December 11, 1913– Jean Marais was the muse and the lover of the great artist/writer/filmmaker Jean Cocteau, and he was an actor of considerable skill and certain charisma. I used to swoon seeing his work in film class.
Marais was born Jean-Alfred Villain-Marais in Cherbourg to a shoplifting, sometimes violent, sometimes loving mother. He was always drawn to drama of all kinds. He was kicked out of school when, to amuse his friends, he dressed as a girl and flirted with a male teacher. As a kid, Marais worked at various jobs, including newspaper boy, photographer, and sketch artist.
An early interest in painting, which would become his lifelong avocation, led to Marais’s first opportunity in films when he was 20-years-old. After purchasing one of Marais’s paintings in 1933, director Marcel L’Herbier offered Marais small roles in several of his films. I mean, who wouldn’t?
In 1937, when he was 24-year-old, Marais first met the 48- year-old Cocteau, when Marais auditioned for a role in a revival of Cocteau’s play Oedipe-Roi. Besides giving Marais the part, Cocteau fell instantly in love with the young actor.
Marais and Cocteau became partners in life and art. At Marais’ suggestion, Cocteau wrote a screenplay especially as a vehicle for the ambitious Marais, L’eternel Retour in 1943. The film was a commercial success and a critical triumph for both the filmmaker and its star.
Marais continued to perform in films and plays while German troops occupied France during WW II. Both Cocteau and Marais stayed in Paris during the Nazi occupation despite the very real danger of having nearly everyone know that they were a gay couple. Cocteau had some powerful connections who protected the couple, even after Marais punched a collaborationist critic for writing a bad review of one of Cocteau’s plays. Their names were posted in the French press, which was controlled by those damn Nazis, but because of Cocteau’s friends in high places, they avoided being arrested and the concentration camps. Marais tried to join the Resistance, but he was rejected for being gay and because of his reputation for speaking candidly. Instead, he joined France’s Second Armored Division after the liberation of Paris and drove trucks carrying fuel and ammunition to the front-lines during the Allied invasion of Germany. Marais was eventually awarded the Croix de Guerre for his brave wartime service.
During the Nazi occupation, there were other gay couples in Paris, but it was unusual for anyone to be openly living together, working together, and behaving like a married couple. They were especially brave (or reckless).
After the war in 1946, L’eternel Retour introduced Marais to American film audiences. Photographs of his handsome face with his hot body became a popular pin-up for teenage girls and for gay fans slyly aware of his relationship with Cocteau.
Marais went on to make more films with Cocteau. He also worked in films for other directors: René Clément, Marc Allégret, Jean Renoir, Luchino Visconti, and Claude Lelouch.
Although the romantic relationship between Marais and Cocteau cooled down by the late 1940s, the couple remained the closest of friends until Cocteau’s final credits rolled for good in 1963. On his passing, Marais stated:
“I bitterly regret not having spent all of my life serving Cocteau instead of worrying about my own career.”
His acting career petered out in the 1970s and Marais retired to the French Riviera. He went back to his painting and wrote several volumes of memoirs.
Marais had his final screen role in 1996, in a film that I like a great deal, Bernardo Bertolucci’s beguiling Stealing Beauty. That same year, he was awarded the Legion Of Honor for his contribution to French Cinema.
Marais enjoyed a career lasting more than six decades. His blond, classical good-looks and skillful acting can be experienced in more than 70 films and television shows. On stage, Marais achieved great success in classical roles at Théâtre de Paris, Théâtre de l’Atelie, and Comédie Francaise. Onscreen, he was as a versatile, romantic leading man in poetic dramas, light comedies, crime melodramas and swashbuckling adventure stories.
In the 1950s, Marais fell in love with the brilliant American dancer/choreographer George Reich. They were a couple for a decade. He sought to reconcile romantically with Cocteau at the end of the great man’s life, but frustrated, he relapsed into his old opium habit.
Marais had been legally adopted by Cocteau so that he would be his inheritor. Like Cocteau, Marais was sure to make the company of handsome younger men. For one of them, Serge Ayala, he acted as a mentor, finding him acting work and adopting him as a son. He enjoyed this life with his protégé until he took his final curtain call in 1998, gone from heart failure, just like his former, fabulous, famous lover. In 2012, Serge Marias committed suicide.
Marais published two volumes of memoirs and a biography of Cocteau, L’Inconcevable Jean Cocteau (1993). In his last decade, he lived and worked as a painter and sculptor at his home in Cannes. He claimed that life had been unfairly good to him:
“I always wanted to be happy. Perhaps that’s what pleased Cocteau, who was so anguished. I have never known stress. I was a sort of beast, a peasant type. I had no culture. I had never heard of Cocteau. I was given an unbelievable chance.”