French actor Gérard Depardieu (born 1948) rose from humble beginnings to become a worldwide movie star. The award-winning actor has enjoyed a film career spanning more than four decades, andhas appeared in over 170 films. Many of those films have garnered him critical and commercial successes, both in his native Europe and around the world.
An Impoverished Upbringing
Depardieu was born in Châteauroux, a small provincial community in central France, on December 27, 1948. His taciturn father, René "Dédé" Depardieu, was a barely literate sheet metal worker; his mother, Alice "Lilette" Marillier, came to Châteauroux with her family as refugees during World War II. The couple married in 1944 and had two children—one son and one daughter—before the birth of Gerard. The family lived in cramped quarters and Depardieu's father was not an active parent, so much of the stresses of caring for three small children fell to his mother. Depardieu, who would eventually have five siblings, became the family's charming prankster, earning the nickname of Pétarou, or "Little Firecracker."
When an American Air Force base set up in his hometown, Depardieu became fascinated with Americans and their culture. He and his older brother were regulars both on the base and at social gathering spots popular with the American troops. By the time Depardieu completed his formal schooling in the early 1960s—he completed only grade school, not attending lycée, the French equivalent of high school—he stood nearly six feet tall and could readily pass for several years older than his true age of 13. Depardieu took to petty crime and wandering, working a series of odd jobs such as printer's apprentice, dishwasher, traveling salesman, and beach club attendant on the Riviera before relocating to Paris at the age of 16.
Introduced to Acting
Depardieu arrived in Paris on a whim, following a friend who was moving to the capital to pursue acting. Depardieu visited the drama school with his friend and immediately showed ability as a performer. Self-doubts about his provincial background and poor education interrupted Depardieu's acting training for a time. However, after being taken into prestigious acting coach Jean-Laurent Cochet's class, Depardieu quickly honed his acting techniques. Depardieu had difficulties speaking fluently, and began working with speech therapist Alfred Tomatis. With Tomatis's help, Depardieu overcame his difficulties not only with language, but with reading comprehension and recall. During his training with Cochet, Depardieu met Elisabeth Guignot, whom he would marry in 1970. The two had their first child, Guillaume, in April of the following year. In 1973 the pair had a daughter, Julie.
By the late 1960s, Depardieu had begun landing roles in theater and television productions around Paris, often playing hulking thugs in keeping with his rough-hewn appearance. Depardieu's film debut came in Roger Leenhardt's Le Beatnik et le minet , and his television debut on an episode of the French series Rendez-vous à Bedenberg . Depardieu's reputation grew with his strong performance in the theatrical play Galapagos ; although the production itself was a flop, Depardieu received good reviews. In 1973 Depardieu co-starred in Bertrand Blier's film Les Valseuses (known in the United States as Going Places ). In his biography Depardieu , Paul Chutkow noted that "the French critics agreed that the film's three young actors were fresh, unconventional, and outright brilliant." The film's plot placed its protagonists as sexually and otherwise aggressive young people who challenged the accepted standards of conventional society. The controversial film achieved critical and popular acclaim, shepherding in a new era of French filmmaking. In one of the lead roles, Depardieu was transformed from an actor to a star.
Became European Star
After Les Valseuses , Depardieu became a film actor in earnest. Throughout the 1970s he appeared in many films, typically playing thugs or deviants. Some of his most noteworthy roles were as a peasant in Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci's epic film 1900 , as a crude chauvinist in the sexually-charged and controversial La Dernière Femme (The Last Woman) and, in another film by Les Valseuses director Blier, as a husband who seeks to find his sexually stifled wife a new lover in Preparez vos Mouchoirs (Get Out Your Handkerchiefs). Even when the films were not critically successful, Depardieu benefited in some way. Bertolucci's 1900 was considered a cinematic flop, but offered Depardieu the opportunity to meet and work with American actor Robert DeNiro, who served as an inspiration to Depardieu throughout his career. Chutkow commented that both men "were heavyweights, prolific actors who could play anything from light comedy to epic drama, and both had a flair for taking quirky characters and making them poignant and universal."
Depardieu has consistently worked with France's leading film directors—such as Blier—to great success. In 1979 he co-starred with respected French actress Isabelle Huppert in Maurice Pialet's Loulou . Playing the title role, Depardieu portrays an unemployed but charming rogue who lures the bourgeois Huppert away from her traditional life and friends by his personal magnetism. In the early 1980s Depardieu began working with respected French director François Truffaut. Their first collaboration, Le Dernier Métro (The Last Metro), paired Depardieu with actress Catherine Deneuve. The film tells the story of a Jewish theater owner in Paris during the time of the World War II Nazi occupation. His wife (Deneuve) seeks to protect her husband from the occupying forces. Depardieu plays an actor trying to break into legitimate theater; during the course of the film, he develops a relationship with Deneuve's character. The film was a massive critical success, garnering many prestigious César awards at France's Cannes Film Festival, including a Best Actor prize for Depardieu.
