In the middle of each May, the Cannes Film Festival kicks off a fortnight of cinematic revelry on the French Riviera, and the stakes for movies with artistic ambitions couldn’t be higher. A top prize in the Festival’s main competition — the world’s most influential of its kind — often results in millions at the foreign box office.
The prizes are awarded by an international jury comprised of filmmakers, critics and cineastes. After two weeks of eyeballing main competition features, they huddle, argue, carry on, and finally vote on which prize goes to which film.
The results are then splashed across a lavishly-staged, Oscar-like television extravaganza at the Festival’s conclusion. The event draws big audiences throughout Europe, and is usually spiced by the presence of at least one Hollywood star.
In 1980, the main man at the 33rd Cannes Festival was our own Kirk Douglas, who was named to the influential post of Cannes jury president after Swedish director Ingmar Bergman bowed out at the last minute. To please his French-born wife, Douglas reluctantly took on the job — which came with the twin perks of a limo and a suite at an expensive hotel near Cannes.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here to welcome back Hy Hollinger, our longtime pal and veteran Hollywood correspondent –who has covered many a Cannes Festival — to chronicle the saga of Douglas vs. the French, or more specifically, Douglas vs. the French bureaucrats in charge.
No Cannes Festival can end without disappointment, a rhubarb or two and a touch of comedy, Hollinger accurately reported in the May 28, 1980 edition of weekly Variety, an account which Hy provided to us “exclooseevely,” as Louella Parsons used to pronounce it.
The Cannes Festival jury’s screening processes that year went without a hitch, but when it came time to decided the all-important movie prizes, the merde hit the fan.
Douglas, a true-blue American who believed in playing strictly by the rules, was bewildered and perturbed by last-minute efforts by festival officials to alter the agreed-upon prize structure in favor of a French-made movie.
Instead of sticking to their original decision — to split the top Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) prize between Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz and to Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha — the jury without Douglas (who was back at his hotel) caved into bureaucratic pressure.
They voted to split the Palme d’Or THREE ways by also including Mon Oncle d’Amerique directed by Frenchman Alain Resnais, a move that upgraded the movie from its previously voted second prize (the Grand Prix Special du Jury) status.
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering was done without his knowledge, Douglas told Hollinger. What also ticked off the actor was the president of the Festival’s decision to hold a televised press conference announcing the prizewinners without Dougas’ participation, explaining that he was ill and could not attend, which was untrue.
The actor told Hollinger that by splitting the top prize three ways, the status of the second prize category was automatically diminished.
You can’t eliminate a prize, he said. You have to abide by the regulations…I thought it was wrong to award three first prizes . It gets to be a joke to have so many winners. I was against it and I don’t believe in it, he told Hy.
For his pains, Douglas was later verbally taken to task by other jury members, notably by a French critic. Hy contacted Douglas in New York and here’s the actor’s response: I took the assignment in the last minute when (Bergman) dropped out. Why should I try to be detrimental? They may not agree with me. But why such a personal attack?
Ah, those naughty French.