Dying at the height of one’s movie career usually assures a certain popularity. Just ask James Dean.
And so it is to some degree with French matinee idol of the 40s and 50s, Gerard Philipe.
Although he only made 34 films between 1943 and his death in 1959, and although all were in French, he was an international star in his day, and is well remembered in France and Germany.
(We say “only” 34 films here, but note that Dean’s stardom is based on just three movies, although Dean died at the tender age of 24 versus a ripe old 36 pour notre homme Gerard.)
Almost every one of Philipe’s films is worthwhile, and some rate as classics. He worked for the top directors of the time. He starred opposite the most famous and beautiful actresses of the day — Michele Morgan, Gina Lollobrigida, Jeanne Moreau and Danielle Darrieux among them.
Although he often exploited his reputation of matinee idol, Philipe never hammed, writes British critic David Thomson. Like most great stars, he smiled when sad and never forgot melancholy in moments of gaiety. (Can the same be said of Dean? Just asking.)
Philipe often played men fixated on sex. He was an adolescent in love in 1947’s The Devil in the Flesh. He is seduced by Lollobrigida in 1952’s Fan-Fan The Tulip. He was part of the omni-sexual hijinks of Vienna circa 1900 in director Max Ophuls’ La Ronde. Nine years later, he teamed in with Moreau in Roger Vadim’s Les Liaison Dangereuses (1959).
These titles might not come tripping off the tongue today. But keep in mind that from the 50s through roughly the early 70s, foreign films with subtitles often exerted clout at the U.S. box office — particularly if they were French. And in this time in the U.S., Philipe managed to become a marquee draw.
Although he had his off-screen romantic flings (one willing partner was Marlene Dietrich), the actor’s personal life was the model of the bourgeois rectitude. In 1951, he married the former Nicole Fourcade. The couple had two children.
Later in his career, the roles became more diverse. Philipe played painter Amedeo Modigliani in 1957’s Montparnasse 19 directed by Jacques Becker after the original director, Ophuls, died. In one of his more unusual assignments, Philipe turned up in director Luis Bunel’s Fever Mounts at El Pao, a 1959 adventure yarn set in a Caribbean country. It was his last movie.
By this time, Philipe was seriously ill with liver cancer. He died later in November of 1959. ‘Till he end, the actor was referred to by fans as the “darling of the Gods.”