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!"

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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."

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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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