Critic's Notebook: Todd McCarthy on How Francis Ford Coppola and 'E.T.' Turned Cannes Into a Frenzied Mammoth
THR's chief film critic argues that in the five decades since the festival's inception, Catherine Deneuve, fax machines and Twitter helped shift a boutique fest — largely ignored by the American press — into the all-consuming event it is today.
After Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival on May 15, 1960, the only American critic on the scene typed up his review, popped it in an envelope and mailed it to New York, where it was published 10 days later. Cut to May 18, 2008, when Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was unveiled and members of the audience in the Palais du Festival famously began tweeting and emailing opinions and spoilers within 20 minutes of the film's start.
What a difference five decades makes.
Indeed, international coverage of the world's most celebrated film festival has evolved over the years, from brief mentions in trade journals and specialist film magazines to instantaneous awards-minded assessments on countless blogs and entertainment sites (the likes of which will again be seen at this year's festival, which runs May 11-22). Over time, the festival has grown enormously, become less elitist (the haute couture trappings of the evening screenings notwithstanding) and seen its fame increase exponentially. Some things never change — the paparazzi, the red carpet, the packed press conferences — but much else has, and there were a few key turning points along the way.
It took a long time — more than two decades — for the American press to even begin to take notice of Cannes in any serious way. The occasional glamorous or outrageous photograph — of Grace Kelly with her husband-to-be, Prince Rainier of Monaco, or Robert Mitchum being embraced by a topless French starlet — might make its way into U.S. magazines back in the 1950s. But other than in trade publications, specialized film journals and a handful of European papers and magazines, Cannes in those days was never covered extensively or in any serious way, and was perceived, if at all, primarily for its glamour.
After its initial edition was aborted in September 1939 due to Hitler's invasion of Poland, and following a hiccupping relaunch from 1947-51, when insufficient financing forced its cancellation every other year, the Cannes Film Festival got rolling as an annual April event in the early 1950s. Hollywood was quick to jump on board, but it's little remembered that for nearly 20 years the American selections were hand-picked by the Motion Picture Association of America and were either established prestige titles and Oscar winners (Marty, Around the World in 80 Days, Ben-Hur, et al.) — or films that served as effective propaganda against the Russians and Eastern bloc nations (which were active participants in Western European film festivals in the Cold War era).
Two Paris-based American fixtures at the festival from the very beginning until their deaths were Thomas Quinn Curtiss, who wrote mostly for the Herald Tribune, and Gene Moskowitz a World War II G.I. who covered Cannes for Variety from 1949 until his untimely death in 1982. But even into the early 1970s, however, precious few American journalists or critics were making the Atlantic crossing to cover Cannes. The New York Times' lead critic of the period, Bosley Crowther, did pop over on occasion, but the only legacy of his coverage was a heavily negative one: His multiple pans of Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight at the 1966 festival served to delay the American release of this brilliant film for two years (there were no other American critics present to counter Crowther's hostility).
However, in the general absence of English-language critics during this period, another set of Americans came to make up a small coterie of taste-makers on the Cote d'Azur. One group consisted of the handful of pioneering film festival directors, who played an enormous role in pushing open the gates for the coming influx of foreign films to the United States. The key figures here were Richard Roud, an American who became program director of the London Film Festival in 1959, co-founded the New York Film Festival in 1963 and worked as a roving arts correspondent for The Guardian from 1969 onward; Michael Kutza, who launched the Chicago Film Festival in 1964 at the age of 22 and is still at it today; and Albert Johnson, who scouted films at Cannes from 1965 to '72 as director of the San Francisco Film Festival. Not long after came another American writer, Ken Wlaschin, who took the reins of the London Film Festival when Roud moved on.
Around the same time, New York art house distributor Don Rugoff was actively moving into the distribution of foreign films with his Cinema V, closely followed by Dan Talbot, who ran New Yorker Films and the New Yorker Theater, and William Becker and Saul J. Turell, who bought Janus Films in 1965 and quick moved to expand its catalog mainly with prestigious foreign-language films.
