L'Affaire Gerard Depardieu

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Kevin Costner may have been the man of the hour at last week's Academy Awards (his Dances with Wolves walked off with seven Oscars), but it was one of the evening's losers who provided the award season's biggest flap. Gerard Depardieu, who was nominated for Best Actor for Cyrano de Bergerac, was a no- show at the ceremony. Even so, he was at the center of a fire storm over comments about his wild days as a youth.

The ruckus stemmed from a TIME story about the French film star published in late January. Depardieu, 42, was asked about remarks he had made in an interview published in 1978 in the magazine Film Comment in which he described his rough childhood and said, "I had plenty of rapes, too many to count." Asked by a TIME reporter if he had participated in rapes, Depardieu said yes. "But it was absolutely normal in those circumstances," he added. "That was part of my childhood."

That admission, not surprisingly, drew an outcry from women's rights activists, newspaper columnists and others. Depardieu later denied making the statements and threatened a libel suit against TIME and any news organization that reprinted them. "It is perhaps accurate to say that I had sexual experiences at an early age," the actor said in a statement. "But rape -- never. I respect women too much." The TIME interview, which was conducted in French, is on tape. The Depardieu camp contends that his words were mistranslated and that he admitted only to having witnessed rapes. TIME has refused the actor's demand that the passage be retracted.

More interesting than the linguistic dispute was the divergent response to his remarks in the U.S. and France. Many American women were shocked by the actor's blase attitude toward unsavory events from his past. Washington Post columnist Judy Mann urged a boycott of Depardieu's films in an article headlined HOW DO WE HANDLE THE RAPIST-TURNED-HEARTTHROB?

In France, where sex is treated more casually and public figures are protected more carefully by the press, the brouhaha was seen as another example of American prudishness. Some political leaders even charged that it was part of a conspiracy to hurt Depardieu's chances for an Oscar. Minister of Culture Jack Lang, a frequent critic of American "cultural imperialism," lambasted the "low blow against one of our great actors." Raged Jacques Attali, a former aide to President Francois Mitterrand: "This is a vile defamation with a high financial payout."

In fact, Depardieu was always a long shot for the Oscar; no one has ever won a Best Actor award for a non-English-speaking role. And though Cyrano itself lost the Best Foreign Film award to a dark horse, such upsets are common. Still, a cultural chasm remains. Rosemary Dempsey of the National Organization for Women claims that the French reaction "trivializes the whole issue of violence against women." French author Marguerite Duras, asked about Depardieu's remarks, said dismissively, "When I was 8 1/2, I stole an apple from the garden." Depardieu, meanwhile, was on the island of Mauritius shooting a new film and contemplating whether the affair will blow over or permanently tarnish his image with American audiences.