- Words by Mr Colin McDowell
Despite our nostalgic idealisation of the 1960s, it was the 1950s that
were the true beginning of modernity in fashion and the arts – and nowhere more clearly than in the world of male film heroes. It was a question of "move over Messrs Gregory Peck and Cary Grant in your immaculately tailored perfection; come in the new young Turks to take your rightful place on cinema screens across the globe".
The storm troopers who established the beachhead of the new cinema were three very different young stars. Messrs Marlon Brando, James Dean and Alain Delon. Two Americans and a Frenchman. And it is the Frenchman who was in such demand that he made very many more films than the other two and yet has not been mythologised in the way the Americans have.
In a sense, it is Mr Delon's fault. In Cannes he was talent scouted by Hollywood for future world stardom but with the proviso that he would learn English. He went to Paris to study the language but was persuaded to stay in France to begin his career, the base for the rest of his professional life.
Mr Delon became a role model for all the young men who wanted to be subversive in their dress – but not too much
It was a shrewd move, in fact, as the 1950s were the great period of rejuvenation in the French cinema, which in the 1960s became known as the New Wave. Mses Jeanne Moreau, Jean Seberg, Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve: it was a great time for actresses and also for the resolutely heterosexual Mr Delon.
With his perfectly sculpted face – all chiselled cheekbones and sensitive mouth – as a young man, Mr Delon was capable of looking both tough and classy. In the bloody and violent film Borsalino he acted with the other French heart-throb of the time, Mr Jean-Paul Belmondo. They were the Yin and Yang of young French manhood: Mr Belmondo a broken-nosed street-fighting guy; Mr Delon smooth but broodingly dangerous.
Born in 1935, Mr Delon had a complex youth and upbringing. He came from a broken home and was frequently expelled from school so he finished his formal education as soon as the law allowed. He joined the French Marines as a paratrooper and saw service in Indochina. Other jobs included being a waiter and also a porter in Les Halles.
Mr Delon got his big break as the eponymous star of Rocco and His Brothers, directed by Mr Luchino Visconti in 1960. The film was variously described as shattering and overwhelming. It gave Mr Delon an international profile, which was enhanced three years later when he played the handsome young officer, Tancredi, in Mr Visconti's film The Leopard. An Italian lady of my acquaintance who worked on the sets of the film said of Mr Delon that buckskin breeches must have been created with him in mind, he looked so perfectly right in them.
Mr Delon and his wife, actress Ms Nathalie Delon,
Tancrou, France, 1966
There were many more films to come. A close friend of Ms Brigitte Bardot, he was engaged to the actress Ms Romy Schneider, but that did not seem to affect the adulation of his female fans. His appearance, on or off the screen, played a leading role in the change in men's dress that began in France during the 1950s. He was almost always photographed in what might be called "bon chic, bon goût" dress, a look based on traditional English casual clothes but done with Gallic style.
Open-necked shirts, immaculate tailoring and always perfectly polished traditional shoes: Mr Delon became a role model for all the young men who wanted to be subversive in their dress – but not too much. In fairness, with the exception of the hippy existentialism of the Left Bank, France was still very hidebound in its male dress codes and Mr Delon's contribution in pushing them forward was notable but not spectacular.
Mr Delon now spends much of his time breeding racehorses and making rare public appearances where elderly ladies push and shove to see their hero who once said, with devastating simplicity and arrogance, "I like to be loved like I love myself." Don't we all?