Cannes: Todd McCarthy Recalls Altman and Blind Date With Margot Kidder

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Eastwood, the 1994 jury president, at the opening ceremony with Catherine Deneuve, left, and Frances Fisher.

THR's chief film critic recalls his first memories of the formerly wild fest beginning in 1970.

This story first appeared in the May 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Cannes is the place where, given a choice, most filmmakers would like to be anointed, to be admitted to the pantheon. So it was for Robert Altman, who, after 15 years of struggling in Hollywood won the Palme d'Or in 1970 for M*A*S*H in a year when there were, frankly, not many other serious competitors for the top prize. And yet, when the award was announced in the old Palais, there were boos -- not in huge numbers, but nonetheless emphatic and aggressive in the manner of self-righteous agitators. And despite the absence of words, they bore an unmistakable anti-American tone.

As a mere student overseas who had finagled press credentials to gain entree to the holy grail of film festivals for the first time, I was startled by this outburst for several reasons. First, it was rude; second, the award was well-merited and, third, it seemed ridiculous to object to a filmmaker who was irreverently anti-establishment himself and whose film was partly a critique of the then-raging Vietnam War.

For his part, Altman seemed unperturbed, secure in the knowledge that, after the long wait, his career now was irrevocably launched. But only days before, I had seen him on the Croisette wearing a black armband in protest of the just-begun American bombing of Cambodia -- just like most of the other Americans, including Arthur Penn, Candice Bergen and Stuart Hagmann, director of The Strawberry Statement, an MGM student-protest film riding the post-Easy Rider wave that won the jury prize.

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The schizophrenic nature of Cannes in that wild year was perhaps best epitomized by the screening of Woodstock. The incongruity of a mostly French over-50 crowd wearing black tie, gowns and furs to a three-hour wallow in a hippie-dippy rock 'n' roll bacchanalia was hilarious -- and it was probably the only showing of that hugely successful film at which most of the audience walked out before it was over.

As an American "journalist," I was something of a novelty, since very few U.S. critics attended the festival in those days; Time's Richard Corliss hadn't started coming yet, nor had Roger Ebert. The New York Times sent down its Paris correspondents for a few days. The only professional American critics who actually crossed the pond that year were the New York Daily News' omnipresent Kathleen Carroll and Rex Reed, then at the height of his celebrity and with just one month to go before the release of Myra Breckinridge, in which his acting would put him on the receiving end of brickbats for a change. But during the festival, Reed was in rare form, telling hilarious stories about the making of that benighted film and generally slagging off everyone and everything as if applying for retroactive membership in the Algonquin circle.

Later, when he got home, Reed wrote for the Los Angeles Times an article called "How I Went to the Cannes Film Festival and Hated Every Minute of It," a title which was disingenuous in the extreme; even if he disliked most of the films he saw, he was always having a roaring good time whenever I saw him, and he kept coming back.

No matter what motivated the naysayers the night of the Palmares, they were wrong and the jury was right: M*A*S*H deserved the top award, for reasons both cinematic and cultural. Seven years later, however, it was Altman who was in a fury, burned by his pal Pauline Kael, who was on the jury when the director turned up in Cannes with 3 Women. Confident that his champion could cajole her fellow jury members, including president Roberto Rossellini, into giving him a top award, Altman couldn't believe that his film received only a best actress award for Shelley Duvall. In an unforgettable scene I recounted in my THR review of a recent biography of Kael, Altman spotted her in the waiting lounge of the Nice Airport the next day and mercilessly laid into her, yelling the most obscene possible names.

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The composition of juries has changed over the years. In Cannes' early days, there was always a heavy French presence, Russians and Eastern Europeans were almost always included as a political gesture, and major authors were often included. The 1960 jury, headed by Georges Simenon, also included Henry Miller, so it was no surprise when that libidinous combination bestowed the Palme d'Or upon Fellini's La Dolce Vita rather than on L'avventura, Ballad of a Soldier or The Virgin Spring.

I always enjoyed it when literary figures such as Tennessee Williams, William Styron, Lawrence Durrell, Erskine Caldwell, Irwin Shaw, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes, Francoise Sagan, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Norman Mailer were on juries. There was even a phase when film critics were not uncommonly found in the mix. Now that the closing awards ceremonies have become a big TV event, however, lowly scribes are out and glamorous actresses are in, a syndrome epitomized in 1998, the year jury president Martin Scorsese was surrounded on the panel by Lena Olin, Sigourney Weaver, Winona Ryder and Chiara Mastroianni.

The experiences jury members have during the course of two weeks greatly depends upon the personality of the jury president. As I've heard it from numerous participants over the years, the two extremes -- from ultra-demanding to laid-back -- can be fairly represented by Liv Ullmann and Clint Eastwood. President Ullmann, it's been said, was the ultimate taskmaster, demanding lengthy daily meetings at which each jury member was required to deliver detailed critiques of each and every film, even those considered entirely dismissible. By contrast, Eastwood reportedly only gathered his troops together a couple of times before the final deliberations, with noncontenders simply dropped from the conversation and serious candidates amiably discussed.

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Looking over the complete list of Cannes prize winners since the beginning of the Palme d'Or era in 1955, it's surprising how often juries got it more or less right; even with the advantage of calm hindsight, there are very few instances when the winners of the top prizes were simply ludicrous or obvious masterpieces were neglected.

At the same time, it's notable how few major French directors have claimed the top prize. Across nearly six decades, only seven home-country filmmakers have won the Palme d'Or; never honored, despite having repeatedly appeared in the competition, have been the greats Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Resnais, Rohmer, Rivette and Tavernier.

Back in those early years, contradictions, absurd contrasts and chance encounters were the rule of the day at what was, once you had a pass, a wide-open festival compared to the highly regimented, barricaded, publicist-controlled event it's become (at that time, stars and filmmakers strolled the streets unchaperoned like anyone else). When I arrived, I knew only one other person who would be in Cannes -- still, not only did I see 30-plus films in less than two weeks but in short order I was also set up on a blind date with Margot Kidder, drank with mercenaries at the late, lamented Le Petit Carlton, met the Warhol-scene star Joe Dallesandro and director Paul Morrissey and, after a chance encounter at the Carlton Bar, had a fascinating four-hour dinner with the great Ben-Hur director William Wyler and his producer brother Robert.

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On the streets every night were gobs of American sailors, on shore leave from the Navy's 6th Fleet that was anchored in harbor awaiting a possible move toward Cyprus; tending to them were legions of pretty ratty-looking hookers. The back streets also were where the new Directors' Fortnight events were held, as were the cinemas holding market screenings of often gamey and pornographic titles.

For a kid like me, it was Cannes, Open City.