Search This Blog

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Present of Laughter

Necrology Dept.: At some point in your life as a public figure, you’ll have a good idea of what’s going to lead your obituary. Louis Jourdan must have known for decades that he’d be ineluctably associated with his appearance in the movie “Gigi” (1958), in which he starred alongside Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier.

He began as a stage actor in his native France, and was on the brink of making his film debut when the Nazis moved in. He worked for the Resistance during the war, then attracted enough attention in his subsequent films to win a part in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Paradine Case.” It didn’t lead to the hoped-for American film career, although he had significant roles in “Letter from an Unknown Woman,” “Three Coins in the Fountain,” “The Swan,” “Can-Can,” “The V.I.P.s,” “Octopussy.” and even “Swamp Thing.”

But he pursued stage work just as avidly, making his Broadway debut in 1954, and appeared on the New York stage and in regional theaters throughout his career, and that’s where I come in. Given Jourdan’s elegant manifestation of a suave continental type, it’s no wonder that my girlfriend was excited at the prospect of seeing him on stage. This was in 1979, and he was coming to the then-near-to-me Westport Country Playhouse in Noël Coward’s “Present Laughter.” We were there on the second night of the run, in fourth-row mezzanine seats, close enough to enjoy the real-life aspect of someone we’d seen on the screen.

As Coward notes in the play’s introduction, the play “is a very light comedy and was written with the sensible object of providing me with a bravura part.” As Gary Essendine, matinée idol now feeling the onset of middle age, Jourdan was scintillating, and the farcical plot machinations that required him to fend off the advances of admiring women only encouraged my date to adore the actor the more.

So: “We have to go backstage to meet him!” she insisted. To help with such a request certainly would redound to my later benefit, I reasoned, and we found our way to the green room after the show, where she joined a cluster of other Jourdan-besotted fans to await his emergence.

Meanwhile, one of the others in the cast emerged from his dressing room. Jamie Ross had originated one of the three roles in Roderick Cook’s cabaret-style tribute “Oh, Coward!,” which enjoyed an Off-Broadway run that was visited by Coward himself, on the arm of Marlene Dietrich. Asked by a reporter for a comment, Coward said, “I came out humming the tunes.”

I took the opportunity to tell Ross how much I’d enjoyed the show, and we fell into chatting as Jourdan emerged. As I recall it, my girlfriend had worked herself to the front of the admirers line, and thus was the first to gush her praise. The star could have not been more gracious. He made each of the fans he spoke with feel like the most important person in the world, and I don’t think my friend’s feet touched the ground until the drive home was well under way.

No comments: