Roger Ebert on Cannes' Wild Past (Q&A)

2012-17 FEA Cannes Roger Ebert H

Ebert, surviving the crowds at Cannes, in 2001.

A fixture on the Croisette from 1972 through 2006, the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic looks back on the freewheeling personalities that gave the festival its fizz.

This story first appeared in the May 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Having spent nearly three and a half decades on the scene in the French seaside town, Roger Ebert carries a wealth of memories and stories about Cannes. Here, he speaks to THR about the movers and shakers that descended upon the festival during his long run.

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER: When did you become aware of the Cannes Film Festival?

Roger Ebert: I stumbled upon it. I was on vacation in the early 1970s, had a rental car and had heard it was happening. I found a parking space in front of the Carlton. Yes, unbelievable, but I did. Somehow I got a press pass -- miraculous, but not in those days.

THR: What particularly struck you on your first visit?

Ebert: I loved the morning press screenings -- perfect picture and sound, a knowledgeable audience, essential gossip around the press mailboxes, the tumult of the press conferences, the unbelievably lavish parties.

THR: Who were the important personalities at the festival then?

Ebert: Gilles Jacob, always. The independent publicist who stood out was Renee Furst, who took foreign and indie films under her wing and found them places on the map. She was the most effective publicist I ever met -- and she trained a formidable generation like her assistant Cynthia Swartz. She once sponsored a junket to an offshore island on behalf of [1981's] The Boat Is Full, and once there, we discovered the boat wouldn't be returning until we had interviewed everyone.

THR's Full Coverage of the 2012 Cannes Film Festival

THR: The festival used to be dominated by colorful, roguish producers such as Sam Spiegel, Sam Arkoff and Lew Grade,  who exemplified the hustler side of Cannes. What do you recall of them?

Ebert: Sam [Arkoff] would throw a brunch at Hotel du Cap for the English-language press. He always gave the same speech: "You all think my films are shit, so let's forget business and have a good time." Once, Rex Reed said of Q, his flying dragon movie: "Sam, what a surprise! A marvelous method performance by Michael Moriarty, right in the middle of all that dreck!" Sam replied, "The dreck was my idea."

THR: How did you send your copy back home in the days before computers and cell phones?

Ebert: I got an AT&T card and sent things via the Telex booth in the Palais. Lots of typos, expensive, but it got the job done. I eventually got online at 300 baud with my old Radio Shack Model 100. I could type faster than it could send.

THR: What are some of the most memorable screenings you've attended in Cannes? And the most disastrous?

Ebert: The world premiere of Apocalypse Now in the old Palais, hands down. I was also blindsided by Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing. As for the most disastrous, The Brown Bunny had a particularly loud and hostile reception.

THR: How did it all change after the new Palais opened in 1983?

Ebert: It is saner now -- much larger, less fun. Fortunes are no longer being made in the Marche. The new Palais works well and functions smoothly. In the Palais Ancien, it could get really ugly when people started shoving and the guards had to tear a paper ticket out of a booklet. Remember that someone once got pushed through a plate-glass door?