The squat, orange film trucks look out of place on the tiny stretch of Fifth Avenue that faces the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and all day long, uptown denizens have been stopping to ask what's going on. Yes, it's a movie; it's from Disney. The director, with his share of Academy Award-winning films, is well known. But the answer to the big question, the one that counts, doesn't set off the intense buzz that's peculiar to New York City, where people take their movie stars very seriously. Gerard Depardieu? Mothers pushing baby carriages look disappointed; the ladies who lunch stare blankly; men - business-suited and otherwise - shrug their shoulders.
The trucks are parked outside the small, elegant Irish Cultural Society building on a day that's far too muggy for April. Inside, Monsieur Depardieu, the most acclaimed Franch actor of our time and one of Europe's biggest box office draws, is sitting at a piano making a total fool of himself. His eyes are closed, his head is rocking back and forth, and his hands are flailing away at the keyboard. To all appearances, he is a master pianist, lost in the pleasure of his music. But it's not music that Depardieu is making, it's noise. He is banging away at random and making a lot of noise.
This is a pivotal scene in Green Card, a romantic comedy that director Peter Weir wrote specifically for Depardieu - the actor's first movie in English - to introduce him to the vast portion of the American audience that's allergic to subtitles. Starring opposite Depardieu is Andie MacDowell, who, after a couple of less-than-stellar film experiences, rewrote her own history playing repressed-turned-radiant Anne Bishop Mullaney in Steven Soderbergh's mini-masterpiece, sex, lies, and videotape. In Green Card, MacDowell is Bronte Parrish, a serious young Manhattan horticulturist who needs a husband, at least on paper. She has found an apartment with a greenhouse, which is necessary for her work, but according to the Byzantine ways of Manhattan real estate, it can be rented only to a married couple. Enter Depardieu, as George Faure, a French composer who desperately wants a green card so that he can start a new life in America. Through a mutual friend, a marriage is arranged, and after a quick civil ceremony, Bronte and George wish each other good luck and go their separate ways. The Immigration and Naturalization Service doesn't buy it, however; an agent is sent to question the newlyweds at home. They are completely unprepared for the interview, which is a disaster, and to Bronte's horror, her lawyer suggests that she and George spend the next 48 hours together trying to invent their past and present as a couple. So begins their crash course in married life. In the classic tradition of romantic comedy, Bronte and George will violently disprove and then overwhelmingly affirm the theory that opposites attract.
Gerard Depardieu has been called everything from the French Brando/De Niro (pick your generation) to the man who has single-handedly kept the French film industry alive after the glory days of the nouvelle vague. Yet on first look, it's tough to figure his enormous appeal. Built like a house safe, he is a shambling mess of a man, and his face, with its skewed jaw and pronounced nose, looks as if it was put together with spare parts. His background, which Weir describes as "something approaching the medeival," is hardly the stuff from which superstars are usually made. Born in Chateauroux, a small city in central France, to working-class parents (his father, a sheet-metal laborer, was a heavy drinker; Gerard remembers his mother as always being pregnant), Depardieu left home at thirteen. He spent the next few years living on the streets, hanging out with petty thieves and hookers and doing time in jail for some thieving of his own. He eventually found his way to Paris, where, following up on an adolescent fantasy, he started taking acting classes at the Theatre National Populaire. Even in his early stage and television roles, his instinctive talent was obvious.
He exploded onto the international film scene in 1973 as the lustful vagabond of Going Places - the first of six movies with director Bertrand Blier - and since then has enjoyed unflagging stardom in Europe. When 1900, the Bernardo Bertolucci epic in which he costarred with Robert DeNiro, was shown at the 1976 Cannes Film Festival, it was a sensational all-day event. By 1981, he had received his first Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar), for The Last Metro, and in the United States three years later, the National Society of Film Critics named him best actor for his knockout performances in Danton and The Return of Martin Guerre. He was nominated for a best actor Cesar - his third - for Camille Claudel (1988) and in 1990 hit the jackpot at Cannes (a festival he once dismissed as being only for local hairdressers) for his bravura portrayal of Cyrano de Bergerac in Jean-Paul Rappeneau's screen version of the beloved Edmond Rostand play.
