Fest honors respected spaghetti Western star

VENICE — As the curtain went up Wednesday on the 57th Venice Intl. Film Festival, the man of the moment was Clint Eastwood, signaling a warm reunion between one of Hollywood’s most respected craftsmen and durable stars and the country that helped kick-start his four-decade career.

But while Eastwood was being feted, business continued to buzz as talk intensified on the Lido about Julian Schnabel’s “Before Night Falls,” one of the few potentially commercial titles here without a U.S. distribution deal in place, although its official competition screening is not until Sept. 4.

Sources report that both Fine Line Features and Sony Pictures Classics are in negotiations with Bart Walker of ICM and producer Jon Kilik for North American rights to the adaptation of gay Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas’ autobiography. Offers of just over $1 million are believed to be on the table, with the players reportedly pushing to lock up a deal before the Venice preem.

In a disappointing blow to the fest, Martin Scorsese confirmed he will be unable to complete his four-hour tribute to Italian film in time for its scheduled Sept. 8 screening. Originally titled “Il Dolce Cinema” but recently rechristened “Il Mio Viaggio in Italia,” the film contains a wealth of archive material that has considerably slowed the process of readying a work print. Part of the unfinished film was shown at last year’s film festival.

Despite that setback, the fest — at least its opening night — focused on celebrating Eastwood. Prior to the European premiere screening of his latest work as producer-director-actor, “Space Cowboys,” the veteran gunslinger accepted the Venice fest’s Leone d’Oro for career achievement from presenter Sharon Stone.

“It is for me an extraordinary honor that’s simultaneously both a humbling and uplifting experience to be asked to present the Golden Lion to Clint Eastwood this evening,” said Stone. “This award so appropriately goes to a man that we in our industry think of as the king of the jungle. When we learn our craft we learn from watching the work of people like him.”

“Many years have passed since I first came to Italy as a young actor to work with an equally young director named Sergio Leone,” said Eastwood, accepting the award in Italian. “This country has always had a special place in my heart. Grazie mille Sergio, for this Leone.”

The late Italian director — who catapulted Eastwood to international fame as the man with no name in his Western trilogy “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” — has been constantly acknowledged by the star in interviews here.

“I’ve always been very proud of the fact that I started my career in Italy,” said Eastwood. “I feel that in the movie business, fate drives us in a lot of different directions. I think it was ironic that I had to go to Italy to make a German-Italian-Spanish co-production of a Japanese film, and have it work so well with the public around the world.”

Getting the fest off to a crowd-pleasing start, “Space Cowboys” drew a warm response from European critics, with stars Eastwood, Tommy Lee Jones, Donald Sutherland and James Garner scoring generous applause at a packed afternoon press conference and again at the evening gala.

Warner brass in town for the European premiere included Richard Fox, president of international distribution, and Julian Senior, international VP of marketing and publicity.

The sole damper on the opening night festivities was unseasonable rain, which canceled out weeks of planning and elaborate decoration for an outdoor “Midnight Summer Night’s Dream” garden party for 1,200 guests, forcing the event indoors.

Fest director Alberto Barbera confirmed that negotiations are under way to add David Mamet’s “State and Main” to the latenight Dreams and Visions lineup. The film also screens in Deauville. Another late addition to the program is Hal Hartley’s “Kimono,” a half-hour short shot in Japan, which has its world premiere in Venice.

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