I am not a star. I am an actor. I have been fighting for years to make people forget that I am just a pretty boy with a beautiful face. It’s a hard fight, but I will win it. I want the public to realize that above all I am an actor, a very professional one who loves every minute of being in front of the camera. But one who becomes very miserable the instant the director shouts, “Cut!” – Alain Delon
It’s hard to believe that Alain Delon has aged at all but on November 8th my favorite French actor will be celebrating his 75th birthday. His impossible beauty, quiet intensity and powerful magnetism have been immortalized on screen so he remains ageless in my mind. Like a modern-day Dorian Gray, Alain Delon retains his youth in countless films shown at revival screenings, on television and available on DVD where we’ve been given the opportunity to see him as the ambitious boxer in Rocco and His Brothers (1960), the scheming social climber in Purple Noon (1960), the seductive banker in L’Eclisse (1962), the dashing Tancredi in The Leopard (1963), the petty criminal in Joy House (1964), the cold-blooded killer in Le samouraï (1967), the jealous lover in The Swimming Pool (1969), and as the paranoid art dealer in Mr. Klein (1976), among many other memorable roles.
Throughout his career, Delon managed the rare and delicate balance of being a worldwide superstar and a consummate actor. His resume reads like a who’s who of international cinema with credits that link him with some of the world’s greatest directors such as Luchino Visconti, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean-Pierre Melville, René Clément, Joseph Losey, Louis Malle, Julien Duvivier, Jacques Deray, and Jean-Luc Godard.
His costars have included legendary starlets like Romy Schneider, Claudia Cardinale, Brigitte Bardot, Monica Vitti, Catherine Deneuve, Jane Fonda, Ursula Andress, Simone Signoret and Shirley MacLaine as well as talented actors as diverse as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, Burt Lancaster, Jean Gabin, Anthony Quinn, George C. Scott, Dean Martin, Jean-Louis Trintignant and Richard Burton.
Part of Alain Delon’s appeal lies in his ability to play against type. Instead of using his mesmerizing good looks to become a romantic leading man he often accepted villainous and unglamorous roles that offered him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. Killers, thieves, mobsters and heartless cads are just a few of the unappealing characters that Delon regularly played and occasionally it became impossible for the general public to distinguish the actor from the actual man.
This was partially due to Delon’s own troubled background. As a young boy, he grew up with a difficult family and spent a good portion of his youth getting expelled from multiple schools. When he joined the French military as a means of escape things didn’t go particularly well and Delon was sent to prison for his undisciplined behavior and inability to follow orders until he was finally honorably discharged. Combined with his links to French crime figures and his involvement in the murderous Markovic affair, Delon’s notorious reputation as a “bad boy” has always superseded him.
Critics have also been rather simplistic in their observations of Delon’s acting choices. As a result, they’ve spent a significant amount of time focused on his looks instead of his performances. When his acting was brilliant in films such as Rocco and His Brothers, Purple Noon, and L’Eclisse critics often praised the director and overlooked the understated and powerful performances he was giving but his skills shouldn’t be underestimated. Delon was able to use his eyes and body language in ways that monopolized the screen and made dialogue unnecessary. His succinct performances convey a cinematic alchemy that remains timeless and unforgettable while maintaining an incredibly contemporary and cutting-edge appeal. He’s a true original. Whether he was playing a cowboy, a gigolo, a doctor or coldblooded killer, one always gets the impression that Delon was a little different and a little dangerous.
When he started acting in the late 1950s many people referred to him as the “French James Dean” and I think it’s easy to see why. When Delon was on screen he seemed ready to explode at any moment but unlike Dean, there was rarely a moment of release in Delon’s tightly wound performances. He retained an icy severity throughout his career that earned him the nickname “Ice-cold angel.”
Alain Delon’s cold exterior masks an inner fire that has attracted the attention of many fans and his powers of seduction are legendary. He has seduced costars, directors, pop divas, and politicians and in the process, the handsome actor left a trail of broken hearts in his wake. One of his many romantic dalliances was with the lovely songstress, model, and actress Nico. Their relationship produced a child (Christian Aaron Boulogne) according to Nico that was denied by Delon even though his own parents eventually adopted the boy. Delon has also had a stormy relationship with the French media during his career and has undoubtedly made a few enemies during his lifetime including the German actor Helmut Berger who has openly expressed his disdain for Delon.
Berger supposedly had an affair with Natalie Delon, the mother of Delon’s son Antony and his costar in Le samouraï, while Delon was rumored to have had an affair with Helmut Berger’s longtime lover, director Luchino Visconti who helmed two of the actor’s best films (Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard). It’s been suggested that Visconti, like many others before and after him, lost his heart to the “ice-cold angel” and never fully recovered. Other directors have complained about the actor’s temperament such as Louis Malle who once said: “Alain Delon was the most difficult actor I have ever worked with.” This was pronounced after the two made the excellent “William Wilson” segment for the horror anthology Spirits of the Dead (1968).
Despite Delon’s reputation as one of French cinema’s original bad boys he managed to maintain lifelong friendships with many of his costars such as Jean-Paul Belmondo, Brigitte Bardot, Claudia Cardinale, and the late Charles Bronson. He’s also given his time and considerable amounts of money to animal rights organizations and supported other important causes such as AIDS research, but his charitable contributions to progressive causes don’t garner as many headlines as his conservative political leanings, numerous love affairs, and explosive temper.
Alain Delon officially retired from acting in 1998 but he still occasionally takes small parts in movies and has appeared in some popular French television dramas as well as notable stage plays. During the last decade directors such as Johnnie To, Sophia Coppola and Olivier Marchal have tried to coax Delon into accepting substantial roles in films they were making. Unfortunately, no one has been able to persuade the actor to star in another movie but I eagerly await his return to the big screen. In the meantime, I’d like to wish Alain Delon a very happy birthday and I hope we get to enjoy this extraordinary actor for many more years to come.
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for the Turner Classic Movies official blog, The Movie Morlocks on November 4, 2010