Jean Marais obituary in “The Guardian” in 1998.
Jean Marais was a monstre sacre of the French stage and cinema. He had a long career that took on mythical proportions. His friend (and one might almost say “creator”) Jean Cocteau defined Jean Marais’ appeal to both men and women: “It does not depend only on sensual grace. It flows from the child still at the heart of the mature man. That is the true source of the expressive beauty of his eye, of the way he looks at you, imposes his physical presence.”
Good-looking children usually have an easy life at home and in school, but their happiness ultimately hangs upon the qualities of their parents. Marais’ father was a doctor, rather remote. It was not until Jean was 45 that he saw him again, on the point of death. His mother was all too present, possessive, and from time to time in prison on kleptomaniac charges. He invokes her influence thus:
When I was a child, she was always telling me I was ugly. But I secretly thought I wasn’t all that bad-looking. Nevertheless, because of her attitude, I have never been able to see myself as handsome . . . As a child, I think I must have been a real monster. There was a show-off side to me, because I wanted to be an actor. I would do anything to attract others; and in order to do so I set out to improve myself in all those areas where I felt there was some lack in me. So people have always liked me, even loved me, but I often had the feeling that it was for the wrong reasons.6
In his autobiography, Histoires de ma vie (1975), he writes: “I’ve had a fabulous life, a destiny . . . The cinema was the real awakener for me. My brother and I would amuse ourselves by replaying at home the scenes we saw on the silver screen.” When Jeannot was only four years old, watching Pearl White in The Perils of Pauline, he made up his mind to be an actor, inspired by the courage the actress displayed in a thrilling scene as she grabbed a creeper and hauled herself out of an engulfing whirlpool. Later, he heard, from the old actress herself, that she had been doubled in this dangerous stunt. Jeannot felt cheated, and swore that he would perform all his movie stunts himself. And so he did; he had the physique of a first-rate athlete.
At the Gala de l’Union des Artistes in which stage folk annually performed the most hair-raising circus tricks or cascades, Marais often won first prize. At the 1959 Gala, live on television, Marais, in full evening dress, shinned up to the top of an 18-metre pole with a carefree elegance. He was seen by the movie director Andre Hunebelle, already famous for his cloak-and-dagger adventure movies, who realised he could save the expense of a stuntman by putting Marais under contract for his next swordfight epic, Le Bossu.
This movie’s great success led to a whole series of period action melodramas and mysteries in which Marais performed all his own stunts. In fact, in 1947, at Cocteau’s suggestion, he had already made an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas, co-starring Danielle Darrieux.
The public became insatiable for the latest spectacle of Marais in short cape and form-fitting tights, escalading high walls, jumping into saddles; or as Fantommas, masked, leaping across the roofs of Paris, or swinging from giant chandeliers. He was an accomplished swordsman for roles in Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1953), Le Capitan (1960), Le Capitaine Fracasse (1960) and Le Masque de fer (1962).
But at the same time he was appearing in more intelligent cinematographic works. He had appeared for the first time with Michele Morgan in 1948, in Jean Delannoy’s Aux Yeux du Souvenir. In 1950, Rene Clement directed the pair in a subtly sentimental film, Chateau de verre, and later Marais confessed, “Michele Morgan is the only woman I could have loved.” We are not told what his co-star’s feelings (if any) might have been. One of his best serious films, Le Notti Blanche (“White Nights”), was directed by Visconti, who later also directed Marais on stage in William Gibson’s play Two for the Seesaw.
Jean Marais’ career however was intimately bound up with the work of another great director, Jean Cocteau. He first came to Cocteau’s notice in a non-speaking part in the 1937 play Oedipe Roi, which was greeted every night with boos and catcalls. Marais remained so self-possessed throughout all the hubbub that Cocteau realised he would make an ideal leading man. So Marais was to appear in several of Cocteau’s most striking theatrical works: Les Chevaliers de la Table Ronde (1937), L’Aigle a Deux Tetes with the divine Edwige Feuillere in 1946, La Machine Infernale (in the 1954 revival with Jeanne Moreau), Les Parents Terribles (1938) and the 1969 revival of Oedipe Roi after Cocteau’s death, which Marais directed: he created the costumes and decor too.
Two of these plays, L’Aigle a Deux Tetes and Les Parents Terribles, were made into films of great distinction, virtually presented as filmed stage works. Feuillere and Yvonne de Bray played the leading feminine parts. Marais adored de Bray: “When I first met her, she was on the decline, had not acted for 20 years and had become an alcoholic. Cocteau persuaded her to return to the stage in a part specially written for her – the possessive mother in Les Parents Terribles. I developed a deep affection for her, and Yvonne became a second mother to me.”
