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“Summer documentaries”: The Hollywood years of François Chalais

When François Chalais goes to Hollywood for the first time, the big studios are in danger. He then witnessed, without knowing it, the end of the cinematic model inherited from the 1920s. After having interviewed the stars of the major American studios such as Charlton Heston, John Wayne or even Cecil B. DeMille and Gene that a chapter in the history of American cinema was coming to an end”, recounts the director, Nicolas Henri. A new period opens under the impetus of new stars, many of whom will be trained by the associative organization “Actors Studio”. In 1963, Alfred Hitchcock presents his last film “Les oiseasux” at Cannes film festival. Admiring the genius of the director, it is at the restaurant that the journalist interviews the director, with whom he will have almost accomplice exchanges. “François Chalais has a particularity: he speaks, he tells. He has this extremely strong voice and presence which gives us the impression of being in a privileged moment because we are breaking the codes of the classic interview”, analyzes Christopher Baldelli, former vice-president of the M6 ​​group in charge of Information and Radio and President of Public Senate. the master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock became a pop-culture icon, thanks in part to “Psychosis” released in 1960, and will inspire number of filmmakers among future generations.

“When freedom returned, I saw Citizen Kane”

A refugee in Marseilles from 1941 to 1942, François Chalais read a few lines from a newspaper about the American film “Citizen Kane”, directed by Orson Welles. These three lines must have escaped censorship, he tells us, but they will have been enough to make him dream. “I started fantasizing about this Citizen Kane, telling myself: the day I would see him, freedom would have returned. And indeed, when freedom was returned, I saw Citizen Kane, and that corresponded exactly to the dreams which I had made of it , explains it. In 1957, the great reporter met a very different Marlon Brando from the one he would become under the direction of Francis Ford Coppola. At that time, he was filming “Le bal des maudits”, directed by Edouard Dmytryk, but already “François thought that Marlon Brando was an immense actor, one of the greatest actors of our time with beauty, sensuality and talent” , tells us the producer Mei-Chen Chalais, widow of the journalist. For Jean-Marie Cavada, journalist and former MEP, “Brando’s interview as an Austrian Wehrmacht officer” is particularly successful “because the war, the Wehrmacht, the Nazis, the Gestapo and the whole German military and intelligence, Francois really knew what that meant. However, the star trained at the Actors Studio remains wary of the journalist. He fears, according to Nicolas Henri, “that some gaps will be discovered in his knowledge, perhaps superficial, of recent” history. While questioning the superficiality of star status, Marlon Brando supported Indians and African-Americans in their fight for civil rights in the early 1960s.

Elia Kazan, “one of the greatest of the greatest”

Always attracted by the way artists look at the world, François Chalais will try to unlock the secrets of the tormented life of Elia Kazan. For the journalist, “it is one of the greatest among the greatest”. The Constantinople-born actor took hold of American culture to treat it brilliantly. A member of the Communist Party in the 1950s, the director suffered repression by the parliamentary commission McCarthy while making his first films. “In order for him to be freed, he was asked to denounce his friends. And he loved his job so much that he denounced his friends, ”explains actress Brigitte Fossey, before emphasizing that he called, according to the anecdote of one of his teachers, each of his friends to warn them. of the imminent arrival of the police. “He took responsibility for his actions and had the courage that he had lacked when he denounced them,” she says. In 1963, Elia Kazan filmed on the land of his childhood “America, America”, a film in which he recounts the tribulations of his parents in exile, in search of the American dream. For actress Marisa Berenson, “he kind of created a new cinema” with “characters who went very far in the torment of their being. He took his time and combed through the personality of the actors; it was the only way for him to find real talent. “For example, James Dean rode a motorcycle. So we went for a walk, and little by little, he let his guard down. It’s the same with the others. They let their guard down. I discover who they really are, what they are inside, what resources they have, what they have in their hearts. And when I access that, I know if they have talent or not,” explains Elia Kazan.

Sydney Poitier, the first black actor to win the Oscar

From the beginning of the 1960s, many actors mobilized alongside the people, in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. “After having met all these mythical figures of post-war American cinema, François Chalais will now approach two other artists: Jane Fonda, who will shake up Hollywood with her political commitments and Sydney Poitier, who made history in 1964 for having was the first black actor to win the Oscar, ”explains Nicolas Henri. In the 1960s, Sydney Poitier made the fight for civil rights her hobbyhorse and thus participated in the transformation of the American mentality. In the cinema, he is a rising figure, he paves the way for future black actors by landing the first main roles. “He is the first who has the status of a very great actor and who comes from this community. And Poitier, for me, that’s it. There is Poitier, there is Miles Davis, Harry Belafonte, these are the first big names in this Afro-American culture which emerged at the end of the 1950s, beginning of the 1960s. (…) He is almost shy vis-à-vis his own success”, describes the journalist Gerard Carreyrou. Also trained at the Actors Studio, he embodied for years the role of “the man of integrity and intelligence who proved film after film the interest for others to ally with him despite the color of his skin”, notes Nicholas Henry. The actor and director, who died last January at the age of 94, has always shown great optimism. For Gerard Carreyrou, “there are those who said: we have to fight, we have to take the guns. And there are those who said: we must show our strength by our calm and our tranquility. Well, politically, that was Martin Luter King. And in terms of cinema, that was Sydney Poitier. Thanks to numerous archives, the director Nicolas Henri gives us, through the eyes of François Chalais, a relevant image of what American cinema of the 1960s could have been.

The documentary “The Hollywood years of François Chalais” has two parts. “Meeting the American Dream” will be broadcast on Saturday July 30 at 9 p.m. and “The End of the Golden Age” on Saturday August 6 at 9 p.m. It will also be available for replay on the Public Sénat website.

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