Hollywood glitz, pix power Venice test

A hefty contingent of Hollywood stars, a bevy of supermodels and a boatload of topless porn princesses descended on the Lido during the opening stretch of the 52nd Venice Film Festival, while an Italian navy submarine and a fully armed warship bobbed in the city’s waterways.

If the first few days are anything to go by, the 1995 edition of the world’s oldest film festival looks set to be less a cine-phile’s picnic than a paparazzi feeding frenzy.

While arthouse purveyors scouting fresh product here have yet to spot a unanimous hit, the major U.S. studios – movie stars in tow – are reaping the benefits of Lido exposure as never before.

“You’re seeing this year more and more films that haven’t even been released in the U.S.,” says UIP’s senior VP of international sales Andrew Cripps.

Indeed, UIP is presenting a record five films in Venice. Three of those – “Clockers,” “Jade” and “Strange Days,” a Fox film on which UIP has some foreign rights – are premiering here prior to their U.S. bows.

Likewise, Miramax is unveiling the new Woody Allen film “Mighty Aphrodite” and Sean Penn’s “The Crossing Guard” for the first time on the Lido.

The first of the major world premieres, “Mighty Aphrodite,” was warmly received by press and public alike. European critics especially were ecstatic, suggesting that the Miramax feature could be a strong performer on the Continent. The distrib is in active negotiations at Venice selling the film; virtually every German distributor flew in for the screening.

Stars Mira Sorvino and Michael Rapaport hit town to represent the pic, with Allen tipped to arrive before the end of the festival to pick up a Golden Lion Career achievement awards. Other honorary nods will go to Martin Scorsese and Spanish helmer Carlos Saura.

Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper sailed in for “Waterworld,” and Jennifer Jason Leigh fronted for “Dolores Claiborne.” The Taylor Hackford thriller wowed continental crix, many of whom questioned its positioning in the Venetian Nights section rather than in competition. The director pinned the pic’s exclusion on the fact that unlike both U.S. competition entries, the film has already played domestically.

First peeks

With Venice providing first-look opportunities on such a high number of U.S. features, the fest’s profile as a major media event has undergone a stratospheric leap this year.

“Apollo 13” is repped by Tom Hanks, Kathleen Quinlan, Bill Paxton and director Ron Howard. Attending for “Strange Days” are helmer Kathryn Bigelow and stars Ralph Fiennes and Angela Bassett.

The fest’s official competition has yet to provide a probable top prize candidate, and entries seen so far have sparked low-key reactions. Romuald Karmakar’s German chamber piece, “The Deathmaker,” Mexican helmer Carlos Carrera’s “No Return Address” and Abolfazl Jalili’s “Det, Yani Dokhtar” from Iran all drew divergent, mainly downbeat verdicts.

Critical consensus was more positive on Irish entry “Nothing Personal,” Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s violent drama set in the suburban war zone of Belfast in the early 1970s.

Outside the main section in the newly established Fast Lane lineup, debuting Neapolitan helmer Stefano Incerti’s “The Meter Reader” was greeted as a more than promising bow, while the late Nigel Finch’s “Stonewall” and Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation” played well in the Window on Images sidebar.

The glitz factor is heightened this year by the Save Venice ball, a benefit to preserve the waterlogged city that drew society types and jet-setters from Lee Radziwill to Giorgio Armani.

Both Armani and Radziwill attended a luncheon Sept. 1 for “Waterworld” hosted by Count Volpi at his villa. Also at the party were Costner, Hopper, producer Charles Gordon, Naomi Campbell, Hubert de Givenchy and Bobby Short.

Even Microsoft mogul Bill Gates was slated to arrive Sept. 2, for the unveiling in Venice of his recently purchased Leonardo da Vinci manuscript.

Unusual sights

Day one of the festival kicked off with the unexpected sight of Denzel Washington in full mari-time regalia emerging from Venice harbor in a 1,662-ton submarine.

Accompanied by producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Tony Scott, the “Crimson Tide” star followed the pic’s opening-night screening with a reception aboard a naval destroyer moored in the mouth of the Grand Canal.

A seagoing vessel of a different kind was the one commandeered by Italo porn prince Tinto Brass, who rowed to the Lido in a traditional Venetian skiff with a cargo of scantily draped stars from his latest skinflick, “P.O. Box Tinto Brass.”

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