Up to the mid-1960s, Cannes was generally rated in international festival circles as the tarty striver compared to the grande dame that was Venice, the world's first film festival. In the view of Pierre Rissient, the veteran publicist, scout and all-around festival insider who's been attending Cannes for 50 years, the power balance shifted decisively in Cannes' favor in the mid-1960s thanks to two French Palme d'Or winners that went on to massive international success: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (starring Catherine Deneuve) and A Man and a Woman. After the midstream cancellation of the festival during the May '68 events, another French winner, Z, enjoyed comparable global success, whereupon Cannes' primacy at the world's top annual event was established for good.
All the same, the festival remained a comparatively intimate, human-scaled event for some time to come. As a young lad, I went to Europe to study in 1970 and, already a confirmed film freak, determined to go to Cannes no matter what. My friend Ralph Gleason at Rolling Stone happily agreed to provide credentials for me even though he had no intention of running a story about the festival. I found a room at the Hotel Florian (still there) for something like $20 per night and showed up knowing absolutely no one other than Albert Johnson from the San Francisco Film Festival.
Despite being a nobody student, within a few days I was not only seeing about three films per day but had met Arthur Penn and Otto Preminger, was set up on a blind date with (then unknown) 21-year-old Margot Kidder, got drinks with mercenaries and sailors at the long-gone Le Petit Carlton on the Rue d'Antibes, savored fraises a la chantilly on the beach with Candice Bergen (fresh from The Adventurers) and, thanks to Albert, reveled in an extraordinary four-hour dinner with the great director William Wyler and his brother Robert, who were passing through Cannes on a European sojourn.
That year, the only two American critics who crossed the Atlantic to attend Cannes were the New York Daily News' instantly likeable Kathleen Carroll and her buddy Rex Reed, who was at the pinnacle of his success as a celebrity interviewer and whose performance in the keenly anticipated Myra Breckinridge was one month away from being seen. Then just 31, Rex was a vastly amusing complainer, and one of his gripes with Cannes was its lack of accommodation of non-French speakers. At that point, English translations of film dialogue were generally provided only by live voiceover over earphones, and an Italian film, say, ran only with French subtitles. French waiters and bartenders were notably surly with English-only Yanks, and the prostitutes, who were everywhere in the back streets, reportedly demanded full payment in advance and instructed customers to report to such-and-such an address in 10 minutes, whereupon the hapless client would be met by a woman considerably older than the one he'd made arrangements with. Plenty of sailors from the American Navy's Sixth Fleet, part of which was anchored in the Cannes harbor during the festival that year, got burned by that trick.
Even at this stage, The New York Times covered Cannes only through its husband-and-wife Paris stringers, Richard and Cynthia Grenier. British critics, led by Alexander Walker, David Robinson and Philip French, were slightly more numerous, and I befriended two smart young critics that year who would soon make their mark with exceptional writing on film, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Carlos Clarens, who, like me, had just come on their own.
The experience was much the same for current festival head Thierry Fremaux, who, as a very young man with no connections, decided he simply had to go to Cannes, came down from his native Lyon in a camper he slept in and found a way to get into screenings.
A big reason all this was possible was — no offense to my many friends in the field — the utter lack of publicists or any other gatekeepers. You would routinely see famous actors, directors and others just strolling on the Croisette, hanging out unguarded and entirely approachable at the Carlton Bar or at the late, lamented Blue Bar. Robert Altman and Robert Wadleigh, the former there with M*A*S*H, which went on to win the Palme, the latter with Woodstock, donned black arm bands and helped lead a protest against the shooting of students at Kent State on May 4.
In these years after the events of 1968, Cannes expanded with the addition of the Directors' Fortnight and, later, Un Certain Regard, and the arrival of a new generation of American directors in the 1970s (Altman, Coppola, Scorsese, Pollack, Schatzberg, Ashby, Spielberg, Malick) gradually warmed the interest of the U.S. press. Time's Richard Corliss began attending the festival in 1971, with Roger Ebert arriving for the first time a couple of years later. Vincent Canby came frequently for The New York Times, and then the Village Voice's Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell became regulars for a while. For her part, The New Yorker's Pauline Kael seemed like a fish out of water during her only visit to the festival, in 1977, as a juror who argued ferociously with jury president Roberto Rossellini (who died of a heart attack right after the festival).
But the real turning point came in 1979 with the tumultuous world premiere of Apocalypse Now. With accumulating astonishment, the media had covered (mostly from a distance) the chaotic production of Coppola's Vietnam War drama and made it a priority to be in Cannes for the long-awaited world premiere and press conference (although it should be remembered that many of us in the Hollywood media saw the film a few days earlier at the Bruin Theater in Westwood).