Prolific and versatile, Depardieu made nearly every type of film imaginable during the 1980s: drama, romance, comedy, serious film, and lighthearted fare. Depardieu's 1981 comedy La Chèvre (The Goat) was Depardieu's biggest box office success and the beginning of a three-film series. The last of these three films was eventually remade in English as Three Fugitives , starring Nick Nolte and Martin Short. The following year Depardieu took a turn in the historical film La Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre). The movie, based on a true story, portrays a man who leaves his small medieval village for a stint in the army, and later returns to reenter the lives of his wife, family, and community. However, there is a question as to whether the man claiming to be Martin Guerre is indeed the real Guerre; Depardieu's delicate handling of the role makes it one of his finest performances.
In the late 1980s Depardieu turned his hand to a different form of expression: writing. After the death of his mother, Depardieu sought to tell people of all kinds what he had never said in life through his book, Lettres volees (Stolen Letters). Published in 1988, the book was an intensely personal work displaying another facet of the actor's psyche, and it became a bestseller in France.
Found Success as Cyrano and in the United States
Depardieu continued to find success with his films throughout the remainder of the 1980s. However, a project on which he embarked at the close of the decade would prove to be one of his most career-defining. Based on the life of a real sixteenth-century man named Cyrano de Bergerac, the play Cyrano de Bergerac was written in the late 1800s and has remained a staple of French literature since that time. Brought to stage and screen many times previously, the story returned under the helm of French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau with Depardieu in the title role. Although Depardieu did not initially capture the role, by the time shooting began in earnest his natural ability to weave complex characters had allowed him to immerse himself in the intricacies the part demanded. In the film Depardieu portrays a poet and playwright who falls in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane, but does not believe she will find him attractive because of his large nose. Depardieu won the César at Cannes for his performance, and was nominated for an Academy Award for the role.
After the success of Cyrano de Bergerac , Depardieu took on a new challenge: playing roles in English rather than his native French. Although his early exposure to English from the American Air Force base in his hometown had given him a rough grasp of the language, Depardieu was by no means an expert speaker. Nevertheless, he paired with American actress Andie MacDowell in the romantic comedy Green Card . In the film, the two play a couple who marry for convenience—for Depardieu, the titular immigration green card—but eventually fall in love. A few years later Depardieu appeared in another English-language comedy, My Father, the Hero , a remake of his 1991 French film Mon père ce heros . In 1996 Depardieu appeared with Whoopi Goldberg and Haley Joel Osment in the film Bogus . Again, Depardieu took the title role, this time as the imaginary friend of a young boy struggling to accept the death of his mother. It is noted in the International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers that Depardieu's "charisma allows him to transcend the thinness of the material."
Depardieu appeared in several high-profile projects in the late 1990s, many based on classic literary works. Appearing as the title characters in The Count of Monte Cristo and Balzac , Depardieu returned to dramas with great success. He also appeared in a small role in Kenneth Branagh's film version of William Shakespeare's classic play Hamlet , and in Randall Wallace's English language film The Man in the Iron Mask as Porthos, one of the legendary three musketeers.
In the 2000s Depardieu continued to act in diverse films on both sides of the Atlantic. He appeared in the Disney film 102 Dalmatians , in the gritty drama City of Ghosts , and as a gourmet chef in the Queen Latifah vehicle Last Holiday . As well as his performances in Hollywood, Depardieu appeared in French films such as Nathalie , in which he plays the role of a philandering husband—a role in some ways hearkening back to his first major appearances in the 1970s.
Depardieu has many interests outside of acting. A wine enthusiast, he owns a château and winery where he creates his own vintages. In 2005 he announced his retirement from acting with characteristic earthy eloquence, telling the French newspaper Le Parisien : "I've got nothing to lose. I did 170 films, and I've got nothing else to prove. I'm not going to keep up like this forever…. I retire in style with this film. It's wonderful." However, in December of 2006, Variety announced that Depardieu had joined such per- formers as Joseph Fiennes, Malcolm McDowell, and Jacqueline Bisset in a period biographical film based on the life of composer Antonio Vivaldi. Whether or not Depardieu's career continues at the same frenetic pace which has marked it over the years, Depardieu's reputation as one of France's premiere actors is assured.
Chutkow, Paul, Depardieu: A Biography , Knopf, 1994.
International Directory of Films and Filmmakers, Volume 2: Actors and Actresses , 4th ed., St. James Press, 2000.
Newsmakers 1991 , Gale Research, 1991.
"Gerard Depardieu Joins the Cast of Vivaldi," http://www.movieweb.com (January 1, 2007).
"Gerard Depardieu Pulls the Curtain on Movie Career," November 16, 2005, http://www.news.yahoo.com (January 1, 2007).