Editors’ Note: Todd McCarthy recently wrote about his layoff from The Hollywood Reporter. To commemorate the sense of collective loss we all feel for the 2020 Cannes Film Festival that would have started tomorrow but had to be scratched for safety reasons like everything else because of the COVID-19 pandemic, McCarthy writes about his long love affair for the singular event, and reveals what movies we would have seen and how, with theatrical moviegoing an uncertainty, some might wait to get their red carpet moment at the Palais in 2021 when Cannes comes roaring back.
I can feel it in my bones. When the pages of the year’s calendar fly off as in an old Hollywood montage to finally arrive at the beginning of May, I know it’s time to get ready for my annual date with the grande dame of all film festivals, the one that requires you—in the evenings—to put on black tie and look your best and walk up a red carpet and applaud as the filmmakers enter the 2300-seat grand Palais for the world premiere of a film that is meant to be one of the best the world has to offer at this given moment.
That would be the Cannes Film Festival, of course, still considered the most glamorous film event of the year, one that has helped launch or further countless filmmakers’ careers (and occasionally shipwreck a few others) since its true launch in 1946. For all its vicissitudes and occasional silliness, Cannes remains the crown jewel of festivals, and it remains that way for me 50 years after first attending it.
That’s right, 50 years! I can scarcely believe it myself, but it was a half-century ago—May of 1970—that I first set foot on the Croisette. I was a wee lad at the time, about to start studies in England but already sufficiently movie mad to finagle festival accreditation via Rolling Stone’s Ralph Gleason (who was happy to help but bluntly admitted he had no interest in running anything as bourgeois and snooty as Cannes—little did he know this would be the year of Woodstock and MASH and Kent State and the U.S. Sixth Fleet parking itself in the Cannes harbor and unleashing hundreds of sailors into the streets every night looking for hookers, which were plentiful).
The huge difference between Cannes then and now was accessibility. Yes, the evening screenings were black tie affairs and there were the usual dinners and parties for the elite. But publicists were either invisible or non-existent, and even a complete nobody student like me had no problem meeting (on the street, in bars and cafes, hotel lobbies, wherever) the likes of Robert Altman (who won the Palme d’Or and, with Michael Wadleigh, led the local protests after the Kent State massacre), Arthur Penn (couldn’t have been nicer or more accessible), Otto Preminger, Paul Morrissey, Candice Bergen (with whom I shared a memorable fraises a la creme Chantilly on the beach) and John Boorman, among many others. On my first night in Cannes, I was set up on a date with the then-unknown Margot Kidder, there in conjunction with her early film Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx. I certainly wasn’t in Kansas anymore.
Another emphatic difference between Cannes then and now was the extreme paucity of American critics and journalists. In 1970, there were precisely two journalists/critics who made the trip across the pond to cover Cannes, Rex Reed and Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News. Rex was already notorious due to his bestselling collection of devastating and hilarious celebrity profiles, Do You Sleep in the Nude? (only a fellow Southerner like Rex could nail Gov. Lester Maddux the way he did, check it out), and the fiasco that was the film Myra Breckinridge was still a month away. Both Rex and Kathleen were most welcoming and kind to a young unknown aspiring journalist, inviting me to join them for lunch on the beach. Even Variety, which had been covering Cannes since the beginning, only used European-based critics to review from the festival, something that I had a hand in changing a few years later.
I saw something like 35 films in Cannes that year, became totally hooked on the festival scene and started some friendships that have lasted a lifetime.
In 2010, Cannes chief Gilles Jacob presided over a ceremony honoring the critics who had been coming from their respective countries for the longest time. Of course there were French, British, Italian and other critics whose tenure dated back to the 1950s, as well as an Israeli who had been covering Cannes nearly as long as his country had been in existence. Because of my precocious interloping, I received the award for longest-tenured American, which I remember rather miffed Richard Corliss, who, as a veteran since 1971, thought of himself as the most seasoned American Cannes critic. Following in short order were Charles Champlin for the Los Angeles Times and the soon ubiquitous Roger Ebert, whom I’d known in Chicago when I was in high school and he was just starting at the Sun-Times in 1967.