Other great Cocteau films, L’Eternel Retour (directed by Delannoy, 1943), La Belle et la Bete (1946), Orphee (1950) and Le Testament d’Orphee (1960) form enduring monuments to Marais’ charm and distinctive presence. They are also masterpieces of scripting and direction. L’Eternel Retour was Cocteau’s modern vision of the Tristan and Iseult legend, with the exquisite Madeleine Sologne as Isolde to Marais’ Tristan. The fairy tale of La Belle et la Bete possesses the true enchantment of a dream. I found the “beast” in his cat-like mask with two neat Dracula fangs infinitely more attractive than his reconstitution as Prince Charming. Marais himself disliked this reincarnation, saying he looked like a sugar-plum fairy.
As the Beast, he had longed to parade around the set wearing a deer’s magnificently antlered head, but the designer Christian Berard informed him that the Beast should be a carnivore, not a herbivore. Marais refused to have anything at all to do with the distressing Disney version.
In 1970, Marais appeared in another Charles Perrault tale, Jacques Demy’s handling of Peau d’Ane, with Catherine Deneuve (English title, The Magic Donkey). This is one of Perrault’s less inspired fabulations, but it has Delphine Seyrig as a wicked fairy godmother, and Marais as a Firbankian king. It was Marais’ last good movie part, except possibly for his appearance as an ageing art critic in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty. Marais thoroughly enjoyed working on it in Siena, though at the age of 83 he was no longer attempting his own stunts.
There is no doubting Marais’ courage, both physical and moral. It took courage to write about his mother’s kleptomania, and to describe frankly his love affair with Cocteau.
In wartime, it takes courage to remain alive, just to endure a world gone mad. There is the legendary episode of Jeannot’s attempt to murder the collaborationist critic Alain Laubreaux, a scandalmonger journalist on Je Suis Partout. Marais, considering that this piss-copy had defamed both him and Cocteau by his unveiled insinuations, attacked him in the street, an event that Truffaut makes poor use of in Le Dernier Metro, turning a savage attack into a harmless slap on the face. “In fact,” says Marais, “I punched Laubreaux so hard, he was covered with blood.”
He then planned to murder the critic, but was put off by a horoscope drafted for him by the poet Max Jacob, which contained the warning: “Take care never to kill anyone.” But the critic got his revenge by arranging for Marais’ name to be placed on the Nazis’ death-list. The threat was never carried out. It was not until 1975 that Marais discovered why he had not been deported to Belsen wearing a pink triangle. Arno Breker, the Nazi sculptor and protege of Hitler, had made friends with Cocteau on a 1925 visit to Paris, and during the Occupation offered to put in a good word for Picasso, Jacob or any of his friends should they be “troubled” by the occupying authorities. Cocteau had telephoned him imploring his intervention to spare Marais’ life.
The radiant blond ephebe whom Ernst Junger called “a plebeian Antinous” became a white-maned Emperor Hadrian. He still kept his brilliant smile, his ringing laugh. He said: “If I were 20 now, I’d have Aids, definitely – I never stopped! But I no longer seek new companions. I have had a partner for the last 25 years, a great love. He is my hero now.”
He tells us Cocteau was obsessed by the thought of dying, and expressed it perfectly in Orphee, his reworking of the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, and with a final authority in Testament d’Orphee, in which he was surrounded by his friends, a superb cast-list in which Jeannot was accompanied by Maria Casares, Edouard Dermithe, Charles Aznavour, Picasso, Francoise Sagan and Yul Brynner, among many others. Orphee, when on the point of death, says: “My friends, there is no need for tears, for poets only pretend to be dead.” Cocteau in the film speaks for himself, as everyone knew, and when he died off camera, in real life, his Jeannot mourned him with the words: “You see – I’m not weeping, because now I’ll pretend to live.”
Cocteau would declaim proudly: “I am the same age as the Eiffel Tower! I reckon the onset of old age from the day when for the first time I had to take the lift to the top.” But he remains ageless, as does Jean Marais, who in our memories will always be Tristan, immortal as the legend itself.
Jean Alfred Villain-Marais, actor, painter and ceramicist: born Cherbourg 11 December 1913; (one adopted son); died Cannes 8 November 1998.