Over the course of a five-decade career, she starred in nearly 150 films. She is a three-time César Award winner (1977, 1996, 2002), a two-time Molière Award winner, a BAFTA nominee, and a recipient of several international prizes including the Volpi Cup (Best actress) at the 1965 Venice Film Festival for Three Rooms in Manhattan.
Born in 1931, she was raised by her single mother, a midwife from Normandy. After studying to become a midwife like her mother, she enrolled at the prestigious Conservatoire de la rue Blanche in Paris. After graduating in 1954 with the "First Prize in Modern and Classical Comedy", she joined the Comédie Française, where she was a resident actor from 1954-57.
In 1955, she began her film career, making her film debut in Thirteen at the Table (1955), but it was with theatre that she started to attract the attention of critics. Her performance in Jean Cocteau's play La Machine à écrire in 1956 was admired by the author who called her "The finest dramatic temperament of the Postwar period"
In 1956 she was awarded the Prix Suzanne Bianchetti as best up-and-coming young actress but only with Luchino Visconti's epic Rocco and His Brothers (1960), she was able to draw the public's attention to her. In 1962, she married Italian actor Renato Salvatori. Travelling back and forth between two film careers in France and Italy, Girardot also worked with renown Italian directors, including Marco Ferreri in the scandalous The Ape Woman (1964).
Famously ignored by French New Wave directors (with the exception of Claude Lelouch), Girardot found her glory in popular cinema alongside more established and traditional directors such as Jean Delannoy, Michel Boisrond, André Cayatte, Gilles Grangier, or André Hunebelle.
By the end of the 1960s, she had become a movie star and a box-office magnet in France with such films as Vice and Virtue (1963); Live for Life (1967); Love Is a Funny Thing (1969); and Death of Love (1970), the fact-based tale of a middle-aged teacher whose affair with a much younger student made her the object of bourgeoisie ridicule. The film was nominated for a Golden Globe, and remains Girardot's biggest box office hit in France.
Throughout the 1970s, Girardot came back and forth between drama and comedy, proving herself an adept comedienne in such successful comedies as Claude Zidi's The Discord (1978), Michel Audiard's _Elle boit pas, elle fume pas, elle drague pas, mais... elle cause! (1970)_ and Philippe de Broca's Dear Inspector (1977). She also played the mother of upcoming stars like Isabelle Adjani in the hit teen movie The Slap (1974), and Isabelle Huppert in the drama Docteur Françoise Gailland (1976).
The 1980s were less kind, as her film career floundered and parts dwindled. However, Girardot had a major comeback on the big screen playing a peasant wife in Claude Lelouch's Les Misérables (1995).