But no doubt my most treasured memory of Cannes ’70 is an impromptu dinner I had with one of Hollywood’s all-time great directors. Around cocktail hour toward the end of the festival, I swung by the Carlton Hotel’s bar to see who might be around and spotted my friend Albert Johnson, the wise and gregarious director of the San Francisco Film Festival, sitting with two older gentlemen. I popped over just to say hello and was promptly introduced to a man I recognized at once, one of Hollywood’s all-time great directors, William Wyler, accompanied by his brother Robert.
I had known Wyler’s name from when I first saw Ben-Hur at age 10 and by this time had seen nearly all his 30-plus films, having written a term paper about the director for a college film history class. They instantly invited me to sit down and I shortly learned that the brothers had just visited their native town of Mulhouse in the Alsace region and impulsively decided to motor down to Cannes to spend a day or two for no professional reasons whatsoever. We had a drink, then another, whereupon Albert proposed dinner, an invitation the Wylers readily accepted. I was asked to join them, resulting in a spectacular three-hour dinner that remains one of the most memorable cinema-related memories of my life.
I missed some early 1970s editions of Cannes while I finished school and got a foothold in Hollywood. But soon I was hired by the French film journal Le Film Francais when its editors belatedly decided it needed to publish in English as well as French if it was to compete with the British Cannes dailies and, eventually, the daily festival editions of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, both of which sent me to Cannes for long stretches, culminating in last year.
It’s another story altogether but worth pointing out that Cannes was not very heavily covered in the United States, and not at all by the electronic media, until 1979, when Francis Ford Coppola invaded the festival with Apocalypse Now. That film, and the attendant publicity it generated, did more to bring Cannes to the attention of the general public than anything else. Far more press started pouring in thereafter, stars and directors became more sequestered and less often seen in public, and Cannes became more of a household name while still managing to retain its image of glamour and specialness, albeit with a few recent dings.
But here we are now, with no Cannes 2020, and probably very few movies on any big screens for some time to come. The big event last year was the world premiere of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, with Leo, Brad and Quentin on the red carpet, the media going nuts and hangers-on in tuxedos offering those lined up hundreds of dollars for tickets.
What would the hot tickets have been this year? What would we be seeing next week and the week after if this were still the world we’ve known since World War II? The short answer is that it’s impossible to know in any comprehensive way. Sure, there are always a few virtual sure-things, Cannes luvvies who get invited to the main event no matter what. But the selection process was still in its early stages when it became apparent that the event was unlikely to take place this year, festival director Thierry Fremaux’s stubborn optimism notwithstanding. Many films had not yet been seen, nor officially invited. The Directors’ Fortnight sidebar had only just begun its serious sorting of candidates when the curtain prematurely fell on this year’s events and had scarcely made any truly definitive selections.
The word I’ve heard from festival insiders in Europe this week is that some strong contenders for Cannes 2020 berths might actually be held back a full year in order to contend next May. The reasoning is that it will probably be another few months before cinemas worldwide reopen in a significant way, and perhaps longer for many people to feel comfortable congregating in the close quarters of a movie theater, along with the plane flights, hotels, buses and taxis, restaurants and everything else that could contribute to a film festival being a teeming, giant petri dish (this as we’re just getting word that Sundance seems to have served this purpose back in January). It remains to be seen whether the major summer’s end festivals—Venice, Telluride and Toronto—will be feasible in anything resembling the usual way, so at that point, the thinking goes, why not just hold back major art and auteur-driven films until Cannes 2021?
That said, following are some of the high-profile films that have been in the mix for Cannes and presumably could still wind up in Venice, Toronto and/or Telluride if those festivals go ahead in some form. Or, if not, maybe in Cannes a year from now.
Beginning with the significant Hollywood/high-profile international titles:
The French Dispatch, a sure thing as it’s directed by Wes Anderson and remains on the calendar as a July release from Searchlight. This story centered on a fictional French-based literary magazine boasts a cast headed by Tilda Swinton, Billy Murray, Timothee Chalamet, Lea Seydoux, Benicio Del Toro, Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand.
Benedetta, directed by Paul Verhoeven. Ever since it began production last year, this 17th century drama set in a hot-house nunnery seemed like an automatic Cannes selection in the wake of his big success there with the French-language Elle four years ago.
