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Cannes 1980: Mid-Festival Report

Cannes, France – Notes after a week of non-stop moviegoing and partygoing at the Cannes Film Festival, an annual event involving 500 movies about people trying to find themselves, attended by 35,000 people trying to find each other:

It was interesting to observe the audience’s reaction during and after the early morning press screening of Sam Fuller’s “The Big Red One,” an exercise in hard-boiled sentimentality about World War II. The audience seemed divided between those who were booing the film because of its collection of war movie cliches, and those who were applauding for the same reason.

Fuller is a cigar-smoking, tough-talking Hollywood veteran of “B” action movies that are much prized by the French critics. He says he based this movie on his own war experiences – and, if so, he must have seen an incredible amount of action. The movie (coming to Chicago in September) follows a squad leader (Lee Marvin) and four of his men as they survive blood-soaked campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium and Germany, before finally liberating death camps in Poland.

Robert Carradine plays the Fuller autobiographical role, chomping on big cigars (How did he get them in Africa?) and writing pulp gangster novels between battles. The kid treats his buddies to a wild party in a Belgium whorehouse after making his first sale to Hollywood.

The movie is cheerfully old-fashioned. (It’s even filmed in the pre-widescreen standard-screen ratio.) There are scenes we’ve somehow seen before, like the little orphan kid putting flowers on the helmet of the GI who has befriended him, and the new recruit saying something ironically poignant just before he’s blown up. But the movie is directed with a lot of straightforward, uncompromising energy (Fuller’s trademark), and the people who liked it seemed to admire its willingness to be unfashionable, to avoid a “modern” angle on battles that are legend.

It has been raining for four days here, and on Wednesday the unions went on strike for a better health-care plan. That meant that the lights were off all over town, and several screenings were interrupted when the projectionists walked out.

Strikes are an annual event at Cannes. They consist of hundreds of workers marching back and forth in front of the Palais du Festival, waving banners and chanting slogans while, a block away on the Carlton Terrace, producers take advantage of the break in screenings to make (or, more likely, talk about making) big deals.

This year’s festival chutzpah award goes to Patrick Terrail, owner of Ma Maison, the Beverly Hills restaurant that’s so popular it has an unlisted phone number. Terrail was saddened by the thought that many of his regular customers would have to do without his specialties during their two weeks in France, and so he has opened a French branch of Ma Maison just for the festival.

He opened it by renting quarters in the old Chateau La Napoule, a vast stone edifice six kilometers outside of town, and flew in 800 pounds of New York strip steaks for starters. Several of his loyal Beverly Hills customers have held big dinner parties at the new Ma Maison, occasionally to the disgruntlement of guests who spent the last 50 weeks eating at Ma Maison in Los Angeles. Their thoughts about an American flying in to open his own festival restaurant are unprintable.

Second prize in the chutzpah sweepstakes goes to New York producer Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter, who’s producing Rex Reed’s film diary of the Cannes Film Festival, which will be telecast in June. Tired of seeing everyone else with official credentials at the festival every year, Billy decided to issue his own: He printed up huge placards for all of his staff (and dozens of his friends) to wear, signifying that the bearer represents the World International Television network.

Baxter is delighted at the way the French seem to be honoring his credentials. “When you get right down to the nitty-gritty,” he chortles, “all these credentials certify is that they’re being worn by the bearer.”

You know this is an off-year for Cannes when the No.1 sex symbol in attendance is Harry Reems, the star of “Deep Throat” and dozens of other hardcore porno films, who retired from the porno market after being charged with obscenity in a well-publicized case in Kansas City. Now he’s doing respectable, mainstream exploitation films, and is here to promote “The Clean-Up Squad,” a comedy about a Canadian vice detective inspired by (you guessed it) his prosecutor in Kansas City.

Reems hasn’t appeared in explicit footage for five years but he still wins some raised eyebrows from curious women on the Carlton Terrace. “There were years,” he remembers, “when I would have 20 films showing in this festival – all of them in hotel rooms.”

Quote overheard in the rain: “This weather is ruining the festival. There’s nothing you can do but go to the movies.”

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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