Oscar comes to Cannes.
Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences President and veteran cinematographer John Bailey received a very special honor at the Cannes Film Festival Sunday when he was presented with the insignia of Officier des Arts et Lettres (Officer In The Order Of Arts And Letters) at a packed ceremony at Cafe Des Palmes in the Palais. With both Cannes General Delegate Thierry Fremaux and President Pierre Lescure presiding, the actual presentation to an obviously honored Bailey was made by UniFrance President Serge Toubiana who filled in nicely for director Costa Gavras who had planned to be there but was stuck on location.
Delivering remarks in French , Toubiana remembered the late legendary french filmmaker Agnes Varda , who adorns the official festival poster this year and who received an Honorary Oscar in 2017 , something Bailey noted he had a small part in making happen. Her daughter Rosalie was there and instrumental in arranging the ceremony. Then he ran through a history of Bailey’s many achievements including shooting movies like the Oscar winning Ordinary People and As Good As It Gets, as well as always being a champion of international cinema and particularly French cinema. “Throughout your outstanding career, you have marked American and European cinema with your curiosity, your eclecticism and your talent, ” noted Toubiana before putting the insignia on his lapel. In addition the organizers had remembered hearing Bailey talk fondly of a favorite french film of his , la peau douce, and presented him with a beautiful French Grande poster of that film.
Bailey delivered a heartfelt 13 minute acceptance speech in which he noted that this was only his second visit to the Cannes Film Festival ever. He had been the cinematographer of a small film that was in the 10th Directors Fortnight and that was his only previous time here, despite being honored in 1985 with a Cannes Festival Best Artistic Contribution award for Paul Schrader’s Mishima, which he shared with two other artisans. He was unable to attend for that honor but clearly was delighted to be here for this one. Earlier in the week Bailey told me he was thrilled to receive this and wanted to present his remarks without notes but said he kept getting too emotional just thinking about delivering them so he wrote it all down. He said it still made him emotional and when he practiced his speech for wife and co-Academy Governor of the Editors Branch, Carol Littleton he got choked up again. As he made his acceptance you could see why . French cinema , since he was a film student , has meant so much to him. I particularly liked his anecdote about going to Max Laemmle’s art house theatre in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles with a lot of his friends in the 1960’s to see the latest imports from France, so many that he said Max would show them as double bills and kept changing them twice a week. He said he and the other poor film students would pile in a van and drive to the theatre. One of them would buy a ticket , and then go to the side entrance and sneak the others in to see the films, even as an all-knowing Laemmle would pretend he didn’t notice any of this and headed back to the lobby to greet “the paying customers”.
Bailey’s speech was as much a history of french cinema and its impact, as much as it was about his own inspiration by what he saw on the screen. “My life as a cinematographer, as a writer, director, and now Academy President has been deeply defined by my great love for French filmmaking, a love that continues to be aligned in the hearts and minds of not only my generation, but generations of filmmakers to come,” he said, adding that the French New Wave influenced so many American filmmakers and changed the way we saw movies.
I noticed Academy CEO Dawn Hudson tearing up a bit toward the end of Bailey’s speech, and when I spoke to her afterwards she admitted she was very moved by his remarks and said his expertise and love of international filmmaking has been a big boost to the Academy in many ways. One of those ways is the renaming of the Best Foreign Language Film to Best International Film, an indication she says of a more inclusive way of looking at that competition. The word foreign just doesn’t apply to an Academy that has been making leaps and bounds in expanding and redefining itself as a “global” organization. Hudson said the rules however will remain the same, despite the name change. In the past two years nearly half the new members brought into the Academy have come from countries other than the United States so this all makes sense.
AMPAS also decided to make a big deal of Bailey’s honor by also using the occasion to throw a “members soiree” , held Friday at the UniFrance Terrasse. It was packed, and among those there were Greg Kinnear, Oscar nominated filmmaker Matthew Heineman (A Private War) , Oscar winner Pawel Pawlikowski (Ida, Cold War), Rocketman director Dexter Fletcher and many, many others. Pawlikowski had come directly from Deadline’s annual bash at Plage 45 where the main competition jury member told me he was enjoying watching the films and spending time with fellow jurors. “We get together every day to talk about the films. We just really like being in each other’s company, ” he said noting that it was relatively easy to do since they see just two films a day. He gave no hints of which way the winds are blowing towards the Palme d’Or.
Hudson said the festival has bent over backwards to welcome AMPAS to town. She had tweeted out how much she loved Pedro Almodovar’s official entry , Pain And Glory after attending the gala for it this week. Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker, among those at both the party and the Bailey ceremony, is distributing the film in America in October and thanked her for her enthusiasm. The Academy makes it a point to do a members party every year at Telluride Film Festival, so I asked if after this initial gathering in Cannes , clearly a success, they would be coming back here too she gave an affirmative thumbs up to the idea. My guess is this won’t be Oscar’s last time on the Croisette.