Gilles Jacob Takes Stock

The festival president reveals the best years -- and the worst -- and names his favorite actor (you'd never guess).

Gilles Jacob, appointed director-general of the Cannes Film Festival in 1978 and elected fest president in 2000, has advice for anyone looking to survive  the hectic 12-day event. "The secret to Cannes is all about balance," he says. "Between art and commerce, between a vacation atmosphere -- the Mediterranean sun, the ocean, the view, the palm trees -- and working hard. We work hard in Cannes but in a unique party setting."

To make it through the long days, Jacob, 81, has perfected his own regimen. He wakes up at 6 a.m. before breakfasting on toast, tea, honey and fruit. "An athletic diet," he says. After walking for about an hour, he heads to his office, where all day he welcomes foreign delegations and film dignitaries while festival staff pops in and out, peppering him with questions. He has lunch alone or "in a small group." Late in the afternoon, Jacob dons one of his three tuxedos, custom-made by designer Agnes B., to take his ceremonial place atop the famous red steps leading to the Palais, where he greets each night's arriving filmmakers.

Although he tries to stay through the screenings, Jacob confesses, "I'm often obliged to leave in order to deal with an urgent problem." Later, he hosts a dinner each night for 60 to 200 guests before going to sleep at about 12:30 a.m. -- "no matter what."

Looking back, he says, his best memories include the fest's 40th anniversary in 1987, when several distinguished filmmakers reunited onstage. It was John Huston's last Cannes visit, and Jacob remembers him fondly as "one of my favorite directors." His worst Cannes memory? The opening of the new Palais in 1983. "It was ready too late," recalls Jacob. "The lights and the projectors clattered mysteriously. We almost needed to stop the festival! What stress! That's when I lost my hair."

As for which stars have impressed him most, Jacob surprisingly answers: "The American stars because they know how to do everything -- act, sing, dance, move, be active, walk up a staircase. In sum, a way of carrying themselves with grace and ease that's unique in the world." Pressed to pick one, he responds: "Dean Martin. Voila, I liked Dean Martin, especially when he was sober." But choosing his favorite actress is "impossible. There are too many. But maybe Gene Tierney -- what a lady!"

Jacob will moonlight as a filmmaker at this year's festival. Collaborating with Samuel Faure, the fest's director of official sponsorship, he has put together A Special Day, a movie that revolves around several legendary directors including Roman Polanski, Nanni Moretti, Ken Loach and Claude Lelouch, observing them as they gathered for Cannes' 60th anniversary celebration in 2007. The film, which will screen May 20 to mark the fest's 65th anniversary, is designed, says Jacob, "to go behind the scenes, feel the intense emotions when so many great directors are together, a family of celebrities anonymous on the Croisette."