Here is the original Fantine, Patti LuPone, in costume as Fantine.

Patti LuPone sings I Dreamed a Dream

Ruthie Henshall

British star Ruthie Henshall is a much-loved musical theater actress and one of the most popular stage Fantines of all time. As well as performing the role in London's West End, she was chosen as the Fantine of the Les Miserables: The 10th Anniversary Dream Cast in Concert at London's Royal Albert Hall.

Lovely brunette Ruthie wore a waved blonde wig (less curly than that of LuPone) to play Fantine on stage. She is 5'3".

She made her name in Chicago - The Musical, appearing both in the West End and on Broadway, and has had leading roles in a host of other musicals, winning an Olivier award for her role as Amalia Balash in the charming She Loves Me opposite John Gordon Sinclair. Alongside musical theater, Ruthie's career includes stage plays and TV series.

Ruthie's Album: I've Loved These Days

I've Loved These Days
I've Loved These Days

Ruthie's newest album, with a selection of songs from musicals and beyond, all with special meaning for her. I was lucky enough to see Ruthie in concert, singing several of the tracks included here, and it was an unforgettable experience.

In person she was every bit as warm and witty as several of the characters she has played.

 

Lea Salonga

Although I adored Ruthie Henshall in She Loves Me, and she would be worth seeing in any musical, for me Lea Salonga is the ultimate Fantine. I don't particularly enjoy I Dreamed a Dream out of context -- it has become one of those songs that take on a life of their own and which it seems every singer has to cover, and now seems indelibly associated with Susan Boyle. But when Lea sings, it brings tears to my eyes.

Lea shot to fame when she was cast after a global search for Kim in Miss Saigon, and hasn't left the spotlight since. She is originally from the Philippines and is 5'2". If you are a fan, why not follow Lea on Twitter?

Lea played Fantine in the amazing Les Miserables 25th Anniversary Concert where she starred alongside Alfie Boe as Valjean and Samantha Barks as Eponine. Lea has had a long association with Les Mis and was herself Eponine in the 10th Anniversary Dream Cast in Concert.

She is in character below. I think her own long dark hair, gently curled and simply styled, creates a modest and pretty Fantine who is close to the spirit of the character in the novel.

Lea's Album: The Journey So Far

The Journey So Far-Recorded Live at Cafe Carlyle
The Journey So Far-Recorded Live at Cafe Carlyle

The most recent album from Lea Salonga is currently the 2011 live recording 'The Journey So Far'.

Alongside her big stage hits such as On My Own are songs and some beautiful medleys are a couple of tracks sung in her native Filippino. You'll also get to enjoy Lea sharing stories from her wonderful career with the audience.

 

Fantine on Screen

Fantine on the Screen

Movie Versions of Les Miserables

There have been several adaptations of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, although the movie with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway is the first big screen version of the stage musical written by Claude-Michel Schoenberg and Alain Boublil and produced by Cameron Mackintosh.

Uma Thurman as Fantine

Les Miserables 1998

In 1998, it was willowy, wide-eyed blonde Uma Thurman who played Fantine opposite Liam Neeson's Jean Valjean in a non-sung adaptation of the classic novel.

Uma, standing at 6' in her bare feet and known for her tough female leads such as assassin 'The Bride' in Kill Bill, transformed into a frail waif as Fantine. Worn out and wounded by life, she sells what she can until she has only her starved body left to raise money.

The interaction between Thurman as the sick Fantine and Neeson as Valjean is wonderfully tender. You see how these two could really have loved one another had circumstances only been different, though Valjean is in the novel already in his fifties and Fantine still in her twenties.

Thurman also excels in her portrayal of a woman sliding into sickness and fading from life. Her Fantine has fighting spirit but even this ebbs away and she ends up accepting Valjean's gentle care.

Uma in Les Miserables 1998

Les Miserables
Les Miserables

Uma Thurman sheds a glamorous Hollywood image to play a pitiful Fantine who has lost her looks and her dignity as she wastes away in poverty, clinging to Neeson as her last hope.

Along with Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, acclaimed Australian actor Geoffrey Rush played Javert while Claire Danes was Cosette.

 

Anne Hathaway as Fantine

Les Miserables 2012 / 2013

Anne Hathaway has the singing-acting role of Fantine in the long-awaited Les Misérables movie musical.

Hathaway, a brunette who first attracted notice in The Princess Diaries and was paired with Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, was given a chance to show off her singing voice in Les Miserables.

