As we embark on 69th Cannes Film Festival, the eternal question returns: Why is it that the two most prestigious and glamorous events in cinema — the Riviera festival and the Academy Awards — never seem to agree on what a Best Picture should be?
Since 1955, when Cannes began handing out the Palme d’Or — a top prize equivalent to Oscar’s Best Picture — the two have been in agreement just once. That was right at the start, when the Ernest Borgnine starrer Marty picked up both prizes.
It was the eighth Cannes Film Festival that year; prior to 1955 the festival had awarded only a Grand Prix, and in 1946 the eventual Best Picture winner, Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, was among 11 films that collected that prize. Indeed, Cannes that year followed Oscar’s lead in giving Best Actor winner Ray Milland its male actor prize. And several other actors have matched Oscar and Cannes success for the same film, including Sophia Loren, Simone Signoret, Sally Field, Jon Voight, Holly Hunter, Christoph Waltz and Jean Dujardin.
But since Marty’s dual victory, not a single movie has won both the Best Picture Oscar and Palme d’Or. I have a feeling that it has only even come tantalizingly close once since then, and that was in 2002 when Roman Polanski took the Palme d’Or for The Pianist, a movie that went on to win Oscars for Director, Screenplay and Actor, only to lose Best Picture to Chicago by what must surely have been the tiniest of margins considering the strength of The Pianist in those key categories that usually signal a Best Pic win.
Certainly Cannes has had many opportunities to give the Palme d’Or to Oscar’s Best Picture winners since. All About Eve, An American in Paris, From Here to Eternity, No Country for Old Men and The Artist all have played in competition but did not receive the ultimate Cannes accolade to match their eventual Academy Award. Best Picture Oscar nominees that did win the Palme d’Or include Friendly Persuasion, MASH, The Conversation, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, All That Jazz, Missing, The Piano, Pulp Fiction, Secrets and Lies, The Tree of Life and most recently Amour. It is probably true that the Palme d’Or win for those nominees did nothing to hurt their chances in gaining entry into Oscar’s Best Picture race, but it seems that — since Marty, at least — a Palme d’Or does nothing to seal the deal with Academy voters.
Perhaps that is why so many potential Oscar contenders are reticent to debut in the not-so-Oscar-friendly period of May, when the Cannes festival rolls around. One top studio executive echoed that thought. “If you know you have the goods, then Cannes is a good bet to launch, but if you are at all unsure of what the reception might be, I would say it is too big a risk to take for any potential Oscar campaign.” That doesn’t mean his studio wouldn’t consider Cannes; just that you have to proceed with caution.
That not only goes for awards contenders, it applies to the box office as well. A Cannes misfire can do irreparable damage to a movie. Just take the case of last year’s Gus Van Sant competition entry, The Sea of Trees. On paper it would seem a sure thing for Cannes, with a director who has won a Palme d’Or winner (Elephant) and a strong cast including Matthew McConaughey — fresh off an Oscar win. But after it was booed by a loud portion of the audience at its early-morning press screening, the film never was able to recover. Roadside Attractions, which had picked up the film for U.S. distribution just before the festival, is no longer releasing it, and a new distributor has yet to be announced.
Cannes favorites and Palme d’Or winners Joel and Ethan Coen have had a checkered history with the fest. O Brother, Where Art Thou? had a weak reception in the South of France and struggled to recover six months later when Disney opened the film in America with the eventual help of a smash soundtrack that turned it into a hit. No Country for Old Men won no prizes in Cannes but eventually swept awards season all the way to a big triumph at the Academy Awards in 2007. The brothers’ biggest Cannes triumph on the other hand, Barton Fink, which won the 1991 Palme d’Or, received only three relatively minor Oscar nominations, and not a single one for the Coens themselves.
As you can see, sometimes Cannes and Oscar just don’t see eye-to-eye. Of last year’s competition entries, only eventual Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Son of Saul scored an Academy Award, yet out of competition entries Mad Max: Fury Road and Inside Out won seven Oscars between them. Sometimes it pays not to compete.
So what are the crossover prospects for this year’s crop? Two-time Oscar winner Pedro Almodovar is back with Julieta, and still seeking his first Palme d’Or. Two-time Best Actor winner Sean Penn directs Oscar winner Charlize Theron in The Last Face. And, sight unseen, Jeff Nichols’ competition entry Loving would seem to be the one to watch, as Focus Features already has given the film its prime November awards-season slot where The Danish Girl and The Theory Of Everything thrived in the past two years.
And, just because of their strong Oscar pedigrees, out of competition entries The BFG from Steven Spielberg, Money Monster from Oscar winners George Clooney, Julia Roberts and director Jodie Foster and opener Café Society from Woody Allen will be watched carefully for their Academy possibilities.
But, in the end, will Oscar voters even care?
A version of this article also appears in Deadline’s special 10th Anniversary Magazine.