Sophie Daumier

Zany comedienne with a wicked tongue
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The Independent Online

Elisabeth Hugon (Sophie Daumier), actress: born Boulogne-sur-Mer, France 24 November 1936; married 1965 Guy Bedos (one son by an earlier relationship; marriage dissolved 1977); died Paris 31 December 2003.

In his bitter-sweet but always entertaining book of memoirs, Je craque ("Telling the Tale", 1975), the comedienne Sophie Daumier's former husband the artiste dramatique Guy Bedos describes how he met and eventually married her. It was no easy task. He tells us he had to win her over by "effraction", like a burglar breaking into a fairground fun-house. She just swept over him in a whirlwind of mocking laughter and irresistible inconsequential chatter.

Daumier was a devastatingly pretty blonde with a wicked tongue, who made her mark on the tough world of the music hall with her zany mimicries of Brigitte Bardot and other top-heavy stars of the 1960s and 1970s. She was an inexhaustible source of hilarity who knew how to make an audience laugh itself silly. It was that outrageous defiance of bourgeois common sense that attracted Bedos, who finally tamed the tempest long enough to get her to the altar in 1965. It was the start of a series of disasters.

In 1957, Daumier got her first big stage role in Marcel Achard's highly successful comedy of manners Patate, in which she played opposite the great classical actor Pierre Dux, who had been her drama teacher. He was a leading light at the Comédie Française, and he thought very highly of her comic talent. She could have played soubrettes in all the classical comedies of Molière. But she preferred to tread the boards in more popular stuff.

Bedos was writing brilliant sketches for club theatre and music-hall audiences, and they soon joined up together in a rapid succession of ephemeral hits whose come-hither titles indicate the genre - Toutes les salopes ("Up the Sluts"), La Drague ("Pickups") - which they introduced to a dazzled public at La Nouvelle Eve and Galerie 55; their successes led them to bigger stages such as the Bobino and the Olympia. It is curiously significant that one of Bedos' later sketches was entitled Le Dictionnaire medical, the first hint that all was not well with the couple. The same rather sinister autobiographical note is sounded in the title Ce n'est qu'un Au Revoir, in which the couple appeared at the Comédie des Champs Elysees just before their break-up, in 1977. In 1978, he married Joelle Bercot.

Daumier was beginning to behave more strangely than usual. She was still a popular figure on and off the stage. Because of what Bedos called her "enormous laugh", the couple were often in demand at the first nights of comedies where that laugh was music in the ears of authors and directors, for it could set the whole theatre in a roar, thus assuring the success of the new play with both audiences and the press.

She had many adoring friends on the "legitimate" stage - many of them, like Bedos, former pupils at the drama school in the Rue Blanche: Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean-Pierre Marielle and Jean Rochefort. Among the comedians, the stalwarts of Galerie 55, once a working conservatoire for wits such as Raymond Devos, Jean Yanne and Roland Blanche - those fellow clowns remained her admirers even after they became stars. They were all attracted by what Bedos describes as "her genuine Pigalle-type with her pertly comic street-urchin's face", her sexy, flouncing walk, her hyperactive erratic gestures and her sharp delivery of crisp, pungent one-liners, the essence of demotic irony.

Yet her comic style was the exact opposite of Bedos' suave Saint-Germain snootiness. He adored the "song-poems" of Jacques Prévert and the new jazz numbers and novels of Boris Vian, names that left Daumier cold. She was totally different, in a crazy world of her own. Claude Sautet, who directed her in a film starring Romy Schneider, Une histoire simple (A Simple Story, 1978), wrote:

It was a role I had written especially for Sophie. But she's quite un-directable, indeed uncontrollable. She keeps starting her scenes before I've shouted "Camera!" and goes on acting even after I've called "Cut!"

This was now typical Sophie behaviour, a dire foreboding of what was to come.

Bedos had finally had to leave home to spend the nights in hotels, as her violent behaviour became more and more acute. She would tear up the scripts he was rewriting for them, and she began to refuse to rehearse with him. In the end, the situation became impossible, and he had to seek a divorce. "If only I had known what was wrong with her, I'd never have divorced her," he later declared.

Daumier's eccentric behaviour had become no longer funny. It became downright alarming. Finally, she was diagnosed as suffering the first stages of a rare hereditary disease, Huntington's chorea, named after the American neurologist George Huntington who first discovered it. It is a disorder of the brain that begins in early middle age, around 40, which was Daumier's age when it was first diagnosed. The chorea (from the Greek word for "dance", choreia) provokes involuntary spasmodic gestures and movements of the facial muscles. It is a disease that works with debilitating slowness, and results in a gradual deterioration of mental health from gradual degeneration of the nervous system. The analogy with Daumier's often frenzied movements on stage is tragically clear.

Guy Bedos supported her for the rest of her life, providing the best medical attention and financial aid to the very end. When he discovered the nature of her disease in a medical dictionary, he was overcome with horror. "I would never have wished such a fate even on my worst enemy," he said. Daumier gradually failed to recognise the faces of all those friends she had made in her brief professional life. And Bedos himself had become a stranger to her.

She was a great trouper. But she belonged to the common folk who loved her zany patter and eccentric stage presence. Unlike Guy, she was no Saint-Germain "intello". Yet it was one of their artistic idols, the stage and screen actress Jeanne Moreau, who paid the greatest tribute to Sophie Daumier on her death: "Sophie was not an intello - she was simply intelligent, too intelligent to be just that!''

James Kirkup