Anne had sung before, including a brief duet with the new movie's Valjean, Hugh Jackman, at the Oscars (2009) and a humorous song to the tune of On My Own which she sung to Jackman (sitting in the audience) two years later as host of the 2011 Oscars.

Hathaway was born in 1982 and is 5'8" tall. Her other big role of 2012 is as Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

Anne Hathaway sings I Dreamed a Dream

2012 Les Miserables with Anne Hathaway

Les Miserables (2012)
Les Miserables (2012)

See Hathaway as fallen woman Fantine, joining Hugh Jackman in a tender on-screen relationship.

Anne famously starved herself for the part as well as sacrificing her long hair, which was filmed being cut off in the scene where she sells it for money.

 

Other Fantines in Film

Les Miserables Movie Actresses Through the Years

1909 The very first and also the oldest Fantine appeared on screen over 100 years ago in 1909. She was played by Mary Maurice in her first screen role. Maurice went on to appear in numerous films until her death aged 73 in 1918.

1935 Florence Eldridge was the Fantine who acted alongside Fredric March (Valjean) and Charles Laughton (Javert) in this cinema classic. Florence had married Fredric March in real life in 1927 and they moved into film-making as their stage director did not like casting married couples.

1952 The fifties saw the beautiful Sylvia Sidney taking on the role of Fantine. Sylvia became a familiar face on the smaller screen in TV movies and series.

1978 Angela Pleasence was Fantine in the TV production of Les Misérables, with Richard Jordan (Valjean) and Anthony Perkins (Javert). She is known for her historical roles including Jane Austen characters and ill-fated wife of Henry VIII, Catherine Howard.

2000 The latest of many French-language productions of Les Misérables saw bilingual actress Charlotte Gainsbourg (yes, she's the daughter of Serge) in the role of Fantine. She starred alongside screen legends Gerard Depardieu (Valjean) and John Malkovich (Javert). Charlotte's recent work includes Melancholia with Kirsten Dunst and Kiefer Sutherland.

© 2012 Indigo Janson

Who is Your Favorite Fantine? - Les Mis Fans, Leave a Note!

Submit a Comment

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    anonymous 4 years ago

    How could you possibly leave out the incomparable Laurie Beechman?

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    anonymous 4 years ago

    You forgot about Melba Moore who also played Fantine on Broadway.

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    anonymous 4 years ago

    Lea Salonga is my favorite fantine and eponine EVER! she gives me chills and goosebumps when i hear her strong yet angelic voice. She's the best! :-)

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    Indigo Janson 4 years ago from UK

    @anonymous: Thanks greenguy for adding Andrea McArdle. I never had the pleasure of seeing her in the role, sounds like it would have been amazing.

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    anonymous 4 years ago

    You left out Andrea McArdle, who played Fantine on Broadway somewhere circa 1994. I saw her and she was mind-blowing. The chills in the audience where palpable during IDAD. Lupone, Henshall, and Salonga were great - but to me they were either too shoutey or too weepy. McArdle seemed to strike a nice balance.

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    anonymous 5 years ago

    my favorite fantine so far is lea salonga but tne moment i watched les miserables 2012 film trailer i can also say that i like anne too, they attacked the song (including the other actresses that played fantine) in different ways but it still turn out great

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    anonymous 5 years ago

    I grew up with Patti Lupone, Randy Graff and of course Ruthie Henshall (Henshall is the actress that most fits the physical image of Hugo's Fantine), but I have to say that Lea Salonga is one of the greatest out there. She was phemonenal as Eponine, but there's something about her portrayal of Fantine that makes her magnificent.

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    anonymous 5 years ago

    Im not that keen on Fantine but I think it would have to be the 1985 original

    Anyway Samantha barks and eponine are way better

    I'm not just saying it because it's my name but because she gives a story

    Samantha Barks Rocks

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    Cynthia Sylvestermouse 5 years ago from United States

    I really appreciate you for giving more of Fantine's background. I suspect people who have never read the book miss a good bit. I have no idea how many different actresses I have seen play Fantine over the years, but I do know that I am always captivated by her death scene. I know the story, I know the songs, but it is always as if it is the first time when they reach that scene.

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    Indigo Janson 5 years ago from UK

    @oxfordian: Lea Salonga is incredible, she brings tears to my eyes as Fantine and gives me chills as Eponine. The voice of a Disney Princess, but she acts so beautifully too.

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    oxfordian 5 years ago

    I have to say Lea Salonga. It's such a moving song; I can't hear it without getting weepy, but when she sings it, I can actually feel my heart breaking all over again. It's a terrible thing to understand this song.