High life | 26 May 2016

It was fun in the 1950s but nowadays it’s nothing but sleaze and selling

High life | 26 May 2016
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New York

Let’s face it, sleaze is to professional party-givers what jail is to a burglar, an occupational hazard. I’ve been reading about parties in Cannes, described in glowing terms by stars-in-their eyes hacks who should, but do not, know any better. Well, dear readers of The Spectator, I’m afraid I’ve been there, done it all, and believe you me, squalor is the operative word. Obscene publicity-seekers posing as role models, sartorial decay, and a chronic inability to keep their clothes on is the order of the day.

Cannes used to be fun, during the 1950s. Eden-Roc, the restaurant and swimming-pool of the Hotel du Cap, was terra incognita to the Hollywood crowd. Monsieur Sella, the owner, was an old-fashioned gentleman who disliked actors, but allowed Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck to keep a cabana on the premises. After his death and the inevitable sale, the new owners opened the gates to the flamboyant crowd of Cannes, but with caution. Now the place makes Rodeo Drive look like Harold Vanderbilt’s yacht.

The trouble, as always, is money. The Croisette in Cannes during the film festival fortnight was festooned with studio posters for up-and-coming movies. Now it looks like a catwalk. Luxury houses and megabrands rule the roost. And call the shots. The major studios came to Cannes for international gravitas, spending money to show the world that they produced serious films along with singing cowboys and talking horses. Now Dior and Chopard, Vuitton and Jaeger-LeCoultre are the stars. Branding has become more important than the insatiable hunger for fame and celebrity. A gold Rolex watch is now ubiquitous among the fans crowding the boardwalk in front of the Carlton and Martinez hotels — in fact it has replaced the beret, once the trademark of the French working classes.

Actors have now been turned into pitchmen for high-end products, and everyone’s a salesperson. And the parties, written about in glowing terms by the hacks who know which side their bread is buttered on, are no better. I was last there three years ago, and all I can say is I went to the two parties that were supposed to be the most exclusive, but I’ve met a better type of person in certain Parisian brothels of the time than in the so-called fabled Hotel du Cap. Sleazy agents and brand salesmen were everywhere, and every single person was selling something, yours truly being an exception. I didn’t even mention the greatest movie of all time — Seduced and Abandoned — in which I had a tiny part, such was my embarrassment at being there.

Never mind. Cannes and the ensuing parties are showplaces for publicity-seekers such as Lapo Elkann, or very aging groupies like Jean Pigozzi, to rub elbows with their idols. As most of my idols are soldiers and no longer with us, I have decided not to accept invitations to the annual bash, even if my new best friend Harvey Weinstein asks me. The place reeks of squalor and lukatmi, the latter a terminal disease that afflicts millions and can only be cured by non-stop selfies.

Drenched in nostalgia for what films used to be, I nevertheless made an effort on a weekday afternoon in the Big Apple to see a movie during Cannes week, and chose to attend one accompanied by a priest, Father Innocent Smith. Like the good boys that we are, we chose a friend’s period piece, Love & Friendship, directed by the great Whit Stillman of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco fame. This one was up to Whit’s usual standard. Based on an epistolary novella by Jane Austen, starring Kate Beckinsale and numerous other truly good Brit actors such as Jemma Redgrave and James Fleet, the film was a delight. Actually, it is the start, methinks, of Sense and Sensibility, but I am no Jane expert. Afterwards Stillman gave a brief speech followed by a question-and-answer session. When I went up to him, he greeted me with delight and mentioned how happy he was to see me in the company of a priest. ‘The company you keep has improved,’ he said, or words to that effect.

In this he was right. I used to go out every night. Dinner, clubs, then after-hours places. One could get through dinner in the company of nice people, even intelligent ones, but soon after the calibre and quality plunged. With drink and drugs, nightclub habitués bristled, like sharks on a moonlit sea. The boring sounded interesting, the ugly looked glamorous and so on. By 5 a.m. drugged-out faces turned into plaster masks looked beautiful. You can guess the rest. Clubs fit for troglodytes with odours fit for outhouses didn’t seem to bother me. I am now past all that, but at times I still miss it. Not the odours, nor the shabbiness of the people; just the downtown feeling. It’s called slumming, and I need it once in a while. That’s why I read my friend and colleague Jeremy. It makes me feel young again.