The Cannes press conference was a mob scene, and the frazzled Coppola spent much of it defending and explaining himself, ultimately uttering that immortal phrase: "My film is not about Vietnam. It is Vietnam." From this point on, the American contingent in Cannes only continued to grow. The Weinsteins turned up for the first time in 1980 (without any reservations, per Harvey, who claims he and his brother were lodged in a broom closet at the Majestic).
Another Cannes milestone in terms of Hollywood's presence was the closing night screening in 1982 of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. More than a few seasoned industry types doubted the wisdom of this move, as the final-night slot was mostly viewed as an afterthought rather than a prestige showcase; other veterans wondered what a kids-oriented sci-fi film was doing at the festival at all. But the showing was an enormous success, so much so that it convinced skeptics that Cannes could be a great showcase even for what might seem like non-festival films, as long as they delivered the goods.
Given the ever-widening definition of what could be considered a "festival film," and festival director Gilles Jacob's embrace of both big-name American talent and rising young directors like Steven Soderbergh and Spike Lee, American news outlets finally decided that investment in Cannes coverage was essential. Critics such as Newsweek's David Ansen, the Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson, Jack Mathews and then Kenneth Turan, and The New York Times' Janet Maslin became regulars in the 1980s. This was also the period when the marvelous mother hen publicist Renee Furst ruled the roost from her suite at the Majestic and deftly dispensed inside information and massaged opinions. By the time of her death in 1990, she had become a Cannes legend.
Also in the 1980s, the Hollywood trade papers began putting out daily Cannes editions, and the mechanics of this enterprise could make a story in themselves. Reporters and critics often worked out of makeshift tents, old-style typewriters were still in use, nightly runs had to be made to Nice to get the dailies printed and copy needed to be faxed over notoriously slow and unreliable long-distance lines so that reviews and big news stories could make it into the next day's issue back in Los Angeles. During this period, Ebert filed his copy via the Telex booth in the new Palais, initially dubbed "the bunker," which replaced the original Palais (the JW Marriott Hotel now occupies its location) in 1983. Asked about the effect the new Palais had on the character of the festival, Ebert said, "It is saner now — much larger, less fun."
As cumbersome as early electronic transmission technology was for the first few years, its advent, along with the flowering of daily trade publications in both English and French, marked a paradigm shift in the coverage, not just of Cannes, but of major festivals all over the world. Suddenly, the word was out almost immediately on every film that played in Cannes, rather than filtering out in end-of-festival wrap stories or retrospective accounts in specialist film magazines.
When these were joined, in the 2000s, by the internet and multitudinous cinema-centric websites, not to mention microphone-toting reporters waiting outside the Palais hoping to grab a few words from anyone willing to deliver instant opinions on just-debuted films, the dissemination of opinions on Cannes films quickly became the equivalent of the posting of scores for sporting events: The results are absorbed and then it's on to the next event.
Along with all this came the vastly increased sequestering of stars and the closely controlled access of talent to the press. Even through the 1970s, it was not uncommon to see prominent filmmakers and actors strolling up and down the Croisette or the Rue d'Antibes. By the 1980s, when Entertainment Tonight began broadcasting from Cannes, access had begun to tighten, although on one memorable night in 1985 I joined Clint Eastwood, his publicist Joe Hyams and a couple of others for a late-night stroll that ended up at the Carlton for drinks. No one hassled Clint at all. In recent years, I've often seen Quentin Tarantino braving the streets on his own even though he can hardly move five feet without someone, most often young French women, pestering him. He knows how to handle it, though, firmly telling eager fans if necessary that he's busy or has to be someplace immediately.
For the most part, however, big names are rarely to be encountered today except at their appointed stops on their publicity rounds; rare is the occasion when even an established name journalist or a reputable civilian of any kind might meet, much less spend time with, any major talent. That chance dinner with William Wyler, the impromptu dessert with Candice Bergen, couldn't happen today. And due to the rushed nature of every day at Cannes and the instantaneous nature of the critical and news coverage, there's a greater sense of the evanescent, disposable nature of current cinema and culture. The Cannes spotlight remains intense, but, alas, attention spans become shorter by the year.
A version of this story first appeared in the May 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.