THR's Chief Film Critic Reveals 'Only in Telluride' Memories

Roger Ebert, left, with Peter O'Toole

Todd McCarthy writes about his 37 years at the festival -- where he witnessed Roger Ebert dueling verbally with Peter O'Toole, spent a day with Claudia Cardinale and watched George Clooney get mobbed.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Telluride Film Festival is not easy to sum up. Celebrating its 40th birthday during Labor Day weekend this year, the gathering has added an extra day to its normal four-day running time as it proceeds Aug. 29 to Sept. 2 high up in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The crown jewel among all film festivals, it's the one I would hope to never miss. Over the years, it has offered up so many moments where one could legitimately say, "Only in Telluride!"

PHOTOS: Telluride: Highlights From the Festival's 40 Years

A quintessential Telluride moment, one that could never have happened anywhere else, that I experienced on a chilly Thursday evening three years ago: Walking down a steep road from a party at a mountainside house in the total darkness of a moonless night, I began making out faint, eerie cries -- from a bird or animal? -- wafting through the trees from a great distance. As I continued to descend, the sounds took on a more familiar tone, until I realized that they were the immortal harmonica moans from the climactic moments of Ennio Morricone's immortal score for Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Everything then fell into place; the film was being shown outdoors that night at Elks Park in the center of town, and I realized that, by picking up my pace, I might make it down in time to see the ending, which I did as if by some magical pre-arrangement. The reason for the screening was the presence that year of its star, Claudia Cardinale, and I was able to spend a good part of the next day with her, listening to her charmingly raspy tales of being taken under director Luchino Visconti's wing as a teenager, refusing Marlon Brando's proposition on her first night in Hollywood and holding a sobbing Alain Delon's hand during a screening of The Leopard that year as he kept saying, "Claudia, we're the only ones left, we're the only ones left."

STORY: Beyond Telluride: Four Luxe Rocky Mountain Getaways

Then there was the bright Saturday morning in 2004 when those of us who packed in to see the world premiere of Finding Neverland emerged two hours later to be greeted with an enchanting Labor Day weekend snowstorm; thoughtful as always, Telluride volunteers were passing out waterproof ponchos at the exits.

But how about the day the year before when the then 87-year-old former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara drove on his own from Boulder to join documentarian Errol Morris and foreign affairs expert Mark Danner for an intense discussion about Vietnam after the screening of The Fog of War.

Or, going back much further, to 1976, my first year there, and my white-knuckle plane ride from Denver to the ever-daunting Telluride Airport with cinematographer Nestor Almendros, on a quick detour on his way to France to shoot for Francois Truffaut after having just completed Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, which wouldn't come out for another two years.

Nor can I forget bringing another great cinematographer, the forgotten, 91-year-old film noir maestro John Alton, to Telluride in 1993 for his official embrace by ecstatic fans after having disappeared for 30 years. Nor having been astonished the year before by The Crying Game and being challenged as never before with how to write a review without giving anything away. Nor closing my cell phone at Montrose Airport on Sept. 3, 2001, and announcing to those in my vicinity that Pauline Kael had died, only to hear Ken Russell retort, "Well, it's about time."

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Nor, at a party after the first screening of The King's Speech, hearing son-of-a-history-professor Colin Firth explain how King George V's death was deliberately manipulated so the news could be broken by the Times rather than the tabloid press, a scene shot but not used in the finished film. Nor watching a crowd of a couple of dozen females materialize out of nowhere to surround George Clooney in the 15 seconds it took for him to make his way from dinner out to his waiting car.

Similarly not to be forgotten, in 2002, were Peter O'Toole and Roger Ebert onstage at the Opera House engaging in an ever-escalating bout of one-upsmanship by topping each other with quotations from Yeats, and, later, the rangy Irishman grabbing a nearby bicycle and tooling around as if in a scene from The Last Emperor, and then, later still, O'Toole doing an impeccable vocal impression while relating John Huston's final phone call to him when the ailing director was about to begin shooting his last film, The Dead: "Well, Peter, the doctor told me I can't smoke anymore, I can't drink anymore and I can't f--- anymore. I guess I'll just have to make a picture."

