No book could ever fully capture the beautiful, ugly, inexplicable madness that is the Cannes Film Festival — but that hasn’t stopped a handful from trying. Here are THR’s executive editor (awards) and resident film-book bibliophile’s picks for the five best.
1. Two Weeks in the Midday Sun: A Cannes Notebook, by Roger Ebert (1987)
This thin travelogue by the Chicago Sun-Times’ longtime film critic, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and died in 2013, chronicles his experience covering the fest’s 1987 edition, having previously attended many times before. It breezily profiles true festival characters like the publicist Renee Furst, the schlock showman Menahem Golan and the gambler Billy “Silver Dollar” Baxter — all now gone — and charmingly illustrates how much some things have changed (journalists no longer file reports by telex when they can get around to it, but rather post multiple online dispatches daily) and others have not (the jetlag and lack of sleep, the key hotels and hot spots, the striving to get into films and parties, etc.). Two thumbs up.
2. Hollywood on the Riviera: The Inside Story of the Cannes Film Festival, by Cari Beauchamp and Henri Behar (1992)
Written by two veteran journalists with long histories at the fest and drawing on more than 100 interviews with festival insiders (from the late New York Times film critic Vincent Canby to the Columbia professor/fest translator Annette Insdorf), this juicy tome breaks down every aspect of a fest that people attend “to see and be seen, buy and be bought, sell and be sold, review and be reviewed, promote and be promoted.” It gets into the fest’s origins (first held in 1939 but canceled after opening night, when Germany invaded Poland); history of salacious incidents (from starlets stripping off their tops to James Woods and a female journalist getting it on in a hotel room); and gossip (novelist Henry Miller was supposedly asked to be on the jury in 1960 when the invitation was actually intended for playwright Arthur Miller).
3. Hype and Glory, by William Goldman (1990)
The legendary screenwriter of films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men and author of the essential film book Adventures in the Screen Trade, who died in 2018, here provides a humorous account of being a juror at the Cannes Film Festival and a judge at the Miss America Pageant — what he calls “the quintessential European and American pop-culture events” — in the same year, 1988. He muses about the contestants on the Croisette and in Atlantic City, dishes on how they were evaluated by himself and others and, perhaps most amusingly, also discusses what was going on in his own life at the time, from an unfolding divorce to an assortment of health issues. The New York Times called it an “oddly endearing little book,” while the Los Angeles Times wrote that Goldman’s “writing glows and shimmers.”
4. Citizen Cannes: The Man behind the Cannes Film Festival, by Gilles Jacob (2011)
Nobody has ever written about Cannes with more of an insider’s perspective than Jacob, now 92, who became the fest’s general delegate in 1978 and president in 2001, a capacity he held through 2014. In this memoir he writes plenty about the fest — how he courted Hollywood to play a more prominent role in the proceedings, created the Un Certain Regard sidebar and the Camera d’Or prize for best first-time filmmaker, handled temperamental talent like 1991 jury president Roman Polanski and brought into the fold current fest director Thierry Fremaux — but also about his lesser-known personal journey. A Jewish child saved by a Catholic seminary during World War II, he was a film critic prior to his association with the fest. He followed this memoir with another volume on the fest, the 800-page A Dictionary for Cannes Lovers, published in 2018.
5. Cannes Cinema, by Serge Toubiana and Gilles Traverso (2011)
This gorgeous coffee table book provides a sumptuous visual history of the fest unlike any other. It features some 600 photographs shot at the fest by three generations of Traverso family photographers — most in stunning black-and-white — with subjects of the mostly candid shots ranging from Louis Lumière, one of the pioneers of the motion picture art form, to Golden Age stars like Brigitte Bardot and Sophia Loren, to 21st century A-listers like Quentin Tarantino and Uma Thurman. The former Cahiers du Cinema editor-in-chief and Cinematheque Francaise director Toubiana, meanwhile, provides colorful captions.