1970: The Cannes Film Festival (part three)

by Todd McCarthy
July 3, 2010 1:49 AM
2 Comments
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Liza Minnelli

One stunning difference between Cannes then and now was the almost total absence of American film critics and journalists at that time. The Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin attended from time to time, but in 1970 the only American writers who actually crossed the Atlantic to cover the festival were Rex Reed and Kathleen Carroll of The New York Daily News. The New York Times sent reporters Richard and Cynthia Grenier down from Paris to do some news and feature stories and Thomas Quinn Curtis, seemingly old enough to have known H.L. Mencken, was always there for the International Herald Tribune, but even Variety had not yet begun to fly anyone over from New York, relying entirely upon its great Paris man Gene Moskowitz, Rome office chief Hank Werba and one or two stringers. Within a couple of years, Andrew Sarris and Molly Haskell, and then Roger Ebert, joined the Corlisses to form the advance guard of American critics you could count upon seeing in Cannes.

The most important American cinephile on the Croisette at that time was undoubtedly Richard Roud, whose championing of the French cinema since 1963 had not only boosted the reputations of the New Wave filmmakers but had played the decisive role in making the New York Film Festival, of which he was program director, one of the most influential cinematic events of the year. Long based in Paris, Roud famously did not fly (an unthinkable option today for anyone in the world of international film festivals), making the transatlantic crossing by ocean liner, and since he also ran the London Film Festival for a time and was a critic for the Guardian and Sight and Sound, he spent most of the year in Europe.

At the time, there were only two other film festivals of note in the United States, in Chicago and San Francisco. The first film festival program I ever attended, while still in high school, was an on-stage conversation with Otto Preminger in Chicago in 1967. The following year, the San Francisco event became an addiction, in part due to the wonderfully diverse film selections and, even more, to the extraordinary in-person tributes staged by program director Albert Johnson, which sometimes lasted all day. Due to my effusive coverage of the festival in The Stanford Daily, I'd become acquainted with Albert and, as he was the only person I knew who would be in Cannes, I tracked him down at once. His opening the door of Cannes to me was the equivalent of the moment “The Wizard of Oz” turns from black-and-white to color and Dorothy steps from her dingy Midwestern house into an intoxicating riot of wonders.

A native of Harlem and graduate of Berkeley, Albert had been running the San Francisco festival since 1965. Certainly the only black American man on the festival circuit in those years, he was unbeatable in his knowledge of films, music and literature--one of his first questions to me after we met was whether I'd read Proust yet—and never without an opinion. Almost always accoutered in a blue-and-white-striped seersucker sports jacket, Albert was one of those men who never seemed to age; in his mid-40s at the time, he looked almost exactly the same 20 years later. The jovial, highly social Albert introduced me to Roud, to the Greniers, who in turn invited me to dinner to meet a lovely young lady when we all got back to Paris, and to Patrick Reynolds, a member of the Reynolds tobacco family who had the air of a hippie prince and later wrote an anti-smoking book attacking the family business. It's politically incorrect now, of course, but it would be airbrushing history not to acknowledge that Albert was widely known as the African Queen, so open was he about his taste for good-looking hustlers. Albert spent much of the summer on the European festival circuit, part of it in Eastern Europe, which I sensed was his favorite destination, as he always came equipped with lots of contraband—blue jeans and American music in particular—he knew would be appreciated by young men in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Russia.

For all the formality of the black-tie evenings, the rarified scene at the Carlton Bar and the yachts in the harbor, Cannes was really an open city then; everyone was accessible. Although they may have been around somewhere, publicists were scarcely seen or heard. But stars and directors were everywhere; you could just go right up to them, no one would run interference and if they felt like talking to you, they would. Nobody could have been a bigger nobody than I was that year, but I had no problem getting in close with my camera on the steps of the old Grand Palais (where the ghastly Hotel Stephanie, nee Noga Hilton, stands today) or positioning myself near the front at press conferences or approaching anyone at all. As if in a dream, I shared fraises avec chantilly on the beach with Candice Bergen—the ridiculous “The Adventurers,” in which she appeared, had just come out; met Paul Morrissey and Joe Dallesandro, there promoting “Flesh” and “Heat;” had a long tete-a-tete with Arthur Penn, fresh off “Little Big Man” and at the festival in conjunction with Robert Hughes' documentary “Arthur Penn, 1922—Themes and Variants; caught up with Helmut Berger, whom I had interviewed the year before in San Francisco when he promoted “The Damned,” and cracked up as Rex Reed regaled a table of Americans with tales of Mae West, Raquel Welch and himself during the shooting of “Myra Breckinridge.” It was actually a rare moment—here was a very successful young critic and journalist who might (at least in his own mind) be on the verge of some form of movie stardom. Of course, that all changed the following month, when the film was released to withering reviews and worse box-office.


Arthur Penn


Agnes Varda (left) and Jacques Demy


Michael Wadleigh


Monica Vitti

--to be continued tomorrow--

2 Comments

  • SydneyLevine | July 4, 2010 10:59 AMReply

    IGreat stories which reawaken my memories of Cannes too. Your writing and the pictures so vividly capture the awe Cannes inspired in me and the fun and flurry of getting around, being so close to greatness. I've been to every Cannes since 1985 (just had to add that). Your descriptions are wonderful to read.

  • Chip Zempel | July 3, 2010 4:19 AMReply

    Really enjoying these reminiscences, Todd. (And it's great to hear your voice again in relaxed, natural American English instead of that Variet-ese you have been writing in for decades!)