During France’s war with Indochina, Delon was posted to Saigon and saw active service, an experience which he later stated was immensely beneficial to him in teaching him discipline and building his character. In 1956, Delon returned to France and found work as a porter and waiter in Paris. It was during this period that he was befriended by some aspiring young actors (notably Jean-Claude Brialy), through whom he would get to meet the film director Yves Allégret. It was Allégret who gave Delon his first acting job, a walk-on part in the 1957 film Quand la femme s’en mèle. This led Marc Allégret to cast him in the comedy-thriller Sois belle et tais-toi (1958), where he appeared alongside another promising young actor, Jean-Paul Belmondo, whose popularity would rival Delon’s in the following two decades.
Alain Delon’s breakthrough came in 1958 when director Pierre Gaspard-Huit gave him his first leading role, in the historical romance Christine, in which he starred opposite the well-known Austrian actress Romy Schneider. Whilst making this film, Delon and Schneider fell in love and soon after became engaged. Naturally, the world’s press made a great deal of the fairytale romance but the engagement ended five years later when Delon fell for another young actress, Nathalie Canovas, whom he married in 1964. The couple had a son, Anthony (who also pursued a career as an actor) but divorced in 1968 when Delon began his 15-year long affair with actress Mireille Darc. In 1969, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider appeared together for a second time in Jacques Deray’s classic thriller La Piscine.
René Clement’s stylish thriller Plein soleil (1960) brought Delon international stardom and established the screen persona that would stay with him for the rest of his career - the cold but enigmatic anti-hero. This exposure brought Delon into contact with the celebrated Italian director Luchino Visconti, who cast him in his Paris production of the John Ford play Dommage qu’elle soit une putain, which ran for 8 months to great acclaim. Visconti then offered Delon a lead part in his celebrated film Rocco et ses frères, which won the Prix Spécial du Jury at the Venice film festival. Delon then featured in another Visconti film, Il Gattopardo (1963), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Another great Italian filmmaker, Michelangelo Antonioni, cast Delon in the leading role of his masterpiece L’Eclisse (1962), opposite Monica Vitti.
Over the following decade, Alain Delon became one of the most sought-after screen actors in France, appearing in a wide range of genres that included: swashbuckling adventure (La Tulipe noire); wartime drama (Paris brûle-t-il?) and romantic comedy (The Yellow Rolls-Royce). However, the genre that he became most closely associated with was the polar, France’s distinctive brand of crime-thriller. After sharing the limelight with another screen legend, Jean Gabin, in Mélodie en sous-sol (1963) and Jane Fonda in Les Félins (1964), he took on one of his most iconic roles in Jean-Pierre Melville’s gangster thriller Le Samouraï (1967) (in which he starred alongside his then wife Nathalie). For the next decade, and beyond, Delon would often be cast in similar roles, playing with impeccable ease the tough, taciturn gangster or detective, in such films as Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (1970), Henri Verneuil’s Le Clan des Siciliens (1969), and Jacques Deray’s Borsalino (1970). Delon’s physical beauty and panther-like elegance, combined with a subtle aura of menace and detachment, made him a perfect casting choice for the lead in hardboiled thrillers. He was the Clint Eastwood of French cinema.
By the mid-1970s, Delon’s popularity suffered as a result of some negative publicity in the press. This revolved mainly around his perceived association with criminal gangs and his supposed complicity in the murder of his bodyguard. Delon was also severely lambasted when he expressed sympathies for extreme right-wing politics. Whilst some of his films fared badly at the box office, he retained a loyal following and continued to have a high profile in French cinema. Many influential filmmakers were eager to work with him and, through them, he was able to extend his repertoire greatly. Delon played opposite Burt Lancaster in Michael Winner’s Scorpio (1973) and in 1975 he starred in Duccio Tessari’s Zorro, playing the masked avenger with considerable aplomb. Then Joseph Losey gave him what is arguably his greatest film role in Monsieur Klein (1976), which earned him his first César nomination. This was followed by some respectable performances in Volker Schlöndorff’s Un amour de Swann (1984) and Edouard Niermans’ Le Retour de Casanova (1992). In 1985, Delon won a César (his first and only award to date) for his performance in Bertrand Blier’s Notre histoire (1984).
As his popularity ebbed in the 70s and 80s, Alain Delon moved into other spheres of activity. He created his own production company, which made a number of successful films in which he starred. In 1978, he founded his own goods company - Alain Delon Diffusion SA - which marketed perfumes, leather goods, fine wines, even spectacles, all over the world. Being a keen sports enthusiast, he also dabbled in horse-racing and organised boxing matches. He is also a famously passionate collector of art. In the 1980s, through his various interests, Alain Delon became a successful businessman and amassed a considerable personal fortune, although he was often noted for his ruthlessness (he took his son Anthony to court when he attempted to infringe his own brand). In 1987, he began his relationship with Rosalie Van Breemen, a Dutch model with whom he would have two children, Anouchka and Alain-Fabien. The couple would separate in 2002.
In the 1980s, Alain Delon took to directing his own films. He made two films, both gritty policiers in which he played the lead role: Pour la peau d’un flic (1981) and Le Battant (1983). Over the rest of the decade, Delon had some spectacular failures, including Le Jour et la nuit (1997), which was directed by the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and partnered Delon with the famous American actress Lauren Bacall. After the unexpected flop of Patrice Leconte’s Une Chance sur deux (1998), Delon announced his decision to give up acting, although he agreed to make a cameo appearance in Bertrand Blier’s Les Acteurs (2000). In 2002, Alain Delon made a surprising comeback in the hugely popular French television series Fabio Montale, and then went on to score a comparable success in 2003/4 with the TV series Frank Riva, in which he played the lead.
In 2005, Alain Delon was awarded the Officer de la Légion d’honneur by French president Jacques Chirac in recognition of his contribution to the art of world cinema. Delon returned to French cinema in style as the emperor Julius Caesar in the comedy Astérix aux jeux olympiques (2008), a film which, despite a mauling by the critics, attracted an audience of over six million. Now well into his seventies, Alain Delon continues to be actively employed as an actor, devoting much of his time to his stage work. There’s no stopping some people.
© James Travers 2011
Alain Delon is best-known for the following films:
The Film DirectorAlain Delon directed the following films:
The ActorAlain Delon has appeared in the following films: