Cannes Ham Revisited

With the Cannes Film Festival approaching, I thought I’d share an essay I wrote for the pioneering film web site FILM SCOUTS 17 years ago.  It was my daughter’s first trip to France at 13 months; now she’s about to finish her junior year in high school  Wow.  Anyway, it captures both all that has changed, and all that has stay the same about the world’s most celebrated film festival.  A tip of the hat to my editor and friend Mayra Riesman of Film Scouts!

Cannes Ham (originally published in FILM SCOUTS September1996)


My first observation is of the supposed objectivity of the press credentialing process.  The Festival asks you, when you submit your press request, for samples of you work from previous Festivals.  It didn’t occur to me until now that the policy provides the Festival ample opportunity to choose to credential those journalists who have only nice things to say about the Festival, and over time, weed out those with cynical attitudes like mine.  Guess I’ll be working with a market pass next year.

Writing is, at best, a tertiary occupation for me anyway.  I’m a publicist, which pays me for writing disingenuous claptrap on behalf of paying clients.  Unlike advertising, publicity makes a stab at objectivity but often comes off looking much worse: a thinly disguised piece of propaganda.  I may go to hell, but it’s a profession that provides well for my family and, after nine years at the same company, has become a career path I’ve traveled too far on to turn back and really be somebody, like an agent.

I’m in Cannes with my wife and thirteen month-old daughter Saeli.  In your mental machinery ever gets going in this direction and you don’t have a lot of money, a nanny, a splendid room at the Majestic or the like, PLEASE TRY TO INTERRUPT THIS PROCESS.  Not only will the child of this age not remember the experience, they will be so exasperating as to prevent, as it has in my case, the taking of a single photograph or frame of video to document the voyage.  Not that I don’t love my daughter with all my heart: I do, but France is a better place to be a dog than a baby.  Both appear to be allowed to poop just about anywhere, but the dogs (generally smaller than a big cat back home) are coddled in their masters’ arms as they stroll the Croisette; passersby offer warm smiles and approving glances as they drink from weighted silver bowls in the finer restaurants.

On the other hand, babies get evil stares and no respect as their parents negotiate the packed sidewalks and tight spaces in shops and restaurants.  Saeli did win converts.  Many people called her “souriant,” which means smiley or smiling; I kept telling others, in retelling the story, that she was “sourisant,” which, if it were a word in French, would be “mousy.”

As for my clients, I have five:  Film Scouts (how’s that for objectivity), RKO Pictures, Dark Horse Comics (they have a really cool web site:, Udo Kier, and young Leonardo di Caprio, who’s in Cannes with his mom.  Each of these people adds their own spin to the Cannes experience, my influence and clout rising and falling as their key projects come and go.  Leonardo has no project and evergreen appeal but I don’t have control over him; Miramax International does.

Film Scouts requires some explanation: I was originally going to write about parties, but the deluge of invitations I felt would accompany my accreditation as a journalist failed to materialize.  Now, publicists and journalists may trade barbs about who occupies the bottom rung of the entertainment food chain, but I had no idea that Cannes is the ultimate busman’s holiday.  Journalists who look like they have no business in the sun clog every nook and cranny of the place.  People who I turned away from the door at clubs in New York and Los Angeles get mailboxes from the Festival.  No fewer than 400 people from online publications applied for credentials–only ten got the nod.  I was the smallest fry as a reporter goes: print, small California newspaper syndicate (Jewish Journal; Beverly Hills Today).  There wasn’t even a mailbox to hold the air that was taking up the space my party invitations, screening passes and press releases from publicists eager for a piece of Henry Eshelman and California Press Bureau was supposed to fill.  The only invitations I had in any quantity were those for the MTV party late in the Festival.  I’m actually grateful to have a pass at all; initially, the Festival turned me down.  Then, a few weeks, later, congratulations and instructions followed, with no explanation why they changed their minds.

As yet another aside, the official currency of France might be the franc (this was pre-EMU), but the official currency of the Festival is the invitation.  My last Festival, when I was holding fistfuls of invitations to THE MASK premiere and party, I could trade them for anything I wanted: Palais screening tickets, other party invitations, you name it.  This year, all I’ve got is the MTV party tickets, which, while I have them in quantity, are good for no more than paying back favors I owe to my travel agent, banker, pr colleagues, etc.  Meanwhile, people I have worked with on films make lame protestations when I ask them for tickets to their party: I simply have nothing to offer them in return so who cares about me?

RKO was and is a Festival stalwart.  RKO CEO Ted Hartley and his wife, the absolutely gracious and sophisticated Dina Merrill, move through Cannes like an extended Southampton cocktail party, and they do it with inimitable style.  They stay with friends (next to having your own villa, this is the coolest thing to do), they have a driver (essential in a town where, at peak hours, hotels refuse to even call a taxi for you), and they have no real agenda.  Never mind that Microsoft’s Paul Allen declined to invite her to his pirate-themed reggae Party at Cap Mediteranée (his office said, and I quote, “she’d be the oldest person there.  We’re going to have young people, rock and rollers like Mick Jagger and Bob Dylan at the party.”), Ted and Dina are perfect guests and perfect hosts.  With their International Sales Head June Shelley at my side, I share an office bigger than my miserable Cannes flat.

Speaking of the miserable Cannes flat, my family’s accommodations seem to evoke the Mediterranean equivalent of a North Carolina beach motel, too far from the beach to retain any sense of charm and too far from the Interstate to have been remodeled any time in the last thirty years.  It’s just been wallpapered with a material that must be made exclusively from petroleum by-products; an evil chemical stink pervades the room.  The room bears no other ornamentation of any kind. The shower, prior to a mid-festival modification made at my insistence, lacks a curtain or frame and features a shallow square basin in the bottom deep enough to rinse gutted fish or animals but not enough to bathe the baby.  It opens onto a block with no less than three restaurants (and a jet-ski repair shop), each of which shares a karaoke machine they pass back and forth to one another as the week wears on.  Needless to say, I’m feeling refreshed as I face my first day on the job.

Day One is allocated to Udo Kier.  Udo, the German who played Andy Warhol’s Dracula and Frankenstein and a host of other roles, is in Lars von Trier’s BREAKING THE WAVES, which is in competition Monday evening.  His production company begrudges me two tickets to the premiere, saying to the English publicist behind my back: “his client is in the film for two minutes and he wants to go to the premiere.”  Von Trier himself is unable to make it; he’s afraid to travel.  I wonder what happens to his ticket. 

After the midday press conference at the Palais, there’s a French media call on the lawn of the Grand Hotel, and I’ve got Udo for two interviews.  Victoria and Saeli join me.  Since every square meter of every grassy surface in every urban area of France is liberally carpeted with dog poops, everyone places cameras with care and goose-steps gingerly across the greensward.  While I’m waiting for E! to set up, I notice that Jared Harris, who I spent a semester with in an acting group in college, is nearby.  He’s in I SHOT ANDY WARHOL, and since we were chummy if not intimate for several months, I decide to introduce myself.  I say, “Hello Jared, we haven’t seen one another in sixteen years, but we spent some time together at Duke and I thought I’d congratulate you on your recent successes,” or something like that.  He actually turns up his nose to me, snorts, then looks away and tries to start a conversation with the other people at his table.  I wanted to say, “Andy Warhol?  I knew Andy Warhol, and you’re no Andy Warhol.”  He did do a fairly good job playing him in the movie, though.

I haven’t had enough abuse.  Udo wants to meet Peter Greenaway, the director.  He’d sent him an idea or something a while back.  At Udo’s insistence, I go up to him and introduce myself as his publicist.  He’s cordial but wary.  I tell him, “Udo Kier is in BREAKING THE WAVES.  He admires your work and would like to meet you.”  He looks at Udo standing eight feet away, and actually says, “I don’t think I need to know him.”  Meanwhile, following Udo’s interview, the E! cameraman says, “That was your wife walking the baby back there?  I shot Udo’s interview wide to keep her in it.”  That night, we miss the Palais screening but I go to the party, held at the Nordisk film office on a beautiful patio overlooking the Croisette.  Udo is flush with the screening. He’s described as “unspeakably evil,” an epithet he obviously enjoys, and all of the smart money is betting that someone I can’t remember will take the prize for Best Actress; she doesn’t.

On Day Two, Udo is off to London to do over vocal overdubs for THE ADVENTURES OF PINOCCHIO and I’m on to the next project, Dark Horse Entertainment.  Dark Horse’s Mike Richardson is about to announce a joint venture with Guy East of Intermedia.  East used to run Mayfair Entertainment.  He’s completely different from actors; he’s a money guy: cool, confident, pleasant.  His office is at #2 La Croisette, directly across from the Palais.  It’s sumptuously furnished.  Everyone in it looks well rested and they all dress and talk like Hugh Grant.  I notice that everyone that comes to see him holds their briefcases in front of them while they wait.  They are supplicants.  This is the mountain.  We announce a deal in The Hollywood Reporter for the two to make over $100 million worth of films together based on Mike Richardson’s ideas.  It runs page one.  I’m happy.

Later in the day, I go over to M.V. The Blue Moon for a drink with Josh Woodward, the roommate of one of the assistants in my office.  My boss Larry comes along.  Josh’s grandfather, who owns a chain of supermarkets or something, bought the 160-foot yacht for himself as a retirement present.  It has a full-time crew of twelve who lower Zodiacs in the water with cranes to wash the damn thing.  It’s very plush; all the guests are college age kids who either wear the trappings of great wealth with ease or are very happy to be aboard.  For no reason, Josh offers to host a luncheon for anyone I want on the boat; guest lists and invitations to parties previously denied start swimming in my head.  For some reason, John Paul de Joria, who owns John Paul Mitchell Hair Products, comes over; his boat has a helicopter and Cher on it (note: for one of the scariest photos ever published, check out Cher on page 26 of the May 31, 1996 issue of Entertainment Weekly).  He and Larry, who represented JPM for years, strike up a conversation.  Larry becomes so engrossed I leave him on the boat.  The next day I hear he was aboard until after midnight.

Wednesday is all work.  This day is significant in that I am ripped off the only time during the trip at a place called Beverly Pressing on the Rue D’Antibes.  I go in there with a smattering of dry cleaning for Victoria and I and four day’s worth of baby laundry.  I ask them if they wash–not dry clean–baby clothes; they say yes.  By the time I get back to the hotel flat I look at the bill: a staggering FF800.  I’m in over my head in the language department, so I have the hotel owner call to get the stuff back.  They refuse.  “It’s already sorted” or something like that.  When I go back to pick it up, they’d dry cleaned everything–even baby socks at FF20 a pair–in the dingiest solution I’ve ever seen.  The stains show through the grey of the solution.  Avoid them if you ever go there.  Speak ill of them to acquaintances if you don’t.

For dinner, we take June Shelley to her favorite restaurant, Jade.  June orders expertly.  Mee, who owns the place, has known June for years; he runs it with his wife and daughter and they treat us well.  Order the men (fried rolls), Vietnamese soup and sweet and sour shrimp.  Not gelatinous and cloying like any other sweet and sour, Mee’s sauce is pungent, tangy and thin.  They make a fabulous lemon tart for dessert.  John Malkovich comes in to the restaurant.  June, who doesn’t know him, calls out hello.  We’re beginning to feel at home.

For me, Thursday is the high point of the Festival in all respects; the rest is anticlimax.  They day is warm and cloudless.  For the most part the weather (and the celebrity watching) has been so bad the media are running b-roll of old Festivals instead of the non-events actually unfolding.  In the morning we host a press breakfast for STAGGERWING, a film-to-be starring Liev Schreiber and David Strathairn that features one of the last biplanes, a 1939 Staggerwing, with which RKO will be involved.  The producers have found a real one originally attached to the US Embassy in London, and shipped it down to Mandelieu on a train.  After breakfast we hire limos to go out to the Mandelieu airport and actually fly around in the sucker.


The airplane is exquisite.  The wings and airframe are actually covered in dope, some kind of resin-soaked cloth that preceded fiberglass.  When you thrum it with your finger, it resonates like a bass drum head.  The natty embassy seal complements the blue and yellow color scheme.  Inside, it’s like an old Jaguar XK120–functional, a little ratty, but elegant.  Leather seats and trim, lots of toggle switches and ivory covered levers, big analog gauges, and a clock made by Hamilton Watch in my hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  You can roll down the windows.

The pilot was Bud Fox.  We have fun pronouncing his name.  He was, like all professional pilots, very pilot-like.  Cheerful, chipper, accurate voice, pilot’s uniform, aviator glasses.  Liev Schreiber looks nervously at the plane and back at producer Peter Tunney: “So, like, we’re going to shoot most of the flying stuff against bluescreen, right?”  There’s a draped table with wine and cheese brought out–it’s 10:30AM, and the mood is festive, and everybody digs in.

I’m on the third flight out.  The first two carry TV crews from ET and E! who need to ride with Liev, and, after all, I do have to defer to media.  We’re up with Peta Browne from the STAGGERWING pr company in England, a female journalist–also from England–and Peter Tunney; I ride in front.  As we taxi, we discover the only subculture across all of France where this happens; it may even be required: all the pilot to tower chatter is in English.  The plane take off after about 150 meters, absolutely effortlessly, yet flying so slowly you wonder how it stays up.  We’re all jabbering with one another on the headsets.  The rest of the group thinks that I could play a pilot in my sunglasses.

In a few minutes we’re over the Croisette.  All of Cannes glitters below.  For a moment, we forget the scene and the sleaze and rude movie people and suck in the view, slack-jawed like tourists.  We’re so low you can read the names on the sterns of boats.  Arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi’s old boat, the Nabila (now renamed), sits out in the bay, too large for the harbor, alongside a porno boat that takes people out every couple of hours for peep shows and strippers.  It says “Private” on it in letters twenty feet high, and we joke that that must certainly dissuade people from swimming out to it.  I feel like I’m on vacation.  I turn around to say something approving to Peter, who has actually fallen asleep among all this useless beauty.


Back on the ground, I get the limo to drive all the way out to The Blue Moon for lunch–we’re talking right out on the quay up to the stern.  I am so lost in this obnoxious gesture that we drive right past my wife, who is walking out to meet us.  Luckily, I don’t discover this until well after we get there and she never noticed.

All of us from the airport pile out and on board.  I can’t remember if Josh is wearing his Blue Moon bathrobe or not–he did in at least one of our encounters.  No matter, the crew are all well trained, crack troops, enormously efficient, pleasant, accommodating of everyone’s needs..  One by one the rest of the guests arrive, get drinks, and settle in.  It’s a fairly diverse group, maybe fifteen people in all, not counting those already on board.  While I might be the only thing people initially have in common, they discover common interests and mix well.  When the boat next door takes an hour to get underway, the crew explain their captain does not know how to drive his boat very well.  Instant savants of yachting, we nod and act like we’ve know this all along.

Saeli requires constant attention.  There’s plenty of places she could slip through, and she’s hell-bent on finding them all.  She doesn’t like the boat all that much, but guests and the crew do their best to keep her occupied.  Lunch is served, is eaten.  As we relax, we notice Peter Tunney reprising his performance from the airport: in the midst of this latest postcard setting, he’s fast asleep.

Thursday night is Victoria’s and my fourth anniversary.  We were hopeful to return to Roger Verge’s Moulin de Mougins, where we had our second.  Alas, Elizabeth Taylor has taken it over for her AmFAR benefit.  Victoria is crestfallen, and it’s neither for nostalgia nor romance.  Moulin is where she first tried Maroille cheese.  Her first experience with Maroille–a very strong cheese that initially tasted like vomit to me–puts a look on her face I confess I don’t see as often as I’d like.  We have to settle for La Ferme de Mougins instead–not as expensive, but without Verge’s pedigree and, more importantly, without Maroille cheese.

We entrust Saeli to a law student the Martinez has set up for us.  We have reason to be nervous.  Not only has Saeli not been eating well on the trip, we’ve only had one baby-sitter besides Victoria’s mom since Saeli was born.  After we explain our numerous idiosyncrasies (and Saeli’s new habit of walking the halls of the Martinez), our baby-sitter unabashedly proclaims she is the best baby sitter in the world, and that Saeli will be no problem.  We call her once from the restaurant.  She assures us there’s no problem.  We get back to the Martinez to find Saeli asleep.  A miracle.  It remains to this day the only time we’ve ever come home to find Saeli asleep in the care of a baby-sitter.

By Friday, the Festival is building downhill momentum.  The STAGGERWING stuff has broken everywhere.  It’s the first day I feel we can start to unwind.  Professionally, I have only odds and ends: I drop off some cigars as a thank-you for Josh (his company name is Smoke Ring Productions), try in vain to move the Film Scouts story, and gather more MTV party invitations for those who need them. Confidence buoyed, we book the baby-sitter for another night. She wants us to be home by midnight, so she can attend–you guessed it– the MTV party.  I’m wearing black tie to this thing, crestfallen from not having the opportunity to wear it after missing the only film I planned to see.  And my baby-sitter has tickets to the MTV party.

The MTV gig is a zoo.  There’s a huge line out front of this Italianate casino.  The one time I fail to bring my press credential, which has been utterly useless to the entire Festival, we learn the only way to cut the line is with a press pass.  We wait, stuck in coach.

Inside, it’s like a nightclub from the ‘80’s in almost every respect, right down to being nearly empty while huge crowds are held outside for effect.  Everybody who has missed a chance to throughout the Festival is strutting their stuff, and Victoria and I are thinking things are better left to our baby-sitter when Harry Connick Jr. takes the stage.  He’s a great improvement over vapid poseur Chris Isaak from the year before, who had greeted his audience in Spanish and gave a listless performance that made the Cowboy Junkies seem like the Ramones by comparison.  But Harry is rocking.  We decide to stay for a couple of songs when we run into a woman who used to work at our office.

During her brief tenure at BWR, she distinguished herself by having outsized breasts, wearing her glasses on a beaded gold leash like a 60’s secretary, having sex with another employee in the parking garage, and by telling a story about her pet goldfish, who died because she kept taking it out of its bowl to pet it.  Of course, she was known as “fish-petter” after that.  She explains to me that BWR made a big mistake firing her because she’s actually working in development for a porn producer who has a couple films at the Marche.  Victoria is rolling her eyes; she can’t believe I’m giving fish-petter an audience.  It’s our cue to leave.

On the cab ride home, we receive the only rude treatment from a French national the entire trip.  I put my champagne glass on the rear deck of the car.  The driver tells me I am awful to think I would leave my glass in the cab.  I explain that I hadn’t planned to leave it in the cab, I just didn’t want to hold it in my lap during the ride.  He asks, with considerable indignation, if I would do this in a cab in America.  I said that as a matter of fact, I would, but that wasn’t the point, I had no intention of leaving the glass in his cab.  He calls me disgraceful.  I apologize some more.  He keeps ranting.  We got out and walked the last three blocks to the Martinez.  Saeli was docile and happy in the hands of our law student.

Saturday dawns sunny, bright and temperate, and we enjoy a brunch at the American Pavilion, sharing our table with a Dutch journalist.  A small crowd of Americans–the Europeans have somehow learned not to do this–have lined up along the railing that fronts the beach, their eyes on the few women who have decided to go out topless.

There’s a kind of torpor in the air: it’s feeling like the shank of the Festival and I am feeling it’s just as well.  No media want to talk to me about my clients, and the trades have sent most of their staffs home, leaving only those who need to close their offices up and record the awards and close-of-Festival stories.  We’re planning to watch these from Vezelay, in Bourgogne, two days’ drive to the north.

We go to the car rental office.  The car they’d planned to give us was a minuscule Renault Clio, but the gods are smiling: they’re out of those and the next car up is a Mercedes C280 turbodiesel, a spectacular, fast, comfortable car with the ugliest upholstery this side of the 1986 Golf GTI. In fact, it would make a nice golf shirt.  There’s no baby seat though.  The agent wants us to drive to Nice–50 kilometers in the wrong direction–to get one from another office.  We’ve got a better idea.  We make the rental agent buy us one at the local Kids R Us, and it’s the best baby seat we’ve ever used.  We regret to this day that we didn’t steal it.

I don’t know what it is, but in the months between the time I wrote most of this story and the days in which I finally tacked on the last couple of paragraphs, Cannes has burnished itself in my memory, or maybe my memory has burnished the edges off the place.  Maybe because I finally paid off the part of the trip my clients didn’t.  Cannes is a place that leaves you cursing it yet promising to return, a place that inspires all emotions positive and negative: wonder, disgust, melancholy, yearning..  It’s the Coney Island of the Mediterranean mixed with someplace special–a place where Mee remembers your order and shows you where you stuck your business card under the table glass four years ago, where you can buy antique watches for fifty or sixty bucks, where a guy in whiteface and a monks habit poses as a statue on the Croisette, where people actually take pictures of cars and hotels like they do in Beverly Hills.  I’m certain that, no matter how difficult, whether by hook or by crook, I’ll return for the Festival’s Fiftieth Anniversary, already upon us.

#     #     #

Revisited 05/07/12


One response to “Cannes Ham Revisited

  1. Ricardo Abbott

    Fascinating story. Sure you’re not influenced by H.S. Thompson? You both have a way of describing the scene that’s original and refreshing.

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