Jean-Paul Belmondo, French Actor of 1960s New Wave, Dies at 88
(Bloomberg) -- Jean-Paul Belmondo, the quintessential French actor of the New Wave that crested in the 1960s and changed the face of world cinema, has died. He was 88.
He died in his home in Paris, his lawyer, Michel Godest, told Agence France-Presse.
From the cop killer Michel in “Breathless” (1960) to a bored married man who runs away with his children’s babysitter in “Pierrot le Fou” (1965), Belmondo often played charismatic losers on the outs with society or the law. Unlike contemporary Alain Delon, he never cultivated a Hollywood film career, co-starring in only one English-language movie, Rene Clement’s “Is Paris Burning?” (1966).
“Jean-Paul Belmondo was a national treasure, full of panache and bursts of laughter,” French President Emmanuel Macron said on Twitter. “In him we all found ourselves.”
When he started his screen career in the late 1950s, Belmondo was compared to James Dean and Marlon Brando. With his youthful edginess and cool, the Frenchman represented a break from the tragic charisma of Jean Gabin or the suave melancholy of Charles Boyer.
Through the 1960s, Belmondo appeared in almost 40 films and worked with some of the finest European directors in roles that stretched him both as an actor and often as his own stunt man. Later in his career, he said, “I don’t want to be the flying grandpa of the French cinema” and gave up doing his own stunts.
Best known for his role in “Breathless,” directed by Jean-Luc Godard and co-starring Jean Seberg, Belmondo also played a cynical schoolteacher captured by German soldiers during World War II in Vittorio De Sica’s “Two Women” (1960), for which Sophia Loren won a best-actress Oscar.
For director Jean-Pierre Melville, he played a village priest in “Leon Morin, Priest” (1961) and a snitch among crooks in “Le Doulos” (1962). He also gave an impassioned portrait of a criminal in Louis Malle’s “The Thief of Paris” (1967).
By the time the New Wave -- a group of rebel French filmmakers who influenced world cinema -- petered out in the 1970s, Belmondo was appearing in half-baked commercial vehicles that received only marginal distribution in the U.S.
The highlight of his film career in that decade came in Alain Resnais’s “Stavisky” (1974) as the real-life con artist who almost brought down the French government in the 1930s.
Born on April 9, 1933, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, in the western suburbs of Paris, Belmondo was the son of an Algerian-born sculptor. From a privileged family background, the future actor quit school at age 14 before becoming an amateur boxer in the late 1940s.
Belmondo studied at the Paris Conservatory and kicked around the provinces before debuting on the Paris stage in 1956. His first film for Godard was a short, “Charlotte et son Jules” (1960), in which he played a would-be stud flummoxed by his departing girlfriend.
His swashbuckling side accounted for his mass audience appeal. Two of his most well-known romps were directed by Philippe de Broca. In “Cartouche” (1962), he played an 18th-century Parisian thief with a character portrayed by Italian sex symbol Claudia Cardinale in his sights. Two years later, “That Man From Rio” was an adventure comedy set in Brazil that rivaled the high jinks of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.
Belmondo won a Cesar -- the French version of an Oscar -- for his role in Claude Lelouch’s “Itineraire d’un enfant gate” (1988), and was made a Commander of the Legion of Honor, an order of merit in France, in 2007. Two years later, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and appeared in person to accept the honor.
With his first wife, Elodie Constantin, Belmondo had three children, Patricia, Florence and Paul. His eldest daughter, Patricia, died in a fire in 1994. Belmondo married Nathalie Tardivel, a former dancer, in 2002. They had a daughter, Stella, before the couple divorced six years later.
“It’s no longer the time that passes that is important, but the time that remains,” Belmondo said in a 2013 interview with Paris Match magazine. “That said, I would gladly start my life over again. I think I’ve been a good artisan. And if I was able to entertain some people, I’m happy about that.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.