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Cannes 1980: Dinner on the A-List

Cannes, France – Scott Fitzgerald, that poetic chronicler of the lives of the rich, the beautiful and the famous, should have had my seat for dinner last night at Le Moulin des Mougins. By the time the sorbet came to clear the palate between the fish course and the entrée, he would already have seen through the glitter into what was no doubt the ennui beneath. The glitter was enough for me.

The dinner was for 28 people – figure $6,000 minimum – at the most fashionable restaurant in this district. The guest of honor was Donald March, the man in charge of the new theatrical film division of CBS. But nobody hands out press releases at events like this. You spend four hours in witty conversation, interrupted from time to time by another course from a kitchen that has been given the savagely coveted three-star rating by the Guide Michelin.

The Guide Michelin awards its stars this way: One star means the restaurant is worth a visit. Two means it is worth a detour. Three means it is worth a trip. Our trip to Le Moulin begins at the bar of the Hotel Majestic, where graying men in tuxedos and their elegant ladies in evening gowns pause for a cocktail before going off to the evening screening in the festival. But we are not going to the movies tonight. (I personally, for that matter, went to the movies at 8 this morning, in the rain – but never mind, the journalist’s life is a hard one.)

The Mercedes limousines line up in front of the hotel. Wait… they’re not limos, they’re taxicabs. One forgets that this is the Riviera, where taxis are Mercedes and the drivers hope to pay them off with three trips. We get into the cars and are whisked out of Cannes and up into the hills, whisked past the old cemetery and up onto winding country roads past villas with names like “Shangri-La.” Mougins is a tiny hill village that has one of the highest concentrations of great restaurants in the world – and if you don’t believe me, consult Gourmet magazine, whose editors recently pigged out in Mougins for what sounds like weeks.

Le Moulin is owned by Roger Verge, one of the great chefs of Europe. It is a villa of moderate size, on a hillside with an elegant country garden – wildflowers in studied disarray. Inside, rare works of art line the walls, the effect tempered by antiques, pottery, a very precise clutter of artistic treasures. We wait in the bar. Waiters bring Perrier or champagne. We are almost hugging ourselves, we are so exclusive: There is something to be said for running with your own crowd, as Lord Lew Grade was explaining on his yacht last year.

We are Kirk Douglas, president of this year’s, Cannes jury, and actress Leslie Caron, a jury member, and Jerzy Kosinski, the Polish novelist, and Pete Hamill, the New York writer, and Krzysztof Zanussi, the great Polish filmmaker, and Beryl Vertue, the vice president of the Robert Stigwood organization, and we are, of course, also journalists:

Sir Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard, and Charles Champlin, film critic of the Los Angeles Times and a jury member, and Rex Reed and Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News, and Wanda McDaniel of the King Syndicate, and Susan Heller Anderson of the New York Times, and your own humble correspondent, from Chicago, on the “A” list at last.

I am sitting across from Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter, who is so awed by Le Moulin that it takes him nearly 30 seconds to tip the headwaiter a silver dollar and shout out, “Irving, brang ‘em on,” to the barman, whose name is Andre, but who knows that “Le Silver Dollar,” as he is allegedly fondly known, believes all waiters are named Irving.

On my right is Vertue, an Englishwoman who is one of the most successful producers in movies and television. She is making a TV movie named “Parole” in Boston and has had a hand in “Grease,” “Saturday Night Fever” and other Stigwood enterprises. What do you talk to her about?

You can’t get through a four-hour dinner at a three-star restaurant just by telling light bulb jokes.

“I have taken up a new hobby,” Vertue tells me.

“Oh, really,” I say, trying to merge attention and amusement into a civilized dinner-table style. Baxter does not have these problems: “Irving, brang ‘em on.”

“Yes,” says Vertue, “I have taken up shooting.”

“Target practice?”

“Heavens, no. In the country. We have friends who have 16,000 acres in Scotland, and we go up there for three days and it clears the mind so wonderfully well.”

“I’ve never shot a gun,” I say. “I know some people who have, but, Scotland…”

“Each day is a ritual,” says Vertue, as the waiters clear away our lobster salad and bring finely sliced salmon in a light chive sauce. “We get up at dawn, have a big breakfast of bacon and eggs, and go out onto the land. We wear everything we have because it’s bloody cold. From the blinds, we can see, far off on the horizon, the beaters approaching, and the occasional sudden flash of a bird. At lunch, we repair to huts where the cooks have brought wonderful things – soups and stews and sloe gin – and then we shoot in the afternoon and then there’s time to hike or fish or rest before dinner at 9. Most completely relaxing…”

“I oughta get you up to my place in Monticello, upstate New York,” says Billy Baxter. “We could relax over shooting a couple of bear.”

“You live in upstate?” asks Vertue.

“And downstate. I own some horses. I rode in the restaurant-owners’ race last year and won. Howdaya like these?”

From his jacket pocket, he removes official casino markers worth 40,000 francs. “Ten grand in American money,” says Billy. “I did OK. They still remember me from the day I took Edy Williams in over there at the casino and she jumped up on the roulette table and pulled one string and her dress hit the floor.”

“They’d remember you anyway, Billy,” says Sir Alexander Walker of the London Evening Standard.

“Sir Alex…” says Billy, “we gotta get together for a top-flight private lunch.”

“I’m afraid I’m leaving tomorrow,” says Walker. “I’m flying to New York to see Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining.’”

“Stanley and Sir Alex are old buddy-boys,” says Baxter to Vertue. “Stanley never makes a move without him.”

“Surely only Stanley could arrange things the way ‘The Shining’ is being handled,” Walker says. “The London critics are being flown to New York to see the movie, and the American critics are being flown to London to see the movie. Meanwhile, all the major critics from both countries are here at Cannes.”

“Why doesn’t Kubrick show it here?" asks Baxter.

“He doesn’t have a print.”

“Why doesn’t he use one of the prints from New York or London?”

“Oh, Billy, only you would think of that.”

We have in the meantime cleared our palates with the sorbet and moved on to the chicken en croute, baked in casseroles with a pastry shell, and still to come is the cheese course, the apricot tart, the coffee and the cigars.

“I am so confused,” says Jerzy Kosinski. “I came here determined to speak French, and I am concentrating on French so much that I can’t remember my English and have started to address everyone in Polish, under the impression that it’s French.”

“Look at this cheese,” says Susan Heller Anderson of the New York Times. “Why do some of them have little flags in them?”

“Those are the ones,” says Billy Baxter, “that surrendered.”

“Rex Reed filed a story the other day,” someone says, “that started out, ‘For 11 months out of the year, Cannes is a sleepy little fishing village…’”

“Ha…” says Baxter. “Cannes hasn’t been a sleepy little fishing village for 200 years. All they’re fishing for is us.”

There is a crescent moon in a velvet sky as the great automobile purrs softly back down the hill toward Cannes. The city curves around its bay, its lights glittering like jewels and out on the darkness of the Mediterranean the running lights of the great private yachts rise and fall softly on the water. The wind through the windows is a warm, dry caress. On the radio Ella Fitzgerald sings “Don’t know why there are clouds in the sky… stormy weather.” And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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