The U.S. Are Top of the Steps at the Cannes Film Festival

The Cannes Film Festival was also a promise made to the United States. Founded at the beginning of World War II, the event wasn’t held for the first time until 1946. The festival’s posters have often drawn inspiration from U.S. cinema ever since, and the Americans are out in force on the Croisette almost every year. After all, they’ve been in Cannes since the very start.
© Associated Press

The original event was supported by the United States, and met a pressing political need: competing against the fascist Venice Film Festival by creating a major film festival for the free world. Joseph Goebbels rigged the awards for the 1938 edition, and two propaganda films – including one by German director Leni Riefenstahl – received the “Mussolini Cup.” Jean Zay, the then Minister of National Education and Fine Arts, launched the festival in spring 1939 (when the Nazis occupied Prague). He was assisted by the senior civil servant and historian Philippe Erlanger. The project was driven by the French government and supported by the American film industry, in an attempt to fight back against Germany and Italy. The United States refused to take part in the next Venetian festival, and headed to Southern France.

There were also economic issues at stake, including resisting Italian embargos on the import and use of U.S. movies. A breakfast in honor of Jean Zay was hosted on July 23 by American cinema representatives, and technical aspects of the future festival were discussed. The French authorities took a liking to the U.S. sales rep, Daniel Reagan, and the major Hollywood studios, who requested the total opening of the French market. A decree on August 10, 1939, lifted French restrictions on dubbed films, a detail of the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agreements which has now been forgotten.

The United States entered The Wizard of Oz by Victor Fleming, Stanley and Livingstone by Henry King and Otto Brower, and Union Pacific by Cecil B. DeMille for the selection. As for the film stars, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer chartered a cruise liner to get Gary Cooper and Norma Shearer to the festival. Parties were organized every evening in late August to announce the upcoming inaugural banquet on September 1, the day the Wehrmacht invaded Poland.

The festival was therefore born in 1939, administratively speaking, but never actually took place. War washed over Europe in the following years. Jean Zay passed away, but his idea survived and Philippe Erlander took up the torch. Secret funding was unlocked in 1946, and the organizers had four months to get ready for the festival’s opening night. There were still a number of glitches in the first edition, however: a reel of Hitchcock’s Notorious was forgotten during a showing at the former Cannes casino. French actress Michèle Morgan also used the festival to come back to France after spending time in Hollywood.

Everything that happens outside of the city’s darkened rooms is meaningless, and therefore essential. Celebrities tan under the hot Mediterranean sun, and it is thanks to them that the festival has become one of the world’s most mediatized events. Some American films were selected, and often presented out of competition, to ensure the right people make their way up the steps. The first starlets began strutting their stuff in 1953. The photographers only had eyes (and lenses) for Brigitte Bardot, while Kirk Douglas set about putting her hair into bunches.

A scandal broke in 1955 during a picnic on the Lérins Islands, when the young British actress Simone Silva was photographed without her bikini top in the arms of American actor Robert Mitchum. The American public was outraged, and the United States threatened to boycott the festival. The event’s president, Robert Favre Le Bret, was quickly sent to the U.S. authorities to persuade the Americans to stay in the competition. Shocked producers prevented Grace Kelly from going to the festival, which had garnered a reputation as a place of debauchery. And what went on in the hotels also got people talking. Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty once disappeared into thin air, hidden in a suite at the Carlton. “Wood has gone to bed,” the gossips whispered mockingly.

The festival was also a chance to celebrate cinematic heritage, and Groucho Marx was named an Officer of Arts and Letters (although requested that his medal be sent to the pawn shop to pay for his tab at the hotel minibar). Some years later Sharon Stone became the iconic star of Cannes with the 1992 erotic thriller Basic Instinct. She has continued to attend every year as the ambassador for the amfAR foundation for AIDS research.

Political Jousting during the Cold War

Cannes is more than just a luxury bubble. The film selection often reflected current tensions or hinted at things to come. Jean Cocteau, president of the jury on many occasions, wanted the event to remain “a gathering of friends,” free from political interests. The choice of jury members, often from literary and political spheres and appointed by the French government, was regularly criticized. Somewhat inevitably, the festival became the setting for a number of scuffles during the Cold War.

