Film Scouts Diaries

1996 Venice Film Festival Diaries
Day 1

by Howard Feinstein

August 29, 1996

It's always nice to come back to the Lido--the long, skinny island about 30 minutes across the lagoon by vaporetto from Venice itself--at the end of August for the Venice Film Festival The beaches (which film critics see but never have time to step on) are beautiful. And who can complain about staying in the grand old Hotel des Bains, the one that was used for Visconti's film version of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice?

Time stands still here, even if the film projectors are whirring away in a small, almost provincial complex of buildings where the festival takes place. (It's built around a casino) And, best of all, this is the quality time when I catch up with my close friend, d well-dressed and extremely energetic Australian journalist named Helen von Layers, who reports on the movies and visiting movie stars. Okay, so Helen is a bit star struck, but she's great fun, and she can point out for me the Hollywood hunks and their women that I never recognize (they look so human of f-camera) And this festival gets its share or stars, because of a mutually beneficial Venice-Hollywood connection.

Last night, at the gala festival opening, Helen was especially useful She spotted festival juror (for the movies in competition) Anjelica Huston and her sculptor-husband sitting in the special jury row (we later heard that Anjelica, unlike her fellow jurors who stay in the famed Egyptian-style Hotel Excelsior on the Lido and dine together, has chosen instead to stay in Venice and has her own private boat to take her back and forth) And Helen noticed jury president Roman Polanski in the lobby outside the Sala Grande, long before I saw him in leather pants being escorted onto the stage by two tall, young women in slinky black dresses.

The opening night film was Sleepers, directed by Barry Levinson with an all-star cast. (For some odd reason, it was preceded by some music videos recently done to popular songs by the group Queen. Venice never fails to surprise you.) Two of the lead actors came on stage: Robert De Niro, with a very short haircut on account of his role as a convict in Great Expectations, presented a Golden Lion statuette for life achievement to co-star Dustin Hoffman. The two joked about who was older and disappeared into their balcony seats At that point, Helen, sharp as ever, stuck her finger (a little too obviously in this dressed-up crowd) in the direction of the women accompanying their other co-stars, Kevin Bacon and Jason Patric. (The fifth Sleepers star, Brad Pitt, didn't come.) Kevin was with wife Kyra Sedgwick, whose blonde hair made her stand out in this crowd. Next to them was supermodel Christy Turlington, Jason's girlfriend, who had a black dress that swept down over just one shoulder. I'm sure Helen, predictable as ever, will swoop into the designer boutiques in Venice itself in the next few days. And I hope she doesn't hear about the very exclusive dinner Gianni Versace is throwing for the movie Basquiat, or she's sure to throw herself at his feet.

So why do so many Hollywood stars hit the Lido? (And we're still expecting Nicole Kidman, Liam Neeson, Bruce Willis Michael Keaton, Michael J. Fox, and Christopher Walken before the festival ends September 7.) Because it's good for the film companies, especially the big studios. Publicity here helps launch European releases. The larger Cannes festival is held in May, but American movies do not open well in Europe in the summer. Venice, on the other hand, takes place in early September, just in time to usher the latest American blockbusters into continental movie houses. The press is a willing participant, the studio publicity machines are on hand with a corporate working mode foreign to life on the laid-back Lido.

This first of the international film festivals was founded by Lido hoteliers in 1932, with the blessing of Mussolini's government, for reasons both commercial--the resort's hotel rooms needing filling after high season had passed--and artistic. It added movies to the pre-existing Venice Biennale's celebration of painting, sculpture, poetry, and music. "The cinema thus enters officially and with equal rights into the company of the muses," said the official announcement.

Hollywood supplied nearly half of the films, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (opening night), The Champ, Frankenstein, and Grand Hotel (closing night). By the time of the next event, two years later, Hollywood shipped over glamor queens Kay Francis and Marion Davies. (Mussolini was forced to intervene that year when the Vatican's newspaper objected to a nude scene in the Czech film Ecstasy, for which exposed actress Hedy Kislerova appeared at the festival. After seeing the film in Rome, Mussolini closed the case, commenting, "She's a beautiful woman, though." Kislerova moved to Hollywood, where she became Hedy Lamarr.)

By 1936, the Fascist government had imposed a self-serving political agenda; Leni Rlefenstahl's German Olympiade shared the Mussolini Award with the totalitarian-sounding Italian film White Squadron. Two years later, foreign cinephiles, led by the French, created the Cannes festival as a democratic antidote. (The war prevented its inauguration until 1946.) Cannes's lure and influence have remained relatively constant over the years; Venice's, up-and down. Its Hollywood link, though, has come full circle.

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