How do you comprehend the length and breadth of a career like that of Danielle Darrieux, who died last fall at the age of 100? When she made her first film, Le bal, at age fourteen, the year was 1931; her last movie was in 2010. Her filmography ran to more than 100 films, not counting television and stage work, which were also extensive. Put another way: When Darrieux made her screen debut, the talkies were less than four years old, and the first full-length three-strip Technicolor film was four years away. By the time she made her last movie, cinemas were abandoning film itself in favor of digital projection.
Part of it is pure, healthy longevity, of course. But numerous other stars live to a highly advanced age and don’t manage (or want) to maintain a career on-screen. Darrieux made some of her greatest films after age forty, and eventually moved into equally fascinating, scene-stealing old age. Two films from distant points of her career show how her fascination evolved—from fresh and unworldly in Mayerling to seasoned and wise in Une chambre en ville.
Born in Bordeaux but raised in Paris from the age of two, Darrieux lost her father when she was young. She was on her way to becoming a cellist, studying at the Conservatoire de musique, when her mother saw a newspaper ad and optimistically took Danielle to audition for the teenage lead in Le bal. Maman’s perception of her daughter’s abilities turned out to be more than a hunch. Darrieux was promptly cast as the girl who, charged with mailing her parents’ invitations to their ball, stuffs them down a drain. Historian David Shipman describes early Darrieux as “a plain little girl,” and stills from Le bal make it hard to argue with him, but over the next few years, Darrieux forged a career. She made musicals and comedies, and had at least one dramatic part, in Le domino vert, but by her own account she was still learning what it meant to be an actress.
It became clear that an extraordinary evolution had taken place, however, by the time of 1936’s Mayerling, the movie that made Darrieux an international star. She plays Baroness Marie von Vetsera, the teenager with whom the real-life Rudolf, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fell fatally in love. Marie was the daughter of a minor aristocrat, and she may have been as young as fifteen when the prince took up with her. She was seventeen when the couple died in 1889 at the imperial hunting lodge of Mayerling in the Vienna Woods, apparently in a suicide pact, the lovers thus becoming two of the first dominos to fall on the way to the First World War. Rudolf was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and Empress Elisabeth, politically liberal as the movie is at pains to point out, but also mulish, hard-drinking, and unkind to his wife, qualities Mayerling mostly brushes aside. He is thought by some historians to have had a venereal disease, which the movie also (understandably) overlooks; and of course, there was no question of including the historical possibility that lovely, besotted Marie was in fact the second woman Rudolf asked to join him in death.
“If Mayerling director Anatole Litvak was not himself in love with eighteen-year-old Darrieux, his camera absolutely was.”
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