But despite his enormous presence in France and throughout the rest of Eurpoe, and the fact that his work is regularly seen in American art-movie houses and festivals, Depardieu remains largely unknown to the majority of American moviegoers. Those of his films that come to the United States mainly play, as he puts it, "only big town and very small audience." Peter Weir is out to change that.
After directing The Mosquito Coast (1986), Weir, who had been something of an auteur in his native Australia, wanted to return to writing. Although he had put a lot of effort into the script for Witness (his breakthrough film stateside), his last screenplay credit was for The Year of Living Dangerously in 1983. Then he saw Danton, Andrzej Wajda's powerful film about the French Revolution, for the second time; he was so struck by Depardieu's performance that his wife (and production designer), Wendy Stites, suggested that he adapt a short story he had written about a green-card marriage into a script for Depardieu. "Even if he said no, it would have gotten me back to writing," says Weir. "It was a means of getting started." So he clipped a picture of Depardieu out of a local Australian newspaper, hung it over his typewriter, and went to work. Of course, by the time he finished the script Weir knew that no one else could be his leading man. "I realized I had painted myself into a corner," he says. He anticipated myriad reasons why the film would not go into production - having a relative unknown as the romantic lead was a dicey proposition in these days of make-or-break box office, and it was possible that Depardieu would not even be interested. But Edward S. Feldman, who produced Witness and came to Green Card as executive producer, had no qualms. "I was fascinated by Depardieu and thought it was a fabulous idea," he says. In the end, it was the actor's legendary schedule that turned out to be the hitch. With films lined up back-to-back, he wasn't available for at least a year. "That was a tremendous disappointment," Weir says, "because we had met, ideas were flowing, and I sensed that it would be a very good collaboration. But, of course, I was quite happy to wait. I mean, what else could I do?" In the meantime, Weir went on to direct Dead Poets Society.
Claude Berri, who has directed Depardieu in three films, including Jean de Florette, thinks it is likely that the actor wants to be a star in America ("but live in France - he loves France"). Yet Depardieu himself adamantly denies that the desire for transatlantic fame had anything to do with his decision to make Green Card. "I am not so hungry to be a movie star," he insists. " I don't care about that, I really don't." Rather it was the central premise of the story that sparked his interest. "When Peter gives me the first script, I saw one thing for me - the story of a man and woman who have to invent in 48 hours a life. For me, this is a great situation, because you can make a comedy with that, but you can also make the truth." "Truth" is a word that Depardieu uses constantly when talking about his work. It affects his choice of scripts, roles, and directors. As Weir puts it, "he is simply incapable of doing something that isn't truthful to the character."
At the Irish Cultural Society, Depardieu is getting ready to pound the hell out of the piano. The society's headquarters is doubling as the home of Mr. and Mrs. Adler, the well-to-do parents of Bronte's best friend, Lauren (Bebe Neuwirth), who are giving a small dinner party. Lauren has found George in Bronte's apartment and has brought him along, much to the dismay of Bronte, who has already arrived for the evening. Bronte is hoping to get her hands on some flora from the Adlers' lush garden, and her game plan doesn't include a boisterous, wine-loving Frenchman with dubious musical talents. But in spite of Bronte's misgivings about George, he is soon a major hit with the guests. During dinner, there are some questions about George's relation to the famous French composer Gabriel Faure; George fudges his response but nonetheless agrees, reluctantly, to perform. As coffee is served, the baby grand looms.
There's anticipation in the air while the scene is being set up, and one gets the feeling that the crew has been looking forward to this particular piece of action. "We are all sold out; we're even selling boxes," jokes Weir as they get ready to shoot. Depardieu sits at the keyboard and is quiet for a moment. Then the cacophony begins. The room is filled with crashing sounds; some flowers in a vase shake to within an inch of their petaled existence. When George is finished, the "performance" is met with stunned silence. "You have been destroyed by this," Weir tells MacDowell after one take, all the while instructing Depardieu to "make a lot of racket." As the filming continues, Weir assures his actors that the ideas are all in place, and that now they should forget about them.
