This celebrated, prolific (over 100 films in 40 years) French actor of both comedy and drama injected an Everyman quality into numerous put-upon comic parts since the 1950s, but has also proved his mettle in a wide array of dramatic roles. The latter often saw him projecting jealousy or the inability to have what one wants from life. Michel Serrault's films have almost entirely been French-made, a situation which might have limited his international appeal, but in 1978 he co-starred in "La Cage aux folles," a farce that went on to break all box-office records for a foreign language film to that date. The actor delivered a brilliant star turn as Albin/Zaza, the temperamental, middle-aged female impersonator, whose volatile yet loving relationship with his longtime companion is put to the test when they must pose as a "normal" family to please the future in-laws of his lover's son. The role earned Serrault the first of his three Best Actor Cesar Awards and he reprised the character in two sequels. (The film also served as the basis for a Broadway musical and Mike Nichols' 1996 Americanized remake, "The Birdcage," with Nathan Lane in Serrault's role).
Serrault had originally set his sights on the priesthood and spent a few months in a seminary before abandoning the calling for show business. He joined with Jean Poiret in a 1953 song and comedy cabaret act and later joined Robert Dhery's famed theater troupe. It wasn't long before he was cast in his first feature roles, supporting appearances in "Ah! Les Belles bacchantes" and "Diabolique" (both 1954), Henri-Georges Clouzot's classic murder thriller starring Simone Signoret. Throughout the late 50s and early 60s, Serrault made sporadic film appearances, concentrating more on his career as a stage and revue performer. In 1964, he first collaborated with Edouard Molinaro (who would later direct "La Cage aux folles") on "La Chasse a l'homme/Male Hunt." While he had a relatively supporting role, Serrault found some shining moments as a professor trying to make sense of the behavioral patterns of sex. His first "cult" film was Philippe de Broca's "King of Hearts" (1966), a favorite of college cineastes in the US and Britain. In the film, Serrault was a barber, one of the inmates of an asylum inhabiting a French town that an army lieutenant (Alan Bates) is trying to evacuate.
Throughout the early 70s, the actor continued to appear in featured roles, including the befuddled neighbor in Betrand Blier's Oscar-winning "Preparez vos mouchoirs/Get Out Your Handkerchiefs" (released in France in 1977; in the US in 1978). He reteamed with Blier for an uncredited appearance as the unknown man in the opening scenes of "Buffet froid/Cold Cuts" (1979). In 1981, Serrault did an about turn playing the dramatic role of the inquisitor in Claude Miller's taut psychological thriller "Garde a vue/Under Suspicion," for which he won his second Cesar, and then played Julius Caesar in Jean Yanne's "Deux heures moins le quart avant Jesus Christ" (1982).
Serrault has been one of those rare actors whose roles increased in size and scope as he has aged. By 1991, he was Jeanne Moreau's leading man in "La Vielle qui marchait dans la Mer/The Old Lady Who Wades in the Sea." The duo were grifters training a comely young man (Luc Thuillier) to be their crowning achievement, a sexy master con artist, but jealousy and lust intervene. Serrault won his third Cesar for Claude Sautet's "Nelly and M. Arnaud" (1995), playing the latter, a writer who helps Emanuelle Beart only to be tortured by his inability to win her love. The same year, he starred in the farcical "Le Bonheur est dans le pre/Happiness Is in the Fields," as a somewhat milquetoast toilet seat manufacturer who agrees to pose as the head of a farm family and enters a domestic hell. In 1996, Molinaro cast Serrault in the small but pivotal role of King Louis XV in "Beaumarchais L'insolent/Beaumarchais the Scoundrel," based on an historical incident during the monarch's reign.
Cast (Feature Film)
Producer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Made cabaret debut with Jean Poiret
First feature film appearances in "Ah! les belles bacchantes" and "Diabolique"
Worked for first time with director Edouard Molinaro on "La chasse a l'homme"
Co-starred in cult classic "King of Hearts"
Had star-making role as Albin in "La Cage aux folles", directed by Molinaro
Did dramatic turn in Claude Miller's "Garde a vue"
Portrayed Louis XV in Molinaro's "Beaumarchais l'insolent"