Friday 22 September 2017

Obituary: Louis Jourdan, French star of post-war Hollywood

French actor who epitomised Gallic charm in the post-war Hollywood musicals Gigi and Can-Can

Hollywood good looks: Louis Jourdan with Leslie Caron in Gigi (REX)
Hollywood good looks: Louis Jourdan with Leslie Caron in Gigi (REX)

Louis Jourdan, who died last Saturday aged 93, was a French actor whose best-known work was undertaken in post-war Hollywood, where his matinee-idol good looks led to him being typecast as a suave man-about-town.

Hollywood bracketed him with Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier and cast him in the kind of parts they had played in their youth. In Gigi (1958), he co-starred with Chevalier, both playing rather similar roles - roués young and old.

Jourdan fought hard to break away from this stereotype, but with only limited success. "I always had the scripts rewritten," he claimed, "to eliminate the ooh-la-la stuff or at least do it less. A Frenchman would see that I have not fallen totally, that there is some attempt at honesty." He complained that Hollywood always wanted him to play himself, whereas an actor thrives on variety.

In reality, however, Jourdan's character was very different from his screen image.

"People look at me," he said, "as if I were a naughty weekend." But far from being a Lothario, he was happily married for more than 50 years.

He dabbled in philosophy, was an introvert by nature and a passionate devotee of classical music. "I need music every day," he insisted. "If I could not act any more, I should be unhappy but I would survive. I could not go on, though, without music. It is more important to me than work."

Unlike many jeunes premiers, his looks did not crumble with age. This made it hard for him to land the meatier parts he craved. In the early 1980s, however, he began to be offered a broader range of roles. A notable breakthrough was as the heavy, Kamal Khan, in the James Bond movie Octopussy (1983). Less prestigious were the lead roles in Swamp Thing (1982) and its sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing (1989).

In later life, Jourdan's search for new challenges was satisfied mainly in the theatre and on television. In 1975, he appeared in Chicago in the Feydeau farce 13 Rue de l'Amour with Leslie Caron and Glynis Johns. He scored a personal triumph on Broadway in a dramatisation of André Gide's L'Immoraliste and was a much-admired Dracula in a 1977 television version of the Bram Stoker novel. In 2010, he was made an Officer de la Legion d'honneur, France's highest cultural accolade.

He was born Louis Robert Gendre in Marseille on June 19, 1921, the son of a hotelier. When he was 10, his family moved to Cannes, where he became proficient in English from talking to tourists staying at his father's hotel. A year spent in England made him fluent. Naturally, being in Cannes, he was surrounded by actors and was bitten by the acting bug from the age of 15.

Having taken his baccalauréat, he went to Paris at 18 to study acting with René Simon at the Ecole Dramatique.

At first, he approached the course almost as a dilettante. "I was attracted at the beginning by the glory and the superficiality," he admitted, "and didn't work at anything until after I was 20."

He attributed a change in his perspective to a serious skiing accident that immobilised him for a year. It concentrated his mind on the need to take his profession seriously.

While a student, he secured occasional theatrical engagements, one of which was admired by the film director Marc Allégret, who offered him his first film role in Le Corsaire (1939), opposite Charles Boyer. Audiences responded to his clean-cut charm and several more films followed before the Nazi occupation brought French film production to a halt.

The Germans assigned him to a work gang and after he was discharged, he was ordered to report to the film studios, where production was starting up again. But this was not film-making as he had known it. Now, the emphasis was on propaganda and he was expected to contribute to the Nazi war effort.

His father had been arrested by the Gestapo but managed to escape, and the whole family, including Louis, fled to the south of the country. They joined the Resistance and Louis was engaged in printing and distributing underground leaflets.

After the Liberation, he returned to Paris with his new bride, fellow Resistance fighter Berthe Frédérique (known as Quique) and went back into French films. He was spotted by a talent scout working for David O Selznick and invited to Hollywood for a screen test. This was the start of his Hollywood career, which began in 1948 with the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Paradine Case. In this film, he played Alida Valli's lover and co-conspirator in a murder plot. Ironically, it was an example of the stronger, more dramatic roles for which he later fought in vain.

His second American film, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), was to be the finest of his career, though the film was not, unfortunately, widely released.

Most of Jourdan's early Hollywood work was poor and Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) virtually invented the character he was to play throughout much of his career - the dashing French lover whose fractured English turns young girls to jelly.

With the addition of a patter of songs, he gave virtually the same performance in Gigi (1958), the Oscar-winning Vincente Minnelli musical that won a sheaf of awards but none for acting, and in Can-Can (1960), the Cole Porter movie in which he again co-starred with Maurice Chevalier.

In 1945, he married Berthe Frédérique, who died last year. They had one son, Louis, born in 1951, who died at the age of 29 from a drugs overdose.

Sunday Independent

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