Bart & Fleming: Woody Allen, Roald Dahl And How Nasty Narratives Superseded Films At Cannes

By Peter Bart, Mike Fleming Jr

Steven Spielberg Cannes

Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.

BART: Celebrity intrigue seemed to dominate Cannes coverage last week just as celebrity news confiscated political coverage in the U.S. At the festival, the press-savvy Woody Allen walked into a minefield (why did he bother to show?) while George Clooney and Jodie Foster faithfully worked the red carpets in an effort to find an international audience for a domestic thriller. peter-bart-mike-fleming-badge-verticalMeanwhile America’s so-called conservatives and evangelicals were coming to terms with the fact that their candidate is a by-the-numbers Hollywood womanizer who seems to have hit on every pretty girl he ever met. The august New York Times saw fit to adorn its Sunday first page with a massive series of interviews with the women of the Trump Universe which reads like a parody of studio sexual politics. Even Sumner Redstone would give Trump’s career an NC-17 rating.

FLEMING: The trades have offered a collection of nasty narratives here. When Irrational Man premiered last year, Allen emerged unscathed. This time, for Café Society, the preoccupation was Woody Allen and dredging up allegations and his estranged daughter, things that were investigated but never prosecuted. You had his estranged son Ronan Farrow rearing up, as he tends to each time Woody is in the news. Then Sarah Silverman and Susan Sarandon stated definitively that Allen was guilty. Not one of these people brought new evidence to the table, mind you, but their outbursts fueled click-bait stories. Sarandon’s a fine actress but it seemed like a series of cranky rants from your eccentric aunt. Look, child abuse is the worst crime, but that whole sordid episode went through the legal grinder and Allen wasn’t charged. So you got an 80-year-old filmmaker coming to a festival that’s supposed to be a last bastion for filmmakers and tradition, where they make men wear bowties and tuxes and women wear heels, and yet the festival organizers hired this moron emcee comic who delivers rape and Hitler jokes, then claims after he didn’t know what he was saying. The next big Hollywood premiere was Steven Spielberg’s superb The BFG. The headline? That Roald Dahl was allegedly an anti-Semite. He’s been dead 16 years. Peter, you are right to wonder why these out of competition films come here. It has been weird.

BART: All this is disturbing for these reasons: I remember when the news from Cannes focused on the discovery of new filmmakers or the ideological battles of dissident auteurs. Now the studios’ out-of-competition sideshows generate most of the clicks (even Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling are in there fighting for attention for their popcorn movie, The Nice Guys). In the U.S., meanwhile, this is the moment in political campaigns when voters get their first insight into the positions of their candidates. So what are we getting? Donald Trump wants to review Bill Clinton’s sex life and the media wants to review Trump’s. I’m glad, at least, that Steven Spielberg has made a movie about giants. It would be great to have a few bigger-than-life people around.

christophe lambertFLEMING: I have been thinking about all this since news circulated here of the death from lung cancer of former EuropaCorp chief Christophe Lambert. When he left his post in March, there were all kinds of whispers why. I knew him pretty well, liked him and watched him help overhaul EuropaCorp, set up a U.S. pipeline for Luc Besson film creations that had been put through major studios, and raise funds that positioned Besson to direct his dream project Valerian And The City of A Thousand Planets. Lambert sat for an interview right after, and the result was the most insulting and demeaning profile, where he was essentially dismissed as being nothing more than white teeth and chest hair. He called me after; he was just devastated. Why was this done to him and how could he be so stupid in helping by fueling the piece with quotes? I told him he’d gotten hung out to dry, to shake it off, and we’d reconnect at Cannes to unveil his next career iteration. Who could have known he was ill and this would be the final article on Lambert before his obit? We all want to portray ourselves as tough journalists, but to me this was a reminder to be careful about making a name for yourself and your publication at someone’s expense.

BART: I share your disdain for “hatchet jobs,” but would point out that most celebrity interviews today are the opposite — they’re exercises in adulation. Interviewers know that if they ask the wrong question, there will be no return business. Publicists over-manage interviews and the scheduling is skimpy. One Crowe-Gosling interview in a major newspaper was held in an alley with bodyguards and handlers hovering. When I was a very young reporter I disliked doing celebrity interviews but when I occasionally wrote about stars I also tried to comment on how my subjects handled themselves. Why did Cary Grant obsess about talking about LSD? Why was William Holden swackered and why was Spencer Tracy nasty? My feeling then, and now, is that a good interviewer should be part of the conversation, not just a mouth piece. That’s why I think the Q&A format is occasionally useful in letting a director or star explain himself in his own words, but these piece should also be supported with commentary and point of view.

FLEMING: Look, when George Clooney takes the bait and launches into a blistering diatribe dismissing Donald Trump’s chances as presidential candidate, it’s totally fair game. Too much of this though was loud headlines with no substance to back them up. We broke most of the major deal stories here, and we broke the news Lambert exited EuropaCorp. So we’re not shying away from anything. Some of this stuff just seemed gratuitous to me.

BART: Cannes seems to be a showcase for one fascinating contradiction: While distributors complain that there’s too much product out there and Wall Street criticizes shrinking margins, the festival has been an ideal setting for new players who want to call attention to themselves. STX Entertainment is heralding its $50 million commitment on a Scorsese picture (it will have overseas rights on The Irishman while Paramount has U.S.). And it also will make Aaron Sorkin’s first directing effort, Molly’s Game. Meanwhile Amazon, too, is all over the landscape with offers for new product. So have the “new boys on the block” been bidding up new ventures while the studios see Cannes mainly as a showcase for films that are about to be released? And if the movie business already is overcrowded, why do the new players show such eagerness to get in on the action?

FLEMING: Between the Molly’s Game gambit — $9 million for U.S. and China after reading an Aaron Sorkin script that was almost 200 pages — and beating out a bunch of companies to land foreign on Scorsese’s The Irishman, STX announced its intention to spend big sums to be taken seriously. I think both deals were good for the films, and especially for STX which has the Gary Ross-directed Matthew McConaughey-starrer Free State Of Jones coming. You raise all that money out of China like Bob Simonds did, you better do some bold things with it. STX certainly did that here. Amazon cemented its status as a player here both by winning a feverish auction for the Lynne Ramsay-directed You Were Never Really Here with Joaquin Phoenix, and the five films playing in Cannes rotation. Jodie Foster said in our 10th anniversary print magazine that she feared Money Monster would be the last New York-set drama with a Sidney Lumet sensibility to be financed by a major studio, but it had a good weekend and so there could be more if done for low budget. The Nice Guys played to an appreciative crowd and that throwback movie takes its shot at the box office this weekend. It’s the kind of buddy action pic reminiscent of past Shane Black films and 48 Hours and Midnight Run comedies that I would go see every Friday night, but we’ll see if audiences respond. Both films were helped by premiering here and it looks like the Jeff Nichols-directed film Loving with Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga will benefit from rave reviews and possible Cannes honors as to be worth showing a half year before it gets its theatrical release in Oscar season. The deals have followed a slower pace than last year, but there has been a lot to like here beyond the gorgeous weather and the stormy narratives.

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