‘The last decade when you could still get away with something’

Critic's take on 80s excess

Originally ran March 27, 1997

CHICAGO – It was the last decade when you could still get away with something at Cannes. When the 1980s began, the theaters on the Rue d’Antibes were still booked around the clock with exploitation movies and even a little tardy porno that someone hoped to sell somehow, somewhere. By the end of the decade, exploitation and sex had gone to video, and there was a guy in the bowels of the new Palais who was selling cassettes by the pound.

The old Cannes was tamed during the decade. The buccaneers and hypemeisters who used to raise money for movies on the come were replaced by serious businessmen who made deals on rational terms. That was largely because the world market was definitively captured by Hollywood during the decade; majors, not minors and indies, were booking the world’s cinemas, and in America the arthouses and owner-owned theaters were a threatened species. You no longer sold your movie to one guy at a time; you sold it to a distributor.

At the beginning of the decade, Ilya and Alexander Salkind’s air force still thundered through the skies above the Croisette — so many planes towing so many Superman banners that you wondered if the key grip would get a banner, too. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were the biggest spenders of the decade, filling the daily trades with dozens of pages of Cannon ads (some for movies made, some for movies planned, some for movies that existed only in their fondest dreams). Cannon rented ballrooms and beach restaurants night after night, wining and dining hundreds if not thousands at an incalculable cost. Menahem made anything seem possible: He returned from lunch one day waving a napkin from the Majestic on which he and Jean-Luc Godard had written a contract for a production of “King Lear,” to star, among others, Woody Allen. “The napkin will be worth more than the movie,” I predicted, and I was right; so few people saw “King Lear” that Quentin Tarantino was able to list it as an acting credit and almost get away with it.

Golan brooded that he was not accorded proper respect by the Cannes establishment. He opened a big building in Los Angeles and declared himself a major, but by the end of the decade it was clear Cannon was overextended and failing, and with it went a certain spirit. The trades got smaller, the invitation lists grew more select, and people lost faith in the theory that you could announce a film at Cannes and get it financed and filmed on sheer bravado.

Independent American filmmakers had always found a welcome at Cannes, but a new generation, destined to bring U.S. indies to an unprecedented level of recognition, emerged in the 1980s. The breakthrough probably came with Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger than Paradise” in 1984. Two years later, Spike Lee arrived with “She’s Gotta Have It” and announced the arrival of a new generation of gifted black filmmakers. In 1989 Steven Soderbergh’s “sex, lies, and videotape” won the Palme d’Or, and American indies were on the map. The Cannon cousins were replaced by the Miramax brothers as the festival’s leading dealmakers.

The new Palais was a great relief to everyone who actually tried to attend the films on a regular basis, if not to the film sellers in the basement. The old Palais, with its 19th-century system of ticket books for the press, led to daily shoving matches; a man was pushed through a glass window during the queue for “1900.” The new Palais had bigger theaters, superb projection and sound and a much improved crowd-control system; the gorillas in the tuxedos started acting like ushers instead of riot police. The Palais looked a little bleak when it opened; Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter called it a cross between a parking garage and a machine-gun emplacement, and everyone else called it the Death Star or the Bunker. But it accumulated trees, decorations, more windows, and eventually the love of those who saw movies there.

The major prizes during the decade usually went to the saints of the art cinema; Wenders, Imamura, Kurosawa, Wajda, Costa-Gavras, Resnais, the Tavianis, Bresson, Tarkovsky, Kusturica, Pialat. But for me, the single most electrifying moment was the world premiere of Spielberg’s “E.T.” in 1982. Was this the best film of the decade at Cannes? Not even close; for me, that was “Do the Right Thing,” in 1989. But “E.T.” was an audience picture, a superb entertainment, and on that night at Cannes it worked beyond all calculation. The audience turned to Spielberg and cheered and cheered and cheered. The other great ovation was for James Stewart, who arrived for the revival of “The Glenn Miller Story” and inspired the largest outside crowd until Madonna, in the 1990s.

At the beginning of the decade, there were wheelers and dealers. Sam and Hilda Arkoff still gave their annual luncheon at the Hotel du Cap, and Lord Lew Grade still had his annual seances and product announcements. By the end of the decade, some of the craziness had seeped away. There was a sense that the movie business had consolidated, and was being run along saner but less colorful lines. At the beginning of the decade, the Majestic Bar and Le Petit Carlton were still places you went to for fun. By the end, everybody in them seemed to be talking about contracts. In 1990, there were far more American journalists covering Cannes than in 1980, but was the story as much fun? Where was Menahem, with his 40-page barrage of new projects? Where was the Salkind air force? We were left with small consolations: At least the leopard ladies still kept the faith.

Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert has been covering the festival since the 1970s.