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French Actor Shook Up Image of a Leading Man

Jean-Paul Belmondo starred in 'Breathless'
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 6, 2021 2:50 PM CDT
Jean-Paul Belmondo Starred in Breathless
Jean-Paul Belmondo, center, is congratulated by fellow actors during the Cesar Film Awards in Paris in 2017.   (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

(Newser) – Jean-Paul Belmondo, star of the iconic French New Wave film Breathless, whose crooked boxer’s nose and rakish grin helped make him one of the country's most recognizable leading men, has died. He was 88. No cause of death was given, the AP reports. Belmondo’s career spanned a half-century. Belmondo, who embodied in the 1960s a new type of male star characterized by pure virility rather than classic good looks, appeared in more than 80 films and worked with a variety of major French directors such as Francois Truffaut and Claude Lelouch. His career choices were equally varied, including acclaimed art house films and critically lukewarm but high-paying action and comedy films later in his career.

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His unconventional looks—flattened nose, full lips and muscular frame—allowed him to play thug and police officer, thief and priest, Cyrano de Bergerac and an unshakable secret agent. French President Emmanuel Macron called the actor a "national treasure" in an homage on social media recalling his panache, laughter, and versatility. He was at once a "sublime hero" and "a familiar figure," Macron wrote. "In him, we all recognize ourselves." France bounded into Belmondo mode at news of his death, with politicians of all stripes praising him as the media put the actor everyone seemed to love at center-stage. Old clips showed the athletic Belmondo in heart-stopping stunts he was known to love, sliding down a rooftop or climbing a rope ladder from a moving convertible.

Belmondo was born in 1933 in a Paris suburb. His father was renowned sculptor Paul Belmondo, and his mother, Sarah Rainaud-Richard, was a painter. Belmondo quit school at 16 and took up acting at the Paris Conservatory, where a teacher, Pierre Dux, told him that his career as a leading man was doomed because of his looks. People would laugh if they saw an actress in Belmondo's arms, Dux said, a biographer wrote. The star began acting in small provincial theaters, then got his first important role, in Classe tous risques in 1960. The same year, Jean-Luc Godard cast him in Breathless—one of the breakthrough films of the French New Wave. The movement grouped filmmakers of the late 1950s and '60s who abandoned traditional narrative techniques and were known for their mood of youthful iconoclasm. In the 1980s, he returned to the stage and won back the doubting critics.

(Read more obituary stories.)

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