Hey, who needs a third Best Director win? On the heels of his Oscar night disappointment, Steven Spielberg received some solace in the form of a very different, though arguably no less prestigious, cinematic honor: he’s been named the the president of the Competition jury at the 66th Cannes Film Festival. (Not