The first film festival in the world was held in the most unique city in the world: this year was Venice’s 71st Festival, though that’s deceptive because the event was suspended during World War II. Venice is like some kind of dreamscape: it was my dear Mother’s favorite place on earth because, she said, the whole idea of founding a city on water was the perfect example of mankind’s gloriously wild imagination. How appropriate to the new, wildly imaginative art of the 20th century: moving pictures! Venice and the movies, let’s face it, were meant for each other.
And, happily, I’ve been very lucky there. This year was my third participation as a director in the Venice Film Festival, and a great deal of fun. Out of competition, we showed “She’s Funny That Way” (shot under the title “Squirrels to the Nuts”). Three of the wonderful stars in the picture were there: Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, and Ahna O’Reilly; and three of the noble producers: Holly Wiersma, Logan Levy, and Louise Stratten, who also co-wrote the script with me.
My first Venice Festival was the 1979 edition, a year in which they had decided not to give out any awards. They showed “Saint Jack”, starring Ben Gazzara and Denholm Elliott, which we had shot the year before entirely on location in Singapore. After the screening, which was well received, I left for London, and a telegram followed me saying they had decided after all to give out one award and it had gone to us: The Critics’ Prize, which had not been given to any picture for seven years, not since Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange.”
Three years later, out of competition, the personal favorite of my own pictures, “They All Laughed,” starring Audrey Hepburn, Gazzara again, John Ritter, and Dorothy Stratten, was the opening night attraction at the Venice Festival, 1982 edition, during which I had agreed to be one of the jurors. This was the first time and also the last time I would be on a film jury: it is grueling work to sit through 25 or more films in about ten days, most of them generally depressing.
Perhaps that’s why we had such a good reception this year: ours is a kind of screwball comedy and certainly meant to be fun, not realistic, and as usual, comedy is not common at film festivals. And with the world in general being in such bad shape at this time, laughter is more welcome than ever. Sitting with the thousand people watching our movie at the end of August, I felt that everyone really wanted to laugh, even needed to laugh. Which reminded me of that great line at the end of Preston Sturges’s testament picture, “Sullivan’s Travels,” when filmmaker Joel McCrea says: “A good laugh may not be much, but it’s all some people have in this cock-eyed caravan. Boy!”
Well, the audience that night certainly was grateful. They laughed loudly all the way through. At the end, they gave the actors and producers and me a more than five-minute standing ovation. We didn’t quite know what to do. Owen said maybe I should go down and say a few words. I didn’t think that was such a good idea. Then Owen said maybe it was like they used to applaud for Stalin: everybody was afraid to be the first one to stop. In fact, the reaction was dizzying and quite wonderful. Everyone was elated.
The next day, standing in the lobby of the lovely Hotel Danieli, I was telling Simona Caparrini, an Italian-actress friend of mine, what Jean Renoir had said on the subject of dubbing voices for films: all foreign movies are dubbed in Italy. Including some Italian actors who don’t have the proper accepted Italian accent. As I was in the midst of quoting Renoir’s comment, a graying gentleman interrupted to confirm that I was who I was. He then introduced himself as Michel Ciment, editor of the popular, often radical, French film magazine, Positif. He wanted to tell me how much he had enjoyed my new picture; he went on to say he didn’t like all my pictures, but that he really liked this one. “Congratulations!” Then he told me his magazine had recently stolen a piece I did on Stella Adler for The New York Times Book Review; he said he’d send me a copy. It felt strange that I had been talking about the greatest French filmmaker when a passionate French supporter of Renoir had stopped to compliment me. The ironic quote, by the way, which I now said in its entirety, went like this (with necessary French accent): “In a really civilized time, like the 12th century, a person who dubbed movies would be burned at the stake as a heretic, for presuming that two souls can exist in one body.”
On our last night in Venice, Louise and I went for a walk down to St. Marcos’ Square, where three different quintets were playing music, all separate from each other, with the sound never bleeding from one into another. The group we liked best had women, both blondes, on the violin and the piano; and three men for the clarinet, bass and accordion. The clarinet player was very emotional and romantic, moving his head expressively with the notes. At midnight, the chimes at the nearby church starting ringing, and our favorite combo was playing that devastating Charles Aznavour ballad, “How Sad Venice Can Be;” it was all quite overpowering and memorable, strangely touching, and magical.
As was our entire trip. The Venice Festival people, and the workers at the majestic Hotel Danieli, where we stayed, were all delightful, helpful and considerate. The food was terrific, the weather balmy, the place very busy with scores of tourists who came to enjoy the sights and sounds and picture shows. I couldn’t recommend it more highly if you’re considering the idea of going to the 72nd Festival next year. It’s a real treat! As are the indescribably delicious many, many flavors of gelato, which only in Italy is worth indulging in and popping a button or two.