Louis Jourdan Takes on the Chevalier Role in Gigi and Proves He Remembers It Well
Onstage in Boston, where this visitor catches up with the show, many gasp at his first entrance. He is Gigi's main drawing card—a star in the flesh—and the audience warms to him immediately. The critics are cooler. "His face has the mobility of frozen yogurt," says one. Others note he's too young and bemoan his lip-synching two of the songs to a recorded track.
At his hotel Jourdan shrugs off the nay sayers. Though he takes in an estimated $15,000 weekly, Jourdan insists he is not in it for the money. "I have enough money not to have to think of money," he says. As for mouthing his songs (a mortal sin in the theater), he reasons: "If I sang them live the fragile little voice I have would go." Quique, his wife of 38 years, who occasionally leaves their home in Beverly Hills to join him, is the one critic he respects. "She told me I was too animated and there is too much gesturing," Louis reports. "That's constructive."
Chevalier was 70 and frail when he did the movie. Jourdan is remarkably fit and does nothing to disguise it onstage. How he looks at 63 depends on whether, as the Gigi lyric goes, you're "standing up too close or back too far." But there's no doubt that Jourdan is as suave and self-assured as the image he projects in those J. Roget champagne commercials currently splashing over the tube.
Though Jourdan admired Chevalier, the performer, he had reservations about the man. "He annoyed me enormously," he says. "I could never understand why all the success of that picture went to that old man when Gigi and Gaston were the central characters." Jourdan refutes Chevalier's bon vivant image. "In life he was obsessed with himself." Because of Chevalier, Jourdan feels French actors, including himself, are stereotyped: "Every Frenchman in America who approaches this profession has the ghost of Chevalier behind him. It's that strong."
Louis grew up in the South of France. Home for him and his two brothers was a string of hotels his parents managed in Cannes, Nice and Marseilles. He learned English from tourists ("The music of the language was always around"), studied drama in Paris and played a number of roles in French films until the war interrupted. When the Gestapo arrested his father, Louis and his brothers joined the underground Resistance.
Louis and Quique, his childhood sweetheart, were brought to Hollywood in 1946 by producer David O. Selznick. Louis stayed to do a series of debonair roles in films (Three Coins in the Fountain, The Swan, The V.I.P.S, Can-Can) that he does not remember fondly. "I never see my movies," he says. "When they're on television I click them away. Hollywood created an image and I long ago reconciled myself with it. I was the French cliché."
Jourdan continued doing the same kind of roles, but recently he's been playing villains in such projects as 1983's Octopussy and a TV version of Dracula. Louis enjoys the bustle of performing, but his offscreen life is a solitary one. The Boston hotel room he'll trade for another in another city soon contains only the things he needs to shut out the world: several volumes by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and a suitcase full of Wagner cassettes. He listens to them constantly. "I am a man obsessed," he says.
Jourdan does not speak of the death, three years ago, of his only son, Louis Henry, then 29. Jourdan found the body slumped across an antique bed in his Beverly Hills home. Louis Henry, who suffered from depression, had apparently taken an overdose of drugs. The police labeled it a suicide.
Louis Jourdan guards his feelings. The Gigi tour, he says, "is a healing vacation from the world, this difficult, frantic, absurd world." As his visitor leaves, Mr. Jourdan prepares his retreat. "I watch no television now," he says. "I read no papers. I am au courant of nothing. I don't look at America. I look at myself."