BOOK REVIEW / Assisted by time: 'Depardieu' - Paul Chutkow: HarperCollins, 20 pounds

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JUST WHEN Gerard Depardieu was set to win an Oscar in 1991 for his role in Cyrano de Bergerac, a profile appeared in Time magazine which triggered the most traumatic months of the actor's adult life. In the article, he was alleged to have admitted to raping a girl when he was only nine - an act he claimed he considered absolutely normal. How anyone imagined that a child of that age would be capable of rape remains a mystery. Nevertheless, all hell broke loose: vilified in the international press and by the American feminist lobby, Depardieu was also robbed of his Academy Award.

In this detailed new biography, Paul Chutkow, a freelance journalist for the New York Times, devotes 30-odd pages to showing how the article was a product of shamefully sloppy translation and editing. Depardieu had used the word assiste, meaning that he witnessed, rather than participated in, the rape. But the damage was done, and for a man governed by a need to be loved, this slur came as a bitter blow.

Depardieu's upbringing was tough. Born 45 years ago into a family of six children, he grew up in a small town 150 miles south of Paris. His father was a barely literate metal welder given to bouts of drinking, who spent most of his time down at the cafe. Under the stress of poverty and giving birth to so many children in quick succession, Lilette Depardieu pushed her second son away. Photographs from that time show that he looked much the same then as he does now, with a cocky frame, an enormous head and straight blonde hair. He was also already endowed with exuberant energy and warmth. At five he would rush around the streets for hours on end, running errands, making friends with shop assistants, cafe owners and other children.

Depardieu ran away from home at the age of 12 and a year later started work as a printer's apprentice. The arrival of an American air force base livened up the town and gave him the opportunity to trade in contraband drink and cigarettes. But it was only when he decided to join a friend in Paris, and later accompanied him to an acting workshop, that he realised what he wanted to do with his life.

There are plenty of tales about actors who have made it from rebellious no-hopers to stardom. What made Depardieu's success so unlikely was that by his late teens he was hampered by speech difficulties so severe that he was barely able to utter a complete sentence. His big break came when Jean Laurent Cochard, France's foremost acting coach, was so struck by the talent and delicacy of feeling he spotted beneath Depardieu's rough, tattooed exterior, that he offered to teach him for free. Cochard also sent him to Alfred Tomatis, a controversial speech therapist, who worked on his speech and hearing for months, partly by making him listen to Mozart through special filtering headphones.

The Tomatis technique did the trick: Depardieu slowly learnt to express himself and began to study Moliere, Racine and Flaubert, while Cochet taught him to act. The transformation was further enhanced by his marriage in 1970 to Elizabeth Guignot, an actress and psychologist from the Parisian haute bourgeoisie who let her own career go by the wayside in order to nurture her husband's.

Depardieu has now dominated French movies for more than 20 years, starring in hits such as Les Valseuses, The Last Metro, Jean de Florette and, of course, Cyrano de Bergerac. He is by all accounts volatile and vulnerable and he works at a punishing pace, acting in four or five films a year, kept going by friendship and vast quantities of food; at one sitting he can consume foie gras, two steaks, salad, Roquefort cheese and a big tarte aux pommes - all washed down with a couple of bottles of red wine from his own vineyard and a glass of plug brandy. Though Chutkow's admiration sometimes makes us cringe a little, he does a fine job in bringing his subject to life - aided by his extensive knowledge of contemporary French culture. The book sags towards the end, but then Depardieu is only halfway through his career. Chutkow just needs to add a couple of chapters in 20 years' time.

(Photograph omitted)