We recently ran a shot of him sans toupee, dining with fellow actor Adolphe Menjou. Had you recognized him (handsome devil, isn’t he)? Today’s photo of the guy is much more typical.
Charles Boyer, a country boy born 1899 in Figeac in France’s Cahors wine district, made his first movie (L’Homme du Large or roughly The Broad Shouldered Man) in 1920. But the time he finished his last picture in 1976, Vincente Minnelli’s A Matter of Time, Boyer was a renowned international star with some 90 film and tv credits under his belt.
No other personality from France had so reigned in Hollywood. Unlike Maurice Chevalier, slightly more than a decade his senior, Boyer did not flog the charming-French-scamp stereotype ad nauseum. Sure, he could and did play the romantic Gallic smoothie to perfection, but he also tackled a range of strongly dramatic parts often portraying vicious, unsympathetic characters.
He was a superb actor.
Boyer’s costar in Warner’s 1943 drama, The Constant Nymph, is Joan Fontaine, who rarely employed superlatives to describe other actors in her 1978 autobiography, No Bed of Roses. But read what she has to say about her costar:
Charles Boyer remains my favorite leading man, Charles, a brilliant actor in English and French, in theater or onscreen, was a kind, gentle, helpful actor. Brian (Aherne, her then husband) and I often saw him and his beautiful English wife, Pat Paterson, socially.
I found him a man of intellect, taste and discernment. He was unselfish, dedicated to his work. Above all, he cared about the quality of the film he was making, and, unlike most leading men I have worked with, the single exception being Fred Astaire, his first concern was the film, not himself.
Boyer costarred with classic Hollywood’s most notable leading ladies including Marlene Dietrich in 1936’s The Garden of Allah, as Hedy Lamarr’s continental opposite in 1938’s Algiers and as Napoleon opposite Greta Garbo in 1937’s Marie Walewska (or Conquest).
The actor was memorably paired with Ingrid Bergman in three films including, of course, George Cukor’s 1944 period drama, Gaslight, in which Boyer gives a bravura performance as a svelte London nasty determined to convince his young wife (Bergman) that she is insane.
The picture won Bergman a best actress Oscar and a best actor nomination for Boyer. It’s a movie to enjoy over and over, in other words, a classic.
In interviews year later, Bergman (another actress not easily given to costar praise) said: Charles Boyer was a splendid actor and one of the finest men I have ever worked with… ‘Gaslight’ was one of my favorite films and one of the greatest experiences of my life.
Boyer proved his versatility in his many roles, adapting when film noir came in the Forties and early Fifties. Check him out in Otto Preminger’s 1951 suspense drama with Linda Darnell, The Thirteenth Letter, in which Boyer portrays a revered doctor at a French Canadian hospital.
Boyer’s apparently kind old Dr. Laurent, who is actually vicious and insane.. (and) while his face moves in and out of the light cast by a swinging overhead lamp tells (a colleague, Michael Rennie), ‘Good and evil can change places like light and shadow,’ as noted in Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style.
Of his later films, Frank suggests Stavisky, Alain Renais’ 1974 period biography of a well-connected French swindler (Jean-Paul Belmondo) who undermined a French government in the early 1930’s. Boyer is moving as a tired, jaded aristocrat who has seen it all. The role of Baron Jean Raoul won the actor a “Special Mention For His Performance” citation at the Cannes Film Festival.
Remarkably for an internationally recognized movie star, Boyer married just once — to former actress Paterson, and the couple doted on their only son. Bergman recalls:
Charles brought his little son, Michael, who had been born during ‘Gaslight,’ to visit ‘The Arch of Triumph’ set. Michael was the most beautiful child, and looked just like his father. I was so happy for Charles and his wife, who were sublimely happy with their little boy.
It was many years later that I heard the story of the terrible tragedy….What I heard was that the young man fell madly in love with a girl who didn’t return his feelings. Tragically, there was a gun, and Michael shot himself.
Heartbroken, Charles and his wife moved to Geneva. When she was diagnosed with a brain tumor, they returned to America. She died, and a few days later (Boyer) took his own life. It happened Aug. 26, 1978 in Phoenix. Boyer was 78.