Tenet, Christopher Nolan’s latest intended summer blockbuster, still set to open in July, had looked like a natural for a world premiere berth at Cannes.
On the Rocks, by Cannes regular Sofia Coppola, with Rashida Jones on an adventure through New York City with her aging playboy father, played by Bill Murray.
Let Them All Talk, from another frequent Cannes contributor, Steven Soderbergh, who shot part of the film on an actual QE2 trans-Atlantic ocean voyage, with Meryl Streep, Gemma Chan, Candice Bergen, Dianne Wiest and Lucas Hedges.
Annette, directed by yet another Cannes luvvy, the ever-unpredictable Leos Carax, this one an English-language musical toplining Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard as a stand-up comic and a singer, respectively.
Nomadland, the third feature by Chloé Zhao, a road movie through the American West starring Frances McDormand and David Strathairn.
Tre Piani, from Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti, whose films are almost always premiered in Cannes and who won the Palme d’Or in 2001 for The Son’s Room.
Still Water, from director Tom McCarthy, a crime drama starring Matt Damon and Abigail Breslin, which has a November 20 domestic release date.
News of the World, a Western from director Paul Greengrass with Tom Hanks, which is set to be released at the end of the year.
Deep Water, the first film from Adrian Lyne in 18 years, set in New Orleans, based on a Patricia Highsmith novel and featuring Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas and Tracy Letts. It’s due for a November release.
Blonde, director Andrew Dominik’s take on Marilyn Monroe, played by Ana de Armas, and also starring Adrian Brody and Bobby Cannavale. Still, this could be problematic, as Netflix titles for now remain off-limits for Cannes.
The Woman in the Window, a thriller directed by Joe Wright and written by Tracy Letts, starring Amy Adams, Julianne Moore and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
Last Night in Soho, a London-set horror film from Edgar Wright which would presumably fit most ideally as a midnight attraction.
More possible suspects:
Soul, Pixar’s latest. The studio and Cannes have enjoyed a lengthy, mutually rewarding love affair over the years, although the film’s November would have loomed too far off for a May premiere to make sense.
DNA, a semi-autobiographical drama from Maiwenn, who co-stars with Fanny Ardant and Louis Garrel.
Bergman Island, in which writer-director Mia Hansen-Love sends Mia Wasikowska and Anders Danielsen Lie to Ingmar Bergman’s island to work on a script.
Comes Morning, from Naomi Kawase, the Japanese director no one in the U.S. has ever heard of but who has been invited to Cannes seven times. This one involves a woman who adopts a child and is then contacted by the birth mother.
Memoria, by 2010 Palme d’Or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul and shot in Colombia, with Tilda Swinton as a woman suffering from “exploding head syndrome.”
Home, the feature directorial debut by Run Lola Run lead actress Franka Potente, with Jake McLaughlin as a convict released from prison after 20 years.
Mona Lisa and the Blood Moon, directed by Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) and with Kate Hudson as a woman who breaks out of a mental asylum and heads for New Orleans.
Summer of ’85, Francois Ozon’s latest, about the love affair between boys who are 18 and 16.
Mandibles, in which director Quentin Dupieux tells of two dim-witted pals who find a large fly in a car trunk and try to domesticate it for profit.
Ahed’s Knee, from leading Israeli director Nadav Lapid, whose last film, Synonyms, won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2019.
On A Half-Clear Morning, with Bruno Dumont directing Lea Seydoux as a celebrity journalist set back by a bad accident.
The Story of My Wife also stars Seydoux, here collaborating with Hungary’s leading female director, Ildiko Enyedi.
Wife of a Spy, from Japan’s prolific Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a drama set on the eve of World War II.
Drunk, a drama in which Danish director Thomas Vinterberg and lead actor Mads Mikkelsen endeavor to explore the positive influences of alcohol on creativity.
The Devil All the Time, an adaptation of the popular book directed by Antonio Campus and featuring an ensemble cast including Robert Pattinson, Tom Holland, Mia Wasikowska, Jason Clarke and Riley Keough.
The Land of Happiness, a road movie from South Korean director Im Sang-soo, who competed in Cannes with The Housemaid in 2010 and The Taste of Money two years later.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Charlie Kaufman’s latest, which as a Netflix title likely wouldn’t turn up in Cannes anyway but which remains highly anticipated.