Jean-Paul Belmondo was born on 9th April 1933 in Neuilly-sur Seine, near to Paris. His father was the sculptor Paul Belmondo who would find fame and fortune after WWII. As the head of the family struggled to make a living through his art, life in the Belmondo household was far from comfortable and Jean-Paul grew up as an undisciplined child. He was inattentive and unruly at school, his sole interest being sport. As a teenager, he trained as a boxer but, after a promising start, he had to abandon notions of a boxing career at the age of 16 when he succumbed to tuberculosis. His health restored, he chose instead to become an actor. After a number of attempts, he finally gained admittance to the Paris Conservatoire in 1952, although his tutors were not overly optimistic about his prospects. It was here that he acquired the affectionate nickname Bébel.
In 1953, Jean-Paul Belmondo began his acting career proper at the Théâtre de l’Atelier, Paris, in two plays directed by André Barsacq: Jean Anouilh’s Médée and Georges Neveux’s Zamore. His film debut came in 1956, with the little-known Les Copains du Dimanche, commissioned by the CGT, a federation of trades unions, and originally intended for private screenings only. Belmondo’s cinematic baptism was to be Marc Allégret’s Sois belle et tais-toi (1958), a spoof thriller in which he appeared alongside another promising newcomer, Alain Delon, an actor whose career would follow a very similar trajectory to his own. Director Marcel Carné considered Belmondo for the lead in Les Tricheurs (1958) but instead chose Laurent Terzieff, relegating Bébel to a smaller role. In his next film, Un drôle de dimanche (1958), he completed a remarkable quartet with three long-established legends of French cinema - Bourvil, Danielle Darrieux and Arletty.
It was in 1958 that the 25-year-old Jean-Paul Belmondo attracted the attention of a former critic turned filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard. The latter was impressed by the actor’s spontaneity and cast him first in a quirky short, Charlotte et son Jules (1959), and then in a highly successful feature which was to prove emblematic of the French New Wave, À bout de souffle (1959). Between these two films, he had his first leading role in Claude Chabrol’s À double tour (1959), although this film was not a great success. The critical acclaim and popularity of À bout de souffle catapulted Jean-Paul Belmondo to national and international stardom and he was soon courted by some of the leading filmmakers of the day. Peter Brook selected him to play the male lead in Moderato cantabile (1960) and Vittorio De Sica cast him opposite Sophia Loren in La Ciociara (1960). For Jean-Pierre Melville, he starred in Léon Morin, prêtre (1961) and Le Doulos (1962), and Philippe de Broca gave him a memorable swashbuckling role in Cartouche (1962), alongside Claudia Cardinale, and another major box office hit with the adventure comedy L’Homme de Rio (1964).
By the mid-1960s, Jean-Paul Belmondo had established himself as one of the most popular screen actors in France, triumphing in such diverse films as the hit comedy Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine (1965) (during the making of which he fell in love with his co-star Ursual Andress) and the thriller parody and existential masterpiece that was Pierrot le fou (1965), widely considered Jean-Luc Godard’s greatest film. He made a cameo appearance in the messy James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967) and, prompted by Andress, he considered pursuing a career in Hollywood, but soon gave up the idea. In 1970, he starred alongside his screen rival Alain Delon in the classic gangster film Borsalino, a welcome success after the failure of Truffaut’s La Sirène du Mississippi (1969). In 1971, Belmondo created his own film production company, Cerito Films, which produced around a dozen of his films over the next decade. He began his relationship with the Italian actress Laura Antonelli the following year.
Throughout the 1970s, Belmondo coasted along on a tide of ever-increasing popularity. He became one of France’s biggest stars; his warm charisma and sympathetic tough guy screen persona effectively made him the Steve McQueen of French cinema. He insisted on doing most of his stunts, many of which now look like lunatic acts of bravado - for instance, the long sequence in Le Guignolo (1980) in which he is seen flying over Venice, on a trapeze attached to a helicopter. Whilst there were a few box office disappointments - such as Alain Resnais’ Stavisky (1974) - Belmondo was a bankable brand right up until the mid-80s. His biggest hits include such prestige productions as L’Incorrigible (1975), Flic ou voyou (1979), Le Professionnel (1981), L’As des as (1982) and Le Marginal (1983). Thereafter, Belmondo’s popularity began to wane quite dramatically. Audiences and critics found his films increasingly formulaic and the actor’s decline followed that of the genre with which he was now most associated, the polar. After the commercial failure of Le Solitaire (1987), Belmondo decided to take a break from cinema and made his return to the theatre. Thirty years after his last stage appearance, he scored a notable success in Robert Hossein’s production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Kean at the Théâtre Marigny. The actor won further acclaim for his performances in Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac and Georges Feydeau’s Tailleur pour dames.
Claude Lelouch’s Itinéraire d’un enfant gâté (1988) offered Belmondo a welcome break from the policier screen role that he and audiences had grown weary of. The film was a success and the actor was rewarded with his first and only César (although he declined to accept the award in person). Belmondo went on to appear in a handful of films in the 1990s, but none of these was a great success, and he focused his talents on his thriving stage career. Having given up his stage work in the late 1990s, he attempted a film comeback with Cédric Klapisch’s sci-fi fantasy Peut-être (1999) and Philippe de Broca’s Amazone (2000), but these were both critical and commercial failures. He achieved greater success in a television adaptation of L’Aîné des Ferchaux, a film which he had previously made with Jean-Pierre Melville. Ill health prevented him from starring in a TV adaptation of Joseph Kessel’s Lion (the role went to Alain Delon) and forced him to give up acting for a while. He made an unexpected return to the big screen in 2009, starring in Un homme et son chien (2009), Francis Huster’s remake of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D, although the film was not well-received.
In a remarkable career, Jean-Paul Belmondo has earned the respect and admiration of cinemagoers across the world. He was awarded one of France’s greatest honours, the Commandeur de la Légion d’honneur, in 2007, in recognition of his unique contribution to cinema and theatre. In 2011, the Cannes Film Festival paid tribute to him by giving him a special Palme d’Or to commemorate his exceptional body of work. Belmondo’s films are still widely seen and represent some of the best in mainstream French cinema, be they feisty historical romps, exciting action thrillers or enjoyably daft comedies.
© James Travers 2003-2011
Jean-Paul Belmondo is best-known for the following films:
The ActorJean-Paul Belmondo has appeared in the following films:
Charlotte et son Jules (1960) (short)