Harrison Ford's Career Could Have Kicked Off With A Risqué Film From Jacques Demy

When we discuss French New Wave, I feel our idea of what that means tends to be fairly narrow. We think of the young renegade filmmakers, like the recently departed Jean-Luc Godard, who broke the formal rules of what narrative cinema had been up until the late 1950s and told stories of young people navigating politics, life, and sex. Pictures like "Breathless" and "Jules and Jim" became figureheads for the movement, but they only represent a portion of what the New Wave was bringing. 

Take the work of Jacques Demy. Every director in the French New Wave was obsessed with Hollywood filmmaking, but while most wanted to subvert those conventions, Demy fully embraced them. This is particularly evident in his early movie musicals like "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg" and especially "The Young Girls of Rochefort," which are entirely indebted to the work of Stanley Donen and Vincente Minnelli. Gene Kelly even appears in "Rochefort."

Due in part to his love of Hollywood, Demy and his wife Agnès Varda (what a power couple) moved out to Los Angeles, and Demy was to make his first American film called "Model Shop." The film is about a wayward guy who becomes infatuated with a model named Lola played by Anouk Aimée, reprising her role from Demy's 1961 directorial debut named after the character. When he came out to Los Angeles, he met a young actor he thought would be perfect for the leading role named Harrison Ford. This was Ford in the mid-1960s. No Han Solo. No Indiana Jones. Not even "American Graffiti." His acting credits at this point were basically all uncredited, glorified extras, but Demy wanted him for "Model Shop," and Ford hoped to do it. 

As is often the case, studios got in the way.

A no-name with no experience

Jacques Demy wanted Harrison Ford for the role so badly, they began researching model shops together. Model shops were places a person could select a model and photograph for an allotted time period. Usually, this resulted in erotic and lewd photography the customers would use to get their rocks off to later. They were the original OnlyFans custom, I guess. Speaking with the French newspaper Le Figaro in 2013, Ford recalled his time with Demy working on the project in its early stages (translated from the published French):

"He wanted me in the lead role. We had spent quite a bit of time walking around Los Angeles, exploring model shops, those establishments that rent models to photographers for sometimes naughty sessions ... I was very keen to participate in 'Model Shop' but the studio opposed it."

Columbia Pictures gave Demy a lot of leeways, but they wanted a familiar face. It seems crazy now given Ford's star power, but he even said, "At that time, I was under contract with Columbia Pictures for $115 a week." Ultimately, Columbia went behind Demy's back and hired their own choice, Gary Lockwood, who had just appeared in "2001: A Space Odyssey." Ford recalled:

"Suddenly, while Jacques was scouting in San Francisco, actor Gary Lockwood was hired. Upon his return, the role had been assigned to him. Demy was very affected by it, Agnès Varda told me later."

Lockwood is a perfectly decent actor, but in "Model Shop," he's something of a void. It's partly by design, but he just doesn't have the on-screen pop Ford does. Nobody does. Ultimately, "Model Shop" flopped, and a decade later, Harrison Ford was a movie star. It probably still would have flopped with Ford, but it might have been a great movie, instead of just a good one.