27 February 2017

Michel Serrault

French stage actor and film star Michel Serrault (1928-2007) appeared from 1954 to 2007 in more than 150 films. He is best known as Albin Mougeotte, alias the outrageous drag queen Zaza Napoli in the play and the film series La Cage aux Folles (The Bird Cage). In the following decades, the comedian also proved to be a noted dramatic film actor. He would win three Césars - the French version of the Oscar, and became one of the grand old men of French cinema.

Michel Serrault
French postcard by La Roue Tourne, Paris.

Michel Serrault and Jean Poiret
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 866. With Jean Poiret.

The bumbling innocent

Michel Serrault was born in Brunoy, south of Paris, in 1928. Although he wanted to be a circus clown, Serrault's parents sent him to a seminary to study for the priesthood. He spent only a few months there before taking-up acting.

His first professional job was in a touring production in Germany of Molière's Les Fourberies de Scapin. After military service in Dijon, he returned to Paris and joined Robert Dhéry's burlesque troupe and appeared in their second hit show, Dugudu.

In 1948, he began his career in the theatre with Robert Dhéry in Les Branquignols. His first film was Ah! Les belles bacchantes/Peek-a-Boo (Jean Loubignac, 1954), starring Robert Dhéry. Then Serrault played in the suspense thriller Les Diaboliques/Diabolique (Henri-Georges Clouzot, 1955), starring Simone Signoret.

In the early 1950s, he met Jean Poiret. Ronald Bergan at The Guardian: “This led to a song-and-comedy cabaret act, and their playing together in 18 films, from 1956 to 1984, and in a number of plays written by Poiret. Usually, Poiret was the calculating smoothie while Serrault was the bumbling innocent. With his flat voice, short stature, nondescript looks and little moustache, Serrault was perfect playing Everyman roles.”

The films he made with Poiret include the box office hit Cette sacrée gamine/Mademoiselle Pigalle (Michel Boisrond, 1956) in which they played two police officers opposite Brigitte Bardot, and Sacha Guitry's last film, Assassins et Voleurs/Murderers and Thieves (Sacha Guitry, 1957) with Poiret as a man about to commit suicide and Serrault as a burglar who interrupts him.

In the 1960s, Serrault was very active on screen. He made an average of four films a year, most of them comedies for the French market. Internationally known are La Belle Américaine/The American Beauty (Robert Dhèry, Pierre Tchernia, 1961), the title of which refers to a Cadillac; Roger Vadim's Le repos du Guerrier/Warrior's Rest (1962), with BB; the charming Bébert et L'Omnibus/Bebert and the Train (Yves Robert, 1963), and Le roi de Coeur/King Of Hearts (Philippe de Broca, 1966), in which Serrault played a crazy barber, one of the asylum escapees who have taken over a town.

Michel Serrault in La Cage aux Folles (1978)
French collectors card in the series 'Portrait de Stars; L'encyclopédie du Cinéma' by Edito Service, 1994. Photo: the Kobal Collection. Publicity still for La Cage aux Folles (Edouard Molinaro, 1978).

Michel Serrault in Il lupo e l'agnello (1980)
French postcard by Editions Hazan, Paris, no. 6274, 1991. Photo: Edimedia. Publicity still for Il lupo e l'agnello/The Wolf and the Lamb (Francesco Massaro, 1980).

The Bird Cage

From February 1973 through 1978, Michel Serrault portrayed the role of Albin/Zaza opposite Jean Poiret in Poiret’s play La Cage aux Folles (The Bird Cage), about a transvestite nightclub in St Tropez. He recreated the role of the effeminate, temperamental and middle-aged performer for the film version of the play, La Cage aux Folles (Edouard Molinaro,1978), now opposite Ugo Tognazzi.

Ronald Bergan in The Guardian: “Albin's volatile yet loving relationship with his longtime companion Renato (Ugo Tognazzi) is put to the test when they must pose as a ‘normal’ family to please the puritanical future in-laws of Renato's son. The film, which was to break all box-office records in the US for a foreign-language film to that date”.

For his part, Serrault won both the César award in France and the David di Donatello in Italy. The success lead to progressively awful sequels, La Cage aux Folles II (Edouard Molinaro, 1980) and La cage aux folles 3 - 'Elles' se marine/La Cage aux Folles 3: The Wedding (Georges Lautner, 1985).

He played the neighbour of Carole Laure, Gérard Dépardieu and Patrick Dewaere in the romantic comedy Préparez vos mouchoirs/Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (Bertrand Blier, 1978), which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 51st Academy Awards.

Other noted films in which he appeared were L'Argent des autres/Dirty money (Christian de Chalonge, 1978) starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, the crime thriller Buffet froid/Cold Cuts (Bertrand Blier, 1979) starring Gérard Depardieu, and Garde à Vue/The Inquisitor (Claude Miller, 1981) for which he won his second César.

He gave another great performance in Les fantômes du chapelier/The Hatter's Ghost (Claude Chabrol, 1982), playing a respected citizen of a small town who murders his bedridden wife and other local women. He appeared opposite Isabelle Adjani in the thriller Mortelle randonnée/Deadly Circuit (Claude Miller, 1983).

Serrault won this third César Award for Best Actor in Nelly et Monsieur Arnaud/Nelly and Mr. Arnaud (Claude Sautet, 1995) with Emmanuelle Béart. Other interesting films were Artemisia (Agnès Merlet, 1997) the biographical film about Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, the crime-comedy Rien ne va plus/The Swindle (Claude Chabrol, 1997) with Isabelle Huppert, and Les enfants du marais/The Children of the Marshland (Jean Becker, 1999).

In 1999, Serrault was awarded the Légion d'Honneur, and two years later, he published his memoirs, Vous Avez Dit Serrault? (Did You Say Serrault?). His later films include Le papillon/The Butterfly (Philippe Muyl, 2002), the WW I drama Joyeux Noël/Happy Christmas (Christian Carion, 2005) and Pars vite et reviens tard/Have Mercy on Us All (Régis Wargnier, 2007) about the return of the Plague to modern Paris, and based on the 2003 novel by Fred Vargas.

In 2007, Serrault died from relapsing polychondritis at his home in Équemauville at age 79. He was buried in Sainte-Catherine's cemetery in Honfleur and was transferred in 2009 to the cemetery of Neuilly-sur-Seine to be near his wife, Juanita Saint-Peyron, and daughter, Caroline, who had died in a car accident in 1977. He was survived by his daughter, actress Nathalie Serrault.

Michel Serrault and Valentina Cervi in Artemisia (1997)
French postcard by Cart.com. Promotion card for the 1998 video release by Arte Video and FilmOffice of Artemisia (Agnès Merlet, 1997) with Valentina Cervi.

Sources: Ronald Bergan (The Guardian), Wikipedia and IMDb.

1 comment:

Bunched Undies said...

Such a great talent. He brought a special quality to every role he played. Hilarious in La Cage aux follies.