Modern art-mart era dawns in 70s

Merging of business, art allowed creativity to flourish

Originally ran March 24, 1997
TORONTO – Cannes plunged into the 1970s with a new sense of excitement and dedication to film as an art, but also with a somewhat reluctant recognition of film as a business venture that made it possible for creativity to flourish.

And flourish it did, as the small cinemas along the narrow streets of this Riviera resort opened up to the ever-growing market when producers and distributors discovered they didn’t have to get their films accepted in competition in order to say they had been shown at Cannes. Although the number of films shown during the ’70s at each festival was less than half today’s total, it seemed enormous compared to the previous decade.

We didn’t have press cards until the end of the ’70s. We had a small book made up of pages of three coupons for every day of the festival, two for the competition films and one for the Critics’ Week. The crowds were thought of as being large then (though smaller than today) and they were more orderly. We all dressed, too, in dinner jackets, and looked for Mosk (as Variety’s critic-reporter Gene Moskowitz was dubbed), who always sat in the first row but remained standing until the lights went down. After the evening film, it was usually away to the Whisky-a-Go-Go for dancing and, hopefully, some free food.

The old-fashioned way

There were few daily journals then and not much was published in English. Variety brought out a big special issue, as it does today, but on thin paper in black-and-white. Before faxes and modems, we were under strict instructions never to phone in our reports to New York — it was too expensive. They went by mail — arrival was in two days then — or by returning visitors to the U.S. The other trades were Le Film Francais (very French) and Cinema TV Today (very British), the latter containing Peter Noble’s notorious gossip column.

Cannes had a genteel shabbiness about it then, though it still had elegance, style and class. You couldn’t get a woman who wasn’t your wife past the concierge for love nor money — well, perhaps you could if you had the money, but most of us never did anyway. We all became adept at getting into places through back entrances to see films, crash receptions or find friends in other hotels.

Out-of-competition films were introduced along with the increasingly popular Directors’ Fortnight; but increasingly, throughout the ’70s, each year brought a litany of complaints from press and producers about why there were “always better films out of competition than in” (and thus deprived of the chance of winning the prestigious Palme d’Or).

Thomas Quinn Curtis of the Paris-based New York Herald-Tribune was schooled in classic literature, theater and music, and he found little in film to impress him. “All superior films are ‘out-of-competition,’ ” he thundered, but he was “profoundly impressed” with Bergman, Bunuel et al. Still, he characterized the festival as being one of “43 events and a lot of erotic trash.”

Looking back on the decade, it seems as though every year brought with it another great Cannes moment, another calamitous sea change in the dramatically evolving fest and another sterling example of why the festival could capture the imaginations of both film buffs and followers of celebrity and glamour.

Historic year

1971 was the 25th anniversary of Cannes and brought with it a most distinguished group of filmmakers from around the world whose films had won the Palme d’Or. On stage were Antonioni, Bresson, Clement, Fellini, Jasny, Bunuel, Anderson, Kobayashi, Wyler. Charlie Chaplin (at 82) was there with his wife, Oona, to receive the French Legion of Honor. Losey won the Palme d’Or for “The Go-Between” and Visconti received the special 25th-anniversary prize for “Death in Venice.” He bridled at this roundabout honor (so typical of Cannes juries), but was placated when informed that it would head the awards list.

Groucho Marx (at 81) made a triumphant appearance in ’72 and enlivened the dull aftermath of the 25th anniversary with several caustic witticisms. Maurice Bessy became the new director of Cannes when Robert Favre Le Bret retired as president.

Protests return

In 1974 Rene Clair was president of the jury, which at last changed the tradition of apportioning prizes among competing nations in order to keep everyone happy. It was a welcome change that one French critic referred to as “a revolution — a small one, but a revolution just the same.” But censorship raised its ugly head again. With memories still vivid over Favre Le Bret’s censoring of Joseph Strick’s “Ulysses” in 1967, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside the Palais, led by Michel Piccoli, to protest the seizure by the police of two films on abortion: “Stories of A” and “Liberty for Women.”

In ’76, Cannes was described as being the most lawless of French resort towns — not because the prices amounted to highway robbery, but because of hotel room cat burglars, pickpockets and purse snatchers. British critic Dilys Powell lost everything. Moscow boycotted Cannes because of “its ill-will and discrimination.” Bessy said, “We must accommodate new filmmaking countries” and demanded fewer pornographic films be shown on the market and at other sidebars that sprung up. Tennessee Williams, head of the jury, spent much time condemning “the excessive violence in today’s films.”

New attitude

In 1977, we all were evacuated from the Palais when a bomb was discovered in the theater: We were watching Wim Wenders’ “The American Friend” at the time. There was a general strike on May 24, giving everyone more time on the beach. Claude Goretta’s “The Lace-maker,” a great favorite, was tipped to win but the Taviani brothers got the main prize for “Padre Padrone.” The festival was described as “one in which everything merged into a deadly blur.” Perhaps this was why Gilles Jacob stepped up to take over from Maurice Bessy, whose selections were being described as “hackle-raising and deeply puzzling.”

Jacob, the new director, cut the ’78 festival from 15 days to 13 because “there were not enough good films available.” The fest was streamlined with 20 competition films and 12 in special non-competing sidebar sections.

Shadows of the future stole over Cannes ’79 as the Municipal Council went into discussions and voted on a plan to demolish the Municipal Casino, where the fest showed its first films, and to build in its place “a large congress-like facility for casino and festival at a cost of $35 million.”

Make way for the bunker!

Peter Ustinov came to Cannes and described it as being “particularly useful because, in a few days here, you can meet all the people you must carefully avoid for the rest of the year.”

But Cannes survived these 50 seasons by cleverly adapting itself to the changing situations of the film world. The final festival of the decade closed with Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a dramatic and controversial journey into the politics of war and peace ending a stimulating decade in Cannes’ always colorful history.

Gerald Pratley has been a contributor to Variety since 1956. He teaches film history at Ryerson College in Toronto.