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Jean-Paul Belmondo

Jean-Paul Belmondo

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Also Known As: Died:
Born: April 9, 1933 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: France Profession: Cast ... actor producer
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BIOGRAPHY

For generations of French filmgoers and lovers of international cinema, few actors defined the Gallic male on screen more succinctly than Jean-Paul Belmondo. Though rugged and unconventionally handsome, Belmondo's innate charm and physicality captured the world's attention with his turn as a doomed small-time crook in Jean-Luc Godard's "Breathless" (1960), one of the vanguards of the French New Wave. The film's global popularity minted him as an icon of cinematic cool, an image he would underscore for the next four decades in arthouse-minded projects like Godard's "Pierrot le Fou" (1965) and Francois Truffaut's "Mississippi Mermaid" (1969). At the same time, he proved himself as a capable and highly athletic action star, often providing his own daring stunts in "That Man from Rio" (1964), "Borsalino" (1970) and "The Professional" (1981). He returned to stage work and more sedate fare in the late 1980s and '90s, earning a Cesar for "Itinéraire d'un enfant gâté" (1988) and high praise for a modern-day take on "Les Misérables" (1995) before suffering a paralyzing stroke. Though physically limited, he returned to features in 2008 for the melancholy "A Man and His Dog" (2008). Though no longer the robust, roguish figure of his youth, Belmondo's inherent strength and spirit remained intact, providing an inspiring reminder of why he remained a French national treasure for nearly half a century.

Born April 9, 1933 in the Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Jean-Paul Belmondo was the son of sculptor Paul Belmondo. A poor student, he channeled his energies into boxing and football, but by his twenties, decided that acting would be his true calling. He was reluctantly accepted at the Paris Conservatory, whose educators felt that his prospects as a professional actor were slim. Belmondo would spend much of the 1950s in theater before making his screen debut in the 1957 comedy "A pied, a cheval et en voiture" ("On Foot, On Horse and By Carriage"). He eventually worked his way up to starring roles with "Sois Belle et Tais-Toi" ("Be Beautiful But Shut Up") (1957), a crime picture co-starring another up-and-coming leading man, Alain Delon. Belmondo's breakthrough coincided with the rise of the French New Wave cinema. His young, reckless but romantic thief in Jean-Luc Godard's "A bout de soufflé" ("Breathless") (1960) epitomized the movement's rejection of old standards of storytelling and characterization. The film's popularity among young moviegoers on both sides of the Atlantic helped to make Belmondo an international star with the same cultural impact as James Dean or Marlon Brando, with young men adopting his casual slouch and rough-hewn charm.

Belmondo soon became the actor of choice for other New Wave directors, playing daring, forward-thinking young men who challenged the establishment in Vittorio De Sica's "Two Women" (1960) and Jean-Pierre Melville's "Léon Morin, Priest" (1961), which earned him a BAFTA nomination as a young priest who inspired both faith and emotion in Emmanuelle Riva's disillusioned war widow. He would also reunite twice with Godard, first for the musical comedy tribute "A Woman is a Woman" (1961) and later, as the lead in his postmodern, genre-bending "Pierrot le Fou" (1965). At the same time, Belmondo was finding great success as the athletic hero of mainstream features like the period swashbuckler "Cartouche" (1962) with Claudia Cardinale and Philippe De Broca's action-thriller "That Man from Rio" (1964). These films, along with the comedy-romance "La chasse à l'homme" ("Male Hunt") (1964) with sisters Catherine Deneueve and Francoise Dorleac, soon replaced arthouse fare as Belmondo's projects of choice. Belmondo also served as president of the French actors' union in 1963, the same year he published his autobiography, 30 Years and 25 Films.

Belmondo soon settled into a string of energetic action features like "Les tribulations d'un Chinois en Chine" ("Up to His Ears") (1965), many of which were produced through his own company, Cerito. There were occasional forays into English-language filmmaking, like "Is Paris Burning?" (1966), in which he and other young lions of French cinema like Delon and Jean-Pierre Cassel played leaders of the French Resistance, and a cameo in the overblown "Casino Royale" (1967). But Belmondo remained resolutely faithful to French cinema, and continued to divide his time between popular entertainment like the caper film "The Brain" (1968) and "Borsalino" (1971) with Delon, and collaborations with New Wave mainstays like Louis Malle with "The Thief of Paris" (1967), Francois Truffaut with "Mississippi Mermaid" (1969) and Claude Chabrol with "Docteur Popaul" ("High Heels") (1972).

Alain Resnais' "Stavisky" (1974) earned Belmondo some of the best reviews of his career as the real-life embezzler whose elaborate surety scheme unseated Prime Minister Camille Chautemps in the 1930s. But its failure at the box office seemed to sour the actor on arthouse projects, so he devoted himself to action and crime thrillers for much of the next two decades. He began a profitable collaboration with director Georges Lautner as the anti-hero of such action-packed films as "Flic ou Voyou" ("Cop or Hood") (1979) and "The Professional" (1981), which frequently featured Belmondo performing his own stunts. In the late '80s, with his status as an action star on the wane due to age, Belmondo returned to the stage, and soon divided his time between popular tours in Cyrano de Bergerac, among other productions, and more arthouse-minded film projects. In 1988, he won the Cesar as a wealthy man who staged his own death in Claude Lelouch's "Itinéraire d'un enfant gâté" (1988).

Belmondo continued to work well into the 1990s, most notably in Lelouch's "Les Misérables" (1995) as the film's modern-day Jean Valjean figure. He spent much the decade reaping national rewards for his body of work, including appointment as Officer of the Legion of Honor in 1991 and Commander of the National Order of Merit in 1994. In 2001, he suffered a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed. Belmondo spent the next seven years recuperating, but returned in 2008 for "A Man and His Dog" (2008), a semi-remake of De Sica's "Umberto D." (1952) with Belmondo as an aging, debilitated pensioner who was cast out by his landlady lover after she decided to marry another man. The film generated controversy in the European press, with critics alternately praising Belmondo's courageous performance or condemning the film for showing a national icon in such an unkind light.

By Paul Gaita

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