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As chair of Cannes jury, it’s Steven Spielberg’s turn to ‘sit in judgment’

Steven Spielberg, jury president of the 66th Cannes Film Festival


'Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me," begins an F. Scott Fitzgerald story written in 1925.

No, not the The Great Gatsby, the American classic remade by Baz Lurhmann which, after hitting North American theatres last week, opened the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday. It's from Fitzgerald's short story The Rich Boy, which, despite the fanfare around the former, seemed more apropos to Cannes on opening day.

Maybe it's the $200-million yacht, The Seven Seas, moored in the Cannes harbour that brought it to mind. The floating castle, with a built-in 3-D theatre, belongs to Steven Spielberg, Hollywood's most influential and successful (with an estimated net worth of $3-billion) director of the past 35 years, who is taking a round-the-world sabbatical this summer.

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That's why, after being asked repeatedly, the 66-year-old filmmaker was available for the first time to serve as chairman of the Cannes jury. Too many jurors go on about being humbled by the responsibility. On the contrary, Spielberg is showing a refreshing enthusiasm for the job. The press conference took place the day after his first dinner with his fellow jurors, at the Hotel Martinez, choosing from a menu reportedly inspired by his movies. (Would that be E.T. meat loaf and Lincoln parfait?) Does he have qualms about passing judgment on his peers? On the contrary, he sounded eager for it.

"We're always sitting in personal private judgment of the films we see," said Sp ielberg, who leads the nine-person jury that will hand out this year's Palme d'Or. "And others sit in judgment of us. So now it's our turn."

His fellow judges include actors Nicole Kidman, Christoph Waltz and Daniel Auteuil and directors Lynne Ramsey and Ang Lee, who, in contrast, declared that "I'm afraid to judge others in public," though he felt it was his professional duty to contribute to a profession that has done a lot for him.

Lee's Life of Pi took the best director award away from Spielberg this year at the Oscars. Would there be backstage competitiveness?

"I worship Steven Spielberg," said Lee. "I don't know what he thinks of me but I worship him. He's my hero."

Spielberg responded: "I don't know what to say to that except that Ang and I have been good friends for a very long time and we've never, ever been competitors, we've always been colleagues and that will just continue." I worship Life of Pi, so I guess I worship Ang Lee as well. You are what you eat, you are what you do, you are what you shoot."

As for his leadership style as jury chairman, Spielberg brushed off the question with a movie reference: "I'm going to have to look at Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men again as a tutorial to prepare myself for the final deliberation."

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'Boo birds' were subdued

Will the "boo birds" be out for The Great Gatsby? asked the Hollywood online site, The Wrap, yesterday morning, a reference to the cruel tradition of the Cannes press openly booing a movie they don't like.

There was the odd ambiguous whistle and a lot of twittering – but otherwise, reaction to Luhrmann's lavish, 3-D hip-hop adaptation of Fitzgerald's novel might best be described as politely subdued. Even though North American reviews were, on average, mediocre, Warner Bros. executives described the Cannes opening as a "victory lap" after the film's surprisingly robust $51-million opening in North America last weekend.

The press gang was far more enthusiastic about jamming into the press-conference room to see Luhrmann and the film's stars – Leonardo DiCaprio as the mysterious, glamorous Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as the dream girl Daisy, and Tobey Maguire as the retiring storyteller Nick. The spirit was, if not exactly victorious, full of esprit de corps, offering frequent reminders that The Great Gatsby, after all, has gone through all this before.

Initially, says the 50-year-old Luhrmann, as a young "bohemian" he was fascinated by Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, as personalities, because "they partied like it was 1929."

He rediscovered the book a decade ago in audio form, while riding a Siberian train, and says he struggled with the issue of how to use the narrator, Nick's voice, in cinematic terms, while immersing himself in ancillary literature and criticism.

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"He wrote it 20 miles up the road here, while his wife was having an affair on the beach and there was a French airman, who was buzzing their house. And Fitzgerald was tremendously criticized. A major critic of the day called him Fitzgerald the clown. … By the way, last week he sold more copies of his book than he did in his entire lifetime."

DiCaprio, 38, who first worked with Luhrmann on the updated Shakespeare play Romeo + Juliet almost 20 years ago, offered a strong word of support for the director and his willingness to take on challenges.

"He inspires you every day in the workplace to not only do your best, but dream big. You cannot get in a room with this man and not feel inspired, not feel nostalgic, not feel like you're part of something special. He brings that out in everybody he works with, and it's infectious. He's also not afraid to take on incredibly classic stories that are embedded in our culture and that are incredibly risky to do."

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