Can a Film Star Be Too Good-Looking?

In one respect, this is nonsense. Movies, from their infancy, have been in the objectifying racket. The making of an appearance, however fiercely we may object to its methods, is their raison d’être. Celluloid is a strip of flammable skin, coated with photosensitive chemicals, and unsurpassed in its registration of human flesh—the warm and no less sensitive exterior of living creatures. If all that counts is inward essence, what the hell were those teams of makeup artists, coiffeurs, and cinematographers employed by the major studios, in the golden age, doing all day? What was the point of the costume tests, for example, that William H. Daniels, the director of photography on “Queen Christina” (1933), ran on Greta Garbo almost ninety years ago? Silently she smiles, poses, turns, casts her gaze upward and sideways, and confronts the camera head-on; at one dumbfounding moment, Daniels cuts her face in half, diagonally, with a scarf of black shadow, leaving just one eye exposed. She rests her hand on her chin, as though lost in thought. Garbo showed us all how to get lost.

And that’s the kicker. Of all the stars that ever were, it is Garbo who best perpetuated the possibility—or the captivating lie—that film could be more than a simple surface. Beauty is skin-deep, but somehow, if you’re Garbo, you can intimate the blood flow of feelings beneath. Daniels, who photographed her in twenty-one films, had a keener grasp of that mystery than anyone else, though he was left with a specific regret. In 1969, the year before his death, he confessed, “The saddest thing in my career is that I was never able to photograph her in color. I begged the studio. I felt I had to get those incredible blue eyes in color, but they said no. The process at the time was cumbersome and expensive, and the pictures were already making money. I still feel sad about it.” I like to think that, before he died, Daniels might have seen “Purple Noon,” and the eyes of Alain Delon. Here was a new kind of blue.

René Clément’s “Purple Noon” is adapted from Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” So is Anthony Minghella’s film of that title from 1999, and also “Ripley,” now on Netflix, which is determined to winnow away any specks of pleasure, energy, or guilty fun from the tale. Not so “Purple Noon,” in which Ripley starts off at the edges of the action and gradually oils his way into the core. Casting is everything; Minghella arranges for his most handsome performer, Jude Law, to play Dickie Greenleaf, the wealthy wastrel whom Ripley (Matt Damon) slays and then seeks to replace. But the earlier Ripley is played by Delon; in all the plenitude of his splendor, he is the murderer, and that makes it much easier—indeed, compulsory—for us to be wooed by his cunning machinations, just as Highsmith intended. Late in the film, in an unforgettable closeup, he trains those eyes of his, as clear and as cloudless as the Mediterranean sky, upon Dickie’s girlfriend, who still knows nothing of the crime, and who considers Ripley an odd fellow but a loyal pal. We know better, or worse. We know that beauty is the beast.

All of which is a brazen refutation of Stendhal. This Ripley doesn’t promise happiness. He promises trouble, and from that springs the fundamental doubleness of Delonisme. Here is someone, evidently, from whom we ought to steer clear, yet we can’t get away from him. We can’t even look away. What’s more, Delon is highly unusual, among those of divine aspect, in that he is said to have cultivated connections with the actual underworld. Murmurs of scandal and impropriety dogged him for decades. In 1968, the body of a Serbian man named Stevan Marković, who was a friend of Delon’s and had been his bodyguard, was found on a garbage dump in a village outside Paris. A Corsican gangster was arrested, charged with the killing, but then released. Darkly exciting rumors of parties attended by Marković, Delon, and Claude Pompidou—the wife of the French Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou, who was campaigning for the Presidency—added to the mix. Marković’s death remained unsolved, and Delon was thereafter shadowed, though never overshadowed, by an air of menace. Indeed, he did little to dispel it. What better way to nourish, or to intensify, the fictional figures whom you are hired to portray than to allow your life, offstage, to feed into them?

With that murk in mind, it’s tempting to trace a direct line from Ripley to the assassin played by Delon in “Le Samouraï,” who, in a delicious gesture of prëemption, already dresses like an undertaker: dark suit, dark tie, white shirt. It’s like a uniform—a lethal update, so to speak, on the calculated nattiness of Piero, the broker played by Delon in “L’Eclisse.” Piero is no villain, but he strikes us as morally null; when a drunkard steals his Alfa Romeo, crashes it into a river, and dies, all that really concerns Piero are the dents in the bodywork. “I think I’ll sell it,” he says. We first observe him darting to and fro at the stock exchange in Rome, but later he slows to wandering pace, strolling around half-empty streets, meeting up (or, famously and climactically, failing to meet up) with a woman named Vittoria (Monica Vitti). Whether they can summon the strength to be in love is open to question. One of their most impassioned kisses is impeded by a pane of glass. Even their lips can’t meet.

Stand back from the retrospective at Film Forum; stop swooning for a minute; try to be as Kantian as you can, suppressing the thirst of your personal interest; and consider how the idea of beauty has been reconfigured by the case of Delon. First, beauty is lonely. In a relationship, one side of him remains unreachable; in a crowd, he is set apart. (Watch him ambling through a fish market, in “Purple Noon,” tracked by a handheld camera. People keep glancing at him, as if this were a documentary. The very fish take a peek.) Second, beauty is modern. The clean, carved lines of Delon’s face require outfits to match; in “The Leopard,” he is dashing enough, yet oddly uneasy in period costume. He also sports a mustache, as slender as a rapier, and even that feels a little excessive. There are certain glories of cinema that we deface at our peril. (I have always refused to see the 1964 comedy “Father Goose,” on the ground that the trailer depicts Cary Grant with stubble. Blasphemy!) Third, beauty is vulnerable. There is a mournful sadism in the spectacle of Delon, in “Rocco and His Brothers,” being hurt by a nocturnal brawl, and in the boxing ring. He’s no featherweight, but he lacks bulk, and you wince to see him take his lumps. The tape applied to a cut on his eyebrow stays there, in the ensuing scenes, like the bruise on the cheekbone of Michael Corleone. Fourth, beauty is serious. For optimum effect, Delon should be neither laughing nor cavalier. His stabs at comedy, thankfully infrequent, are no joke.

Needless to say, that yen for solemnity is not exclusive to Delon. George Folsey was the director of photography on “Lady of the Tropics” (1939), and his mission was to lend lustre to Hedy Lamarr. Not exactly demanding, you’d think, but there was a hitch. “She was a very, very beautiful woman to photograph—until she smiled. It was difficult for her to smile and be attractive,” Folsey said. By common consent, no one lovelier than Lamarr ever set foot on Californian soil; if only Kant had hung around and seen her in “Algiers” (1938), he would have leapt from his seat and shouted, “Hey, meine Herren, check it out! Universality! Just like I told you!”

Yet the fact remains that Lamarr, like Ava Gardner or Gene Tierney—or Delon—is stuck on the lower slopes of Mount Olympus. It is paradoxical (and, for mere mortals, cheering) that some of the greatest stars, the occupants whose slot at the top of the mountain is secure, were scarcely good-looking at all, and certainly conformed to no classical ideal of pulchritude. Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford: they knocked an audience sideways, but no one could mistake them for knockouts. Only very rarely do we encounter beings who simultaneously dazzle the senses, command the box-office, and remain, as it were, in communion with themselves. When I first glimpsed Edward Steichen’s Vanity Fair portrait of Gary Cooper, from 1930, I thought, O.K., so perfection has been achieved. Game over.

If I could cram one more movie into the Delon package at Film Forum, it would be Volker Schlöndorff’s “Swann in Love.” I haven’t seen it since it was released in 1984. But I recall Jeremy Irons, as Charles Swann, pretty much fainting as he drinks in the fragrance of the corsage worn by Odette (Ornella Muti) between her breasts, which struck me as a useful guide to the etiquette of desire. Above all, I remember Delon as the Baron de Charlus—a trifle stiff, the bloom gone from his youthfulness, and a touch of twilight in the azure of his gaze. Grace notes of the homoerotic had been perceptible in Delon ever since “Purple Noon,” and now they evolved into a sad music, in the person of Charlus. With a white-gloved hand, as if flirtation had become an effort of will, he pinched the cheek of a beau.

Can we, or should we, cut beauty out of the conversation altogether? So natural an insult to our faith in human equality seems, well, unnatural. Yet there it is, no more liable to extinction than a peacock. In any case, the overwhelming majority of us will never know how it feels, or what it might mean, to be beautiful. Simply imagining that status, with its unearthly blessings and its many complications (who’d want to be stared at just for walking into a room?) is a challenge. What we can conceive of, perhaps, is the fading of the glow: having the world at your feet, and your fingertips, and feeling it slip away as age dims the lights on your looks. It’s the oldest story of all. Helen must have told it to herself, in her dotage, long after the ships had sailed home from Troy. In the messy mythology of our own era, Alain Delon—the blue-eyed boy, the bad guy in the excellent suit—told the story from the start. No doubt he will see it through to the end. ♦

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