Between takes, MacDowell runs around with a plastic knife covered with jam, looking for someone to stab. Neuwirth, whose drop-dead body is strategically covered with what barely passes for a dress, feigns a tantrum over a couch pillow that's been moved. "This wasn't here," she announces. "I can't act if it's here." Depardieu wants a cigarette and asks Marie-France Vassel, the Cyrano makeup girl whom he has brought over from France, to spray his face with some cool water as he sits still for a rare moment. On the set, Depardieu is in constant motion. "He cannot stay in a chair," says Berri. "He always must do something. Sometimes, between two shots, he is on the phone talking about the last movie or the future movie. You must run after him - 'Hey, Gerard! Come now, is ready.' But when he starts to act, il est la - he is there."
Depardieu and Weir, who have grown as close brothers, are a study in contrasts. Depardieu is smoking Gitanes, wearing black from head to foot, yakking away in his disarmingly fractured English. Weir's brand loyalty is to Marlboro, high-top sneakers are his only concession to black, and his French is fluent. Weir is trying hard to finish the scene, but it's close to midnight, and people are beginning to lose it. A crew member who is fumbling with the huge yellow air hose that cools the sitting room where they are filming yells, "It's safe sex on the set of Green Card!" Weir suggests that the unit photographer take a picture. "We'll put it in the press kit," he says, "with absolutely no explanation." For Weir, situation comedy is the toughest thing to do, and the clearheadedness it requires is long gone. ("If the crew laughs, you'd better be careful," he reminds himself.) He decides to wrap for the night. "Okay," says Depardieu. "Tres bien," echoes Weir.
Gerard Depardieu is always working, and at the age of 42, he has made more than 60 films. He has also been coproducing since 1987; set up a foundation to preserve the films of Satyajit Ray; and done a bit of record producing, even recording a few albums with his wife, Elisabeth, a stage actress. On top of this, he still finds the time to return to the theater, which he claims he prefers to movies - "I come from the stage," he says. His critics say he should slow down and give more thought to the parts he chooses, but that is simply not the way Depardieu operates. "I just work because I find some men I can follow," he says. "I don't follow the movie, I follow my friends" - his friends being a small family of directors, most of them French: Blier, Berri, Maurice Pialat, Francis Veber. "He's this unique collaborator," says Weir, "in that he really draws your creation out of you and inspires you to go further with it. In a sense, he becomes you. I think that probably only happens when something is written for him, as Blier and Pialat have done. He sort of burrows his way into your character's life."
Depardieu bonds with the cast as well. "I feel like he is my son," says Yves Montand, who costarred with him in Jean de Florette, "because when we act, it doesn't look like we are acting." MacDowell, who was initially intimidated at the thought of working with Depardieu, never felt overwhelmed. "He has such an ease with himself that he just makes you feel comfortable," she says. "After 60 films, it's just like tying your shoes." It took over a year to cast Bronte, but Weir knew MacDowell was the one after she read with Depardieu. "She is very natural," says the director, "and that worked well with Gerard and his feel for honesty, his dislike of pretension.
Except for an uncommon quiet, it's business as usual at Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. It's a beautiful June day, and here and there are the requisite mime, some Reebok-footed business types, a few dogs, a couple in reverie, even a wild thing careening around on roller skates. A man and a woman, deep in conversation, make their way down a shady path to the fountain's plaza. Then a loud voice booms, "This is a dialogue, not ice cream," yells Weir to a propman. "You have to get rid of the ice cream." The production is nearly finished, but instead of the usual last-minute frenzy, a sense of calm prevails. While filming a shot of one of the park regulars Bronte and George encounter - a drummer playing alone - Weir suddenly jumps in front of the camera, pretending to be a bystander. Without a word, other crew members follow suit. Onlookers crowd around, politely obeying drections about where they can stand. Babies belonging to cast and crew members are passed back and forth as if at a family picnic.
Depardieu's great American experiment will soon be over, and he
is ready to go home. Five days after wrapping in New York, he is back in
Paris, once again following his friends. First there is a new film by Berri,
and following that, he is committed to a script by Blier, his closest soul
mate. But acting in another language has been "very exciting," Depardieu
says, "even if I don't understand sometime what I say." He now counts Weir
among his friends and expects that they will work together again. "I think
I always knew of someone like Peter, all of my life," he says. "And now
I find him, and I am very happy. With Peter is piece of cake."