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Although its remoteness, altitude, lack of suitable screening venues and unfamiliarity may have made Telluride seem an unlikely spot for a major film festival when it launched in 1974, with tributes to the unlikely combination of Gloria Swanson, Francis Ford Coppola and Leni Riefenstahl, several factors combine to make the festival so special: The distance and difficulty of the old mining town's location are more than made up for by the setting's brilliance once you get there; the intimacy of the place and relative paucity of publicists and handlers allow for easy interaction with other guests as well as filmmakers and actors, who are generally inaccessible elsewhere; the fact that it was founded by archivists and history-oriented individuals -- the George Eastman House's James Card, Bill Pence of Janus Films and his wife, Stella, who bought the Sheridan Opera House, and Tom Luddy of the Pacific Film Archive (joined by historian/teacher William K. Everson in 1977) -- guarantees a continuing fidelity to vintage cinema as well as the new; and its brief weekend-long duration means that the mediocre filler with which lengthier festivals are inevitably stuck is avoided. (Indeed, Luddy and his current co-directors, Gary Meyer and Julie Huntsinger, say that there were at least 20 additional submissions this year that they were forced to reject but would proudly have shown.)

STORY: Telluride Celebrates 40th Birthday by Opening 650-Seat Werner Herzog Theatre

One further factor that may have played a role in Telluride's distinctiveness is that those running it have inhabited an East Coast-Bay Area axis, with an increasing but still, shall we say, selective relationship with Los Angeles and the Hollywood industry. Since 2005 and that year's extraordinary trifecta with the world premieres of Brokeback Mountain, Capote and Walk the Line, Telluride has more accidentally than intentionally become coveted as the place that debuts bold, powerful, somewhat off-the-radar year-end films that go on to awards glory.

But that was never something that crossed the minds of the festival brain trust during the event's first three decades, and while it's undeniably nice to suddenly be regarded as a kingmaker, organizers are all too aware that it's a dangerous game to get caught up in that sort of trendiness and industry crystal-ball-gazing. All the same, when you unearth or are offered the first screenings on the planet for films as different and unexpected and smart as Slumdog Millionaire, Up in the Air, The King's Speech, Black Swan, The Descendants, Shame, A Dangerous Method, The Gatekeepers, Frances Ha and, last year, Argo, who's going to say no?

STORY: Argo: Telluride Review

Because of this factor and the ever-intensifying awards-season buzzing that officially begins at this time of year, Telluride is considerably more in the spotlight now than it was on its 30th birthday, when Lost in Translation and The Fog of War were two of the big films, Stephen Sondheim was the guest director and Ken Burns and Sofia Coppola were among those on hand to help celebrate. This year it also is expanding its capacity considerably with the addition of a new venue, the Werner Herzog Theatre, which, with 650 seats, will be the town's biggest and is designed to address the complaints of patrons frustrated at not getting in to see important titles.

Looking back, perhaps the most celebrated Telluride moment for its organizers and the assembled film buffs came on a chilly night in 1979 when the 89-year-old French director Abel Gance peered out of his window at the Sheridan Hotel at the crowd in the park across the street watching his restored 1927 epic Napoleon on the big screen. For me, a similar buzz of film-buff bliss came in 2006 when I filmed a spirited discussion involving perhaps the three greatest film brainiacs I know: French cineaste Pierre Rissient, director Bertrand Tavernier and critic David Thomson, who spent 45 minutes under light drizzle talking about the finer (and less fine) points of the work of John Ford and Michael Powell in the deepest and most rarefied way I could imagine.

It was too involved to include in my documentary film about Rissient, but perhaps I should just post it online sometime, as it represented the kind of love of cinema, and keen thinking about it, that epitomizes the spirit of Telluride.

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