The organizers offered the Americans special treatment in order to ensure their presence, and U.S. military ships and cruise liners from the studios were allowed to moor in the bay before the festival. This offended local inhabitants and the countries in the Eastern Block, who had previously refused to take part due to the fact the festival only allowed for one Soviet selection, compared with twelve for the United States. Cannes needed to be rebalanced, and Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes Are Flying was awarded the only Palme d’or ever won by the U.S.S.R. in 1958. Tensions grew over the years, and even in 1956 the press criticized the international gathering that “increasingly looked like the U.N.” That year also saw the end of censoring by the jury, and the organizers hoped to put art before diplomatic machinations. Although a certain political ambiance still remained. In response to the controversy that followed William Wyler’s Friendly Persuasion winning the Palme d’Or in 1957, Jean Cocteau declared that “Crown an American and you are a sell-out to the U.S.A. Crown a Russian and you are a communist.”

It was in 1955 that the Grand Prize was transformed into a solid gold palm, in reference to the city’s coat of arms and the trees along the promenade. The very first Palme d’or was awarded to American director Delbert Mann’s movie, Marty, and the United States have won the most awards to date. The very same year, the screening of Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones sparked another scandal. The film was a musical comedy adaptation of George Bizet’s French masterpiece, Carmen, and starred a cast of black actors. Several French festivalgoers just couldn’t stomach such transgressions, nor could the heirs of the original version’s librettists. Following a court case, the movie disappeared from France until 1981.

Cannes as a Platform for Rebellion

A wind of rebellion caused the festival to finish early in 1968, and Cannes embraced the emergence of New Hollywood and counterculture with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider the following year. Producer Sam Spiegel opened his yacht up to the jury, while Jack Nicholson started growing cannabis in the boxes of geraniums at the Carlton. The festival began cultivating its taste for arthouse cinema and films speaking out against the Vietnam War, and awarded the Palme d’Or to MASH (Robert Altman, 1970). Francis Ford Coppola was another New Hollywood figure, and won the Palme d’Or twice for his post-Watergate thriller The Conversation (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979). His fellow director Martin Scorsese also won the festival’s ultimate prize in 1976 with Taxi Driver, awarded by Tennessee Williams.

Independent American films dominated the following decade, with works such as Wild at Heart by David Lynch, and Barton Fink by the Cohen brothers. Many selected movies were in fact directed by foreign directors who had immigrated to the United States. The festival also played a role as a hotbed of experimentation, although the results were not always positive. John Waters’ Polyester was presented in 1981 in an “Odorama” version; audiences were given little cards to scratch and sniff throughout different scenes in the film.

In the early 2000s, the big Hollywood bosses were tempted to boycott the festival on the grounds that it offered little financial incentive. “And yet Cannes has always defended mainstream American cinema,” says Frédéric Mitterrand, a festival regular and biographer. Thierry Frémaux became the new president of the festival, and set about forging new ties with U.S. cinema. The festival has regularly given Americans a platform from which to send messages back home. Jury president in 2002, David Lynch declared that “you won’t see these films in America. It’s sad, it’s shameful for America. And shame on those who want to control this cinema.” The year 2004 was another politically charged edition, when Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 received the Palme d’Or. The film takes a direct shot at the Bush administration, and Quentin Tarentino happened to be the jury president. And in 2013, Steven Spielberg sang the praises of the French film industry, stating that “cultural exception is the best way of preserving the diversity of cinema.”

Under the Palace Hotels, a Marketplace

Throughout May, the Cannes seafront and every nook and cranny on the Croisette are plastered with giant posters for upcoming films. The ubiquity of films from America, the land of the billboard, is visually staggering. Behind the scenes, the festival hides the world’s biggest film market, and most movies presented are independent English-language productions. “When a studio starts working on a new film, we always have an idea of its release date and what role the Cannes Film Festival will play,” says Grégoire Gensollen, senior vice-president of FilmNation Entertainment. “An official selection at Cannes immediately gives the film a certain aura.” Producers also visit the markets looking for distributors for their films. Signing with an American distributor often pushes other international distributors to commit to a feature film. The movie rights are bought long before the film’s eventual release, some two or three years in advance.

Whether in films flying the Stars and Strips or in speeches from international directors paying homage to the United States, American cinema is a constant presence at the festival. Cannes has become a celebrity reservoir, and a must-visit hotspot for artists and film buffs alike. As Jean Pierre Oudart wrote in the Cahiers du cinéma, “it is good to cultivate the part of America that many films have developed within us, and to use it to explore new ideas about cinema and media.” For the world’s leading film festival, and one that wants to remain avant-garde, there’s no turning back now.

Article published in the May 2014 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.