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MOVIES : COMMENTARY : The Accent Is on Acting : Gerard Depardieu's success in 'Green Card' shows there's still a niche--albeit small--for foreign actors in Hollywood

February 17, 1991|PETER RAINER | Peter Rainer writes on movies for The Times. and

His lantern jaw looks like something out of the Paleolithic Era. His hair is a wayward mass of greasy strands. His nose is as unavoidable as Pinocchio's. His bulk is positively Falstaffian.

Welcome to Hollywood's new heartthrob--Gerard Depardieu.

In "Green Card," Depardieu plays a rumpled French drifter who, in order to become an American citizen, enters into an arranged marriage with a yuppie-ish horticulturist, played by Andie MacDowell. Aside from the nifty premise, there's nothing in this obvious, galumphing movie to explain its vast success except for the presence of Depardieu. For those of us who have been relishing his career in foreign language films ever since he broke through in 1974 with "Going Places," his astonishing skills come as no great surprise. But most of the audience for "Green Card" has never seen him in a movie before. It's his first English language film and, although he apparently made it as a lark, without any inclination to conquer Hollywood, he's stuck with stardom just the same.

How does Depardieu's success fit into Hollywood's checkered history with foreign actors? And what does he provide that his stateside counterparts don't?

In the past, of course, Hollywood has often tried to accommodate movie stars whose reputations were made abroad. The reasons for the accommodations were as much commercial as cultural.

The great influx of such foreign film stars as Emil Jannings, Charles Boyer and Maurice Chevalier into the Hollywood of the '20s and '30s represented not merely a desire on their part to vanquish Hollywood. At a time when foreign films were far more globally competitive with Hollywood than they are now, stars like these, as well as many of the artists and craftsmen they worked with, were actively courted by studio heads as a way of co-opting their international appeal and cornering the worldwide market.

Then too, the Hollywood movies of the pre-World War II era reflected an internationalism that was everywhere apparent in a society of immigrants. Pick any random movie from the '30s--an Astaire-Rogers musical, say, or a Lubitsch comedy--and chances are you'll run across an Irish cop, a French headwaiter, a British twit, a German martinet, a Latin lover.

The stock company of Hollywood actors was well furnished with foreign "types," and if the roles were often little more than caricatures, they were nevertheless beloved caricatures. An actor like Peter Lorre may not have fulfilled his genius in Hollywood but he was as cherished a fixture in Hollywood's dreamscape as many a mega-star. These immigrant actors imparted to the movies a teeming, knockabout quality--paradoxically, an American quality.

The high profile of foreign stars in Hollywood in this period also reflected a nation whose notions of "class" were still overwhelmingly Eurocentric. Whereas an "American" American star like Jimmy Stewart might triumph with his drawling, homespun plainness, a British import like Herbert Marshall represented the pinnacle of continental manners and grace. Likewise, exoticism was largely the province of foreign performers in Hollywood, particularly the actresses. One of the reasons that stars like Garbo and Dietrich thrived in the '30s is because their exoticism was such an alluring antidote to the plain-Jane wholesomeness of most American movie women.

The foreignness of these actresses was essential to their appeal: It allowed them to move into territories of kink and mystery that American audiences could not easily sanction in their home-grown heroines. American female stars ranging from Janet Gaynor to Jean Arthur were recognized for their winning, maidenly, wisecracky, innocent romanticism. When that innocence was threatened, it was not infrequently some foreign dreamboat or rogue, like Valentino or Erich von Stroheim, who did the threatening. In the movies, the character of American womanhood was largely unsullied by sexual mystery. The attraction of Hollywood for foreign film stars was, and still is, intimately bound up with America's wayward, puritan ambivalence toward sex.

The World War II era introduced a new kind of foreign film star to Hollywood--the refugee, the star without a country. While an actor like Chevalier may have come to Hollywood in the early '30s by choice, many of the actors who followed him during the war years did so by necessity. German actors who had fled Hitler often found themselves playing Nazis, like Conrad Veidt in "Casablanca." Many stars, who, like Jean Gabin, were reknowned in their own country for their tragic, fatalistic personas found themselves adrift in Hollywood's ocean of enforced happy endings. By the end of the war, many of these stars--the successes as well as the failures--returned home to reinvigorate their own film industries.

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