“Georges had a unique talent that every director’s looking for: the ability to enhance the director’s work. If you had a comedy scene and it wasn’t as funny as you’d like for it to have been, Georges could make it funnier. If you wanted to evoke a beautiful sunny day and it was raining, Georges’ music could bring the sun out. Now, not many people can do that; only God and Georges Delerue… I realized that there was a unique character here, that there was a person writing film music like nobody ever had or ever would…” — Ken Russell
Russell (who recently died) had first noticed the composer’s contributions to several of the seminal works of the French New Wave in the early sixties, soon using Delerue for his own French Dressing and following that with a cinematic hommage, Don’t Shoot the Film Composer. Later he enlisted Delerue to score what became my own favorite film immediately (and I’ve yet to experience a better one): Women in Love in 1969.
But by then I had already been enamored of his music. A lucky field trip in French class introduced me to The King of Hearts during its original release; the music in that film made me feel so strange and good I had to hide and cry (a feat I can’t remember duplicating until Bush’s reÃ«lection in 2004, for different reasons). I had snuck into an “Art” theater even earlier to see with my own eyes the much-talked-about naked derriere of Brigitte Bardot in Contempt and exited thoroughly confused and in a state of unprecedented preadolescent heat. Even more troubling than the powerless lust was the haunting musical theme of the film which had been repeated so often during the drama and so effectively that it had made the characters’ words unimportant to me. This particular piece of total genius was simultaneously sad and triumphant and unlike anything I’d ever heard. Decades later Martin Scorsese used it three times(!) in Casino. (It’s the first cut on that film’s double-CD soundtrack.) As reprehensible as it is to me for a director to utilize music specifically created for another film — and another director — in his own work to elicit a desired emotional response, it admittedly gave further exposure to the music. Still, occasionally, I’d hear someone mention “that really sweet, sad instrumental piece from Casino” and I’ve had to conscientiously restrain myself from committing some truly contemptible acts.
Delerue did ten scores for FranÃ§ois Truffaut, beginning with Shoot the Piano Player and including Day for Night and Two English Girls, the latter featuring him in a brief acting bit. I drove up to LA to catch that one decades ago for the film and the music and to find out what the heck this guy even looked like.
I returned satisfied with the abundance of character molded into that intriguing face. His role in the film was somewhat dour, businesslike, not a hint of the broad smile, which I was to learn was his most normal expression.
I feared those smiles might be a coping mechanism, a false front masking the tremendous pain of this man who was so superbly adept at dancing with sadness, personifying sadness, making love to sadness, and going back for seconds and thirds in his compositions, his conducting, his arrangements. (Delerue, along with the great Miklos Rozsa, was the last of a dying breed of musicians whose greatest popularity was connected to their cinema work — each artist also did his own arrangements and orchestrations.) That my confusion would eventually be so perfectly settled is the happiest “celebrity” moment of my life; I met the man himself (and his very beautiful wife Collette) in l984 in Santa Monica through the kindness of some great people who were aware of my barely-civilized obsession with every bit of his music I’d ever heard.
Having received increasing amounts of work in Hollywood in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Delerue had recently emigrated from France to make our brash, bitchin’ country his home. He spoke hardly a word of English, but I was proficient enough in French to leave no doubt that I took his art very seriously indeed. At a certain moment that day, Georges Delerue knew he was face to face with his number-one fan. Sure, I told him he was the greatest composer in the world, that I had noticed him (having never read or heard of these, even to this date) on screen for just a few frames in two films he also scored, Promise at Dawn and Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, and that I desperately wanted to do his wife. (Well, all right, I didn’t tell him that last one; I still knew discretion in those days.)
Quickly I felt at ease enough to seek his answer to the question that had been for so long on my mind: Can you help me understand the amount of sadness or melancholy or pain that you’ve had to face in your own life, in order to define such emotions musically, to the degree that you do?
Husband and wife simultaneously sighed, smiled, and gazed into each other’s eyes as if to confirm a shared secret.
They recalled being asked a similar question in France years before, like mine, laced with honest concern.
“It’s just the opposite!” His smile was softening somewhat now, into very graceful, tender seriousness. “I am the happiest man alive. Every day I am ecstatic to be living. And I don’t know why, but I have been blessed with happiness my entire life. If I am to write something sad, all I can do is think and try to imagine the opposite of my state and what I know. And when it works for you, or others, I become even happier!” (The one stubborn pain with which he acknowledged being in constant battle was what he called “the anguish of the blank page.”)
Collette’s exquisite eyes bore into mine, and her delicate voice was just slightly above a whisper: “Those who know us well — our dearest friends for so many years — have always said and will say today, truthfully, that my husband is the happiest person any of them have known… that he has always been so.”
The last note Georges Delerue conducted was another of his own. It happened at the end of the recording session for his score for Bruce Beresford’s Rich in Love; last measure, last note, then he collapsed. It’s on the CD. The gift finished. He’d run out of room, nowhere for another ounce of happiness for this grateful and talented man.
Listen to the Grand Choral from Day for Night some lucky day to hear Georges Delerue demonstrate for you the possibilities among Life’s orphaned joys. Pay special attention next time you happen to view Jules and Jim, Day of the Dolphin, A Little Romance, Steel Magnolias, Salvador, A Man for All Seasons, The Conformist, or Agnes of God, and so many others, and enjoy a heavenly aural massage.
He would have turned 87 this March 12. Happy birthday, Mr. Smile, and thanks for everything… and I’ll bet your friend Mr. Russell really feels like he’s in heaven now!