Danielle Darrieux, French Film Star Over 8 Decades, Is Dead at 100


She said decades later that her favorite role was that of the hero’s matronly mistress in “Le Rouge et le Noir” (1954), based on Stendhal’s novel about class-conscious post-Napoleonic France.

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Ms. Darrieux in 1987. She continued acting into her 90s, appearing in nine films in the first decade of the 21st century.

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Georges Bendrihem/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

It was well known that Ms. Darrieux’s favorite director was Max Ophuls. After “La Ronde,” her first collaboration with Ophuls, they worked together in “Le Plaisir” (1952), about prostitutes on a country outing, and “Madame de … ” (1953), released in the United States as “The Earrings of Madame de … ,” a tale of jewelry, debt and infidelity.

Ms. Darrieux became an international film star in Anatole Litvak’s “Mayerling” (1936), playing the teenage mistress of Rodolfo (Charles Boyer), crown prince of Austria, in a retelling of the Habsburg tragedy. American critics praised both her beauty and her performance. She was only 19, and it was her 19th film.

Her new stardom was ratified by a timeless phenomenon: women around the world copied her hairstyle. “Danielle Darrieux appears with her hair bundled on top of her head in ‘Mayerling,’ ” Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times in 1938, reviewing another film entirely. “And a few months later, all the girls are building bird’s nests in their tresses.”

Ms. Darrieux had an abbreviated chance at Hollywood stardom, traveling to the United States in 1937 and signing a contract with Universal. She was soon cast as a young woman looking for a rich husband in “The Rage of Paris” (1938), which also starred Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Louis Hayward.

But after dipping her toe in the Hollywood waters, she declined to plunge in, returning to France immediately after making “The Rage of Paris” and, pleading illness (“ill health resulting from nervous strain,” The New York Times reported), delayed her return. Again and again.

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Danielle Darrieux and Mel Ferrer as husband and wife in the 1960 film “L’Homme à Femmes.”

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Max Micol/Associated Press

By the time she made her next American movie, she was in her 30s and, by Hollywood standards, ready for older-generation roles. She was cast as Jane Powell’s long-lost mother in “Rich, Young and Pretty” (1951). In 1956 she played Richard Burton’s mother (although she was only eight years his senior) in “Alexander the Great.” In between she starred in Joseph Mankiewicz’s espionage drama “Five Fingers” (1952), as the Polish love interest of a British spy (James Mason).

Back in France, directors who had grown up adoring Ms. Darrieux clamored to work with her. Claude Chabrol cast her in “Landru” (1963) as one of a Blackbeard-like character’s victims. Jacques Demy’s musical comic drama “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” (1967) was one of several occasions when Ms. Darrieux played Catherine Deneuve’s mother; among the others was François Ozon’s 2002 all-star musical whodunit, “Huit Femmes” (“8 Women”), about a household with only one man in it, a dead one.

No one ever had to dub Ms. Darrieux’s voice in a movie musical. She recorded and sang dozens of songs onscreen over the decades, most recently Charles Trenet’s “La Folle Complainte” in the 2006 film comedy “Nouvelle Chance,” in which she played an alcoholic.

With and without music, Ms. Darrieux had a long and varied stage career in France, taking on dozens of roles in works by Noël Coward, Françoise Sagan, Feydeau and other playwrights. She played the ultimate older woman in a 1995 French production of “Harold and Maude” and capped her stage career in 2003 as the star of “Oscar et la Dame Rose,” Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt’s tale of an elderly hospital worker helping a dying boy. At 86, she won the Molière Award, France’s national theater award, for best female comedian.

Ms. Darrieux appeared on Broadway just once. In 1970 she replaced Katharine Hepburn in “Coco,” the Tony Award-nominated musical about the fashion designer Coco Chanel. Perhaps more qualified for the role than her predecessor, because she was both French and a singer, Ms. Darrieux was nevertheless in awe of Hepburn. “She is the only person I have ever asked for an autograph,” she confessed in interviews.

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Danielle Darrieux in an undated photograph. became an international film star in Anatole Litvak’s “Mayerling,” in 1936.

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STF/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Danielle Yvonne Marie Antoinette Darrieux was born on May 1, 1917, in Bordeaux, France. Her father, Jean Darrieux, an ophthalmologist who was serving in World War I when she was born, died when she was 7. She grew up in Paris, where her mother, the former Marie-Louise Witkowski, gave voice lessons to make ends meet. Danielle studied cello at the Conservatoire de Musique.

She was only 14 when she auditioned for and won a role in the film “Le Bal” (1931), playing an upwardly mobile couple’s neglected daughter whose behavior drives the plot.

Her early stardom was a mystery to her. “Maybe I succeeded because my type wasn’t commonplace on the screen,” she was quoted as saying in “Noir & Blanc: 250 Acteurs du Cinéma Français 1930-1960,” by Olivier Barrot and Raymond Chirat (2000). “I mean that I was simply a young girl, while other 14-year-olds were already playing the vamp.”

In her early film career, she was directed in “Mauvaise Graine” (1934), a drama about car thieves, by a young Austrian immigrant who soon left for Hollywood: Billy Wilder. Aside from her brief Hollywood visits over the years, Ms. Darrieux stayed home, becoming eternally associated with a string of films that remained relatively unknown in the United States, among them “Battement de Coeur” (1940), “Premier Rendez-Vous” (1941), “La Vérité sur Bébé Donge” (1952) and “Marie-Octobre” (1959).

Ms. Darrieux was a chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur and an officer of the Ordres des Arts et des Lettres, but she never won a César Award, the French equivalent of the Oscar. She received an honorary César in 1985, as if her career were over, but then went on to be nominated twice — for André Téchiné’s “Scene of the Crime” in 1987 (at 70) and for “8 Women” in 2002 (at 85).

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Ms. Darrieux in 1960 outside the Irving Thalberg Building in Hollywood. Her career there was short-lived.

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Frank Filan/Associated Press

She continued acting well into her 90s, making nine films in the first decade of the 21st century. Her last big-screen appearance was in “Pièce Montée” (2010), a comedy about a family wedding. She also appeared in a 2011 television movie, “C’est Toi C’est Tout,” playing a Corsican grandmother.

After her death, France’s minister of culture, Françoise Nyssen, posted on Twitter: “Her talent, her generosity have illuminated the French cinema. Danielle Darrieux knew how to play everything with a prodigious spontaneity.”

Ms. Darrieux was 18 when she married Henri Decoin, a screenwriter and film director who became her mentor. Their divorce in 1941 was so friendly that he directed her in another three films more than a decade later. Her second husband was Porforio Rubirosa, the Dominican-born playboy diplomat who later married the American heiresses Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton. Rubirosa and Ms. Darrieux married in 1942 and remained in France during the Occupation, working for Continental, a German-controlled film company, which led to accusations that she was a Nazi sympathizer. She later said that she had been forced to do the films because of death threats against Rubirosa.

Ms. Darrieux and Rubirosa divorced in 1947. The next year she married Georges Mitsinkides, a Greek-born writer and producer, and they were together until his death in 1991. Her only son, Mathieu Mitsinkides; her brother, Olivier Darrieux, a French comic actor; and her sister, Claude Hussenot-Desenonges, also died in the 1990s, within four years of one another. She is survived by Mr. Jenvrin.

Ms. Darrieux was known for keeping her private life private, and when she gave interviews she tended to be modest. Asked the secret of her successful life in an interview with Cinémotions in 2004, she offered: “I have always put more effort into my private life than my career. I have never let success go to my head, and I never thought it was forever, nor that I was amazing.”

She also exhibited a clear view of reality. “The world is truly bizarre,” she told the weekly magazine L’Express in 1997. “In that context, the role of artists is to bring a little release and pleasure.” She described herself as a woman subdued in her later years, but when asked if she was melancholy, she answered, “But don’t you think everybody is?”

On the other hand, she pointed out, “It is no crime to be happy.”

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