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Cannes, 1981: A study in the art of being rude

The following article was originally published on May 21st, 1981.

For the latest developments in the human art of being rude, no place offers a better opportunity for study than a press conference at the Cannes Film Festival. The very words "press conference" carry a genteel connotation unknown to the packs of scandalmongers and paparazzi who descend upon the movie stars after the screening of major films.

Take, for example, Sunday's experience by Jack Nicholson, Jessica Lange and Bob Rafelson, the stars and the director of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”. Nicholson and Lange had arrived several days early and prepared for the ordeal by intensive sunbathing sessions around the pool at the Hotel Majestic. Rafelson flew in from London, where he had spent a week explaining that the British would quite likely appreciate his film more than the Americans, who had made it a U.S. box-office disappointment.

He was right about the British: “Postman” is setting box-­office records in London. But the Continental reception for his film is impossible to gauge - how do you take the temperature of a mob?

“Postman” was screened four times Sunday at Cannes. The evening screening was a formal affair, with the movie tycoons in their tuxedos and their ladies in long dresses. The morning press screening resembled a reunion of Students for a Democratic Society. Hordes of young film buffs, some of them with dubious credentials, descended upon the Palais du Festival to sink into the overstuffed chairs and regard the screen, which is always framed by incongruous displays of flowers. After giving the film a somewhat cool reception, they trampled upstairs to the fourth floor of the Palais, where security guards in tuxedos fought a losing battle in trying to check credentials.

The press conference was scheduled for half an hour earlier. There wasn't a seat to be had. Television crews jammed the aisles. Technicians with mini-cams stood on chairs. Floodlights from the networks of five nations made the room unbearably hot. Rows and rows of print journalists could see nothing but the backs of the paparazzi, who jammed the area in front of the conference table.

Nicholson, Lange and Rafelson were half an hour late. They were preceded by announcements that only three minutes of taking pictures would be strictly enforced, and then the photographers would have to sit down so those in back could see. Loud cheers from those in back, and sardonic laughter from the paparazzi. Suddenly a wave of excitement ran through the crowd, followed by Rafelson and Nicholson. The paparazzi went into Kodak orgasms, climbing on each other's shoulders to take what will no doubt turn out to be unfocused close-ups of Jack Nicholson's ear.

"Ladies and gentlemen, please!" screamed Richard Roud. (He has been the festival's translator for years and must know that none of the paparazzi fall into those two categories.) A human wall of security men succeeded in escorting Jessica Lange through the crush. Strobe lights were flashing so constantly that the stars were blinded. A fistfight broke out between a TV cameraman and a photographer who was trying to stand in front of him on the same chair.

After 10 minutes of chaos, the photographers were mostly persuaded to desist. It was hard to understand exactly what their excitement was about: They were all taking the same picture of several people seated at a table behind microphones and water pitcher.

"Are you all done?" Roud screamed into his microphone.

"They've been done for weeks," Nicholson said.

It was time for the questions. The questions at a Cannes press conference are almost always as arcane as the photographers are bestial. One question, I see from my notes, touches on Rafelson's motives for remaking “The Postman Always Rings Twice," his choice of Sven Nykvist for cameraman, and rumors that Nicholson had used Gary Gilmore as the inspiration for his performance. By the time the question had been translated into English and the answers translated into French, it all hardly mattered since no one could remember how the exchange had begun.

My favorite exchange went like this:

Q. (From French intellectual in tinted glasses, with cigarette in mouth.) What did you wear during that scene?

A. NICHOLSON: What scene?

Q. Not you, Monsieur Rafelson.

A. RAFELSON: What scene?

Q. That scene of the lovemaking on the table.

A. NICHOLSON: Oh, yeah, that scene.

A. RAFELSON: You mean what did Jack wear?

Q. No, what did you wear?

A. RAFELSON: What did I wear while I was directing the scene?

Q. Oui.

A. RICHARD ROUD: Next question.

Another questioner asked Nicholson what differences there were between working for Stanley Kubrick, who directed him in “The Shining”, and Rafelson, who also directed him in “Five Easy Pieces”.

"Well, Bob works much faster than Stanley. Apart from that, they're both great artists who both think I'm the best actor in the world."

Next question: Why did Rafelson choose Sven Nykvist to be his cinematographer?

"He has worked a great deal in black and white."

"But… your film is in color."

"Yes, but with an awareness of black and white. Also, he is deaf in his right ear and I am deaf in my left ear, so we can communicate very easily. If we were both deaf in the same ear, it would be more difficult."'

Why, asked another journalist, did you both want to make a new version of “The Postman Always Rings Twice”?

Said Rafelson: "Ten years ago, I discussed John Garfield's version of “Postman” with Jack, because I felt that Jack's career would follow the same lines as Garfield's 10 years later. Jack asked me to make a new version of “Postman” thinking that I had always wanted to," said Rafelson.

After an hour of this, Roud announced an end to the press conference, and the guards successfully escorted the stars from the building. What was learned by the press? It is very hard to say. What was the purpose or the conference? Perhaps all the press conferences at Cannes are some form of divine retribution, in which movie stars are taught that if they want to have their moment of glory on a 60-foot screen framed with flowers, they are going to have to pay for that privilege by proving, for an hour afterward, that they are good enough sports to star in a circus.

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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