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Alain Delon receives Cannes honorary Golden Palm prize

Jochen Kürten / dbMay 20, 2019

The French actor is a European cinema star, famous for unforgettable roles in the 1960s. But his private life also made headlines — and Cannes Film Festival's decision to award him an honorary Palme d'Or sparked protest.

Alain Delon, Copyright: Imago/United Archives
Image: Imago/United Archives

Cult imagery of film history definitely include Charlie Chaplin's Tramp, James Dean's utter cool, Marilyn Monroe's swirling white dress — and Alain Delon's performance as hit man Jeff Costello in the 1967 movie The Samurai.

Delon's motionless face, fixed gaze, meticulous appearance and total arrogance in the movie are simply unforgettable. 

Along with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Michel Piccoli, Delon was one of the biggest stars in French cinema. On Sunday at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, he received an honorary Palme d'Or ("Golden Palm") award "to pay tribute to his wonderful presence in the history of film."

In announcing Delon as this year's prize recipient, Cannes director Thierry Fremaux had praised Delon as "a giant, a living legend and a global icon," but the festival announcement also prompted controversy based on Delon's personal life. 

Beauty and elegance

Following his success in the 1960s, Delon later starred in several more or less memorable gangster movies. The Swimming Pool (1969) is a movie that is more unforgettable, with Delon and Romy Schneider lounging naked by the pool.

In 1973, Alain Delon once again played a hit man, this time in a Hollywood production, Michael Winner's film Scorpio, which is one of the few exceptions in his more or less French portfolio.

Julius Caesar in Asterix at the Olympic Games, a 2008 film based on the popular comic series, is one of Alain Delon's rare roles in a comedy. Other than that, he's rarely stepped before a camera in the past 15 years.

Romy Schneider, Alain Delon, Copyright: Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Delon and his lovely German fiancee Romy SchneiderImage: Getty Images

While Hollywood seemed to hold little allure for the French actor, his personal life, his affairs and marriages were of great interest to the public. He was engaged to actress Romy Schneider at the beginning of the 60s.

Rumors about shady friends

When his bodyguard was found dead in a public dump in 1968, Delon was suspected of being involved in the murder. The scandal shook France. The case was dropped and never solved, and since then rumors surrounding his connections with the mafia still circulate.

He cemented his reputation of having dubious friends by publicly standing by his friendship with French right-wing populist Jean-Marie Le Pen, the father of the current far-right leader Marine Le Pen, yet it never really hurt his career.

Controversy resurfaces at Cannes

Still the controversy around his persona was never laid to rest publicly. When Cannes announced Delon would be honored at the 2019 festival, an outcry ensued. More than 23,00 individuals signed an online petition against his receiving the award. In it, they called him a "racist, homophobic misogynist." 

Delon has acknowledged slapping women in the past and says he opposes adoption of children by same-sex parents. 

Cannes director Fremaux defended the decision to give Delon the prize, arguing that the actor comes from another generation and is free to express his personal opinions. "We're not giving him the Nobel Peace Prize," Fremaux added.

Last year's Cannes was also defined in part by protest, as 82 women stood on the red carpet stepstogether to protest the position of women in the industry. One of them was the recently deceased filmmaker Agnes Varda, who received the honorary Palme d'Or in 2015.