The Deauville Festival of American Cinema first saw the light of Normandy in 1975. Other locations had been considered, including Biarritz, but the then-mayor of Deauville, Michel d’Ornano — for whom the fest’s annual screenwriting prize is named — was “completely enthusiastic and supportive about hosting our nascent event,” according to fest co-founder, TV commentator Andre Halimi.
Halimi and PR honcho Lionel Chouchan had found a home for what they envisioned as a place to check out current innovations in alternative and low-budget filmmaking from America and to showcase forthcoming studio releases (keeping in mind that the summer season is almost a dead loss for film exhibition in Gaul, autumn in France being analogous to blockbuster-friendly summers in the U.S.)
Already glamorous thanks to its palatial hotels and pleasant waterfront, the resort town became even more firmly linked with movie glamour when Claude Lelouch used it as the backdrop for the 1966 Palme d’Or winner “A Man and a Woman.”
The first edition ran for five days with screenings that included three docus by Frederick Wiseman as well as Artie and Jim Mitchell’s “Behind the Green Door,” Russ Meyer’s “Supervixens,” Paul Bartel’s “Death Race 2000” and Robert Altman’s “Nashville.”
Former studio exec-turned-Paris-based subtitler Alexander “Sandy” Whitelaw showed his first film, the Klaus Kinski starrer “Lifespan” at the maiden edition.
“I went up on the train from Paris with all the critics, including Gene Moskowitz of Variety and Thomas Quinn Curtis of the Intl. Herald Tribune,” Whitelaw recalls, “and we had a great time. I remember thinking, ‘Too bad it’s not going to be like this on the way back’ but, in fact, my film was very well-received. Deauville definitely was responsible for my getting a French distributor.”
Although some parties question the wisdom of redecorating Elizabeth Taylor’s hotel suite in an effort to match the color of the star’s eyes, general consensus is that Deauville has managed to swing an enviable blend of the casual and the glamorous.
Then there was the time elegant garb posed problems for honoree Lana Turner in 1981.
“There was a formal dinner in her honor and she spent the entire evening trying to decide between a black dress and a white dress,” recalls festival rep Ruda Dauphin who has been at every fest since the second edition. “When she finally opted for the black dress, the dinner was over and everyone had left — except Sean Connery who, ever the gentleman, waited for her.”
Subsequent attendees have practically likened Deauville’s aphrodisiac powers to the healing waters at Lourdes. Eddie Murphy had no qualms about qualifying Deauville as “the sexiest little town.” Kevin Smith ambled down from his first night at the four-star Hotel Normandy to express his amazement — as did “Escape From L.A.” helmer John Carpenter — that French TV is mighty racy compared to American tube fare. And fast friends Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones first met last year at Deauville, where he was the subject of a tribute and she was tub-thumping for “The Mask of Zorro.”
In 1992, Deauville opened its sleek convention center, the C.I.D. Celebs on hand for the dedication included Claudette Colbert, Arlene Dahl, Clint Eastwood, Jack Lemmon, Paul Schrader, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, George Stevens Jr., astronaut Buzz Aldrin, and thesping legends Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn.
“Jessica and Hume told me they’d never been to a film festival before,” Dauphin notes.
The auditorium is one of Deauville’s biggest selling points for filmmakers.
“After John Woo showed ‘Face/Off’ there he told us it was the best showing of his he’d ever seen,” Benzakein says. “And when Sean Penn brought ‘The Crossing Guard’ after Venice, he couldn’t get over how state-of-the art our screening facility was compared to his experience on the Lido.”
The fest has seen everyone from Debbie Reynolds and Elia Kazan to Andy Warhol and Pia Zadora. Deauville’s 10th anniversary year bash was attended by Jodie Foster, Farrah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal. In 1987 alone Deauville mounted tributes to Bette Davis, Janet Leigh, Shirley MacLaine, Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Stewart Granger, Robert Parrish and Brian de Palma.
For Dauphin, 1994’s special program devoted to WWII, arranged with support from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, was an indelible highlight. The families of the war’s most famous French and American generals attended, and Maxine Andrews of the Andrews Sisters sang. Depsite such luminaries as Sharon Stone, Kevin Costner, Tom Hanks, Travolta and Jack Nicholson, and heartthrobs such as James Mason and Yul Brynner — not to mention Rupert Everett and Ewan McGregor — having been to Deauville over the years, it is a surprising pair of thesps that shattered the star-o-meter.
“The two people we needed the most — and the beefiest — bodyguards for were Richard Chamberlain (1990) and Richard Widmark (1991). Chamberlain was so familiar from his TV work that women just swooned wherever he went. And when Widmark walked the streets people tore the buttons off his shirt,” Dauphin says.
Other fans came by their mementos via a more civilized procedure. In 1989, journalist Patrice Votier of the French satirical weekly Le Canard enchaine came to Deauville to meet Robert Mitchum — who agreed to a tribute when he happened to find himself in Nice for a shoot, after which he spent two leisurely weeks wending his way north to Deauville. Votier and the star exchanged cigarette lighters: Votier got the utilitarian Zippo Mitchum carried in the Army — and Mitchum got Votier’s 16 karat-gold Dunhill. Both men considered it a fair trade.
Restaurateur Elaine Kaufman’s dinners at snazzy eatery La Ferme Saint-Simon are legendary, as are current Mayor Anne d’Ornano’s fetes for showbiz kingpins, such as Jack Valenti, whose birthday falls on Sept. 5. The MPAA topper, who always spends a few days in Deauville after Venice, admits he “[hasn’t] had a birthday back home for 25 years — and I’m certainly not complaining.”
French-born Colbert also had a birthday bash in Deauville. And Robert Wise, born Sept. 10, celebrated his 80th birthday in 1994 with a special tribute reel from splicemeister Chuck Workman to mark the occasion. Wise made sure he’d wrap his latest shoot in Vancouver — with Peter Falk for Showtime — just in time to return for his 85th birthday.
“Robert Wise told me he wanted to make 40 movies and this is his 40th, so he’s reached his goal,” Dauphin remarks.
Several fest observers concur that the competition — launched on the fest’s 20th anniversary and devoted exclusively to American indies — helped rejuvenate the event.
“The competition has perked things up by giving us an opportunity to invite way more French people since the jury is almost entirely French,” Dauphin says.
And for those who won’t be attending the 25th anniversary festivities, a souvenir book with each year’s lineup, poster and photos is slated to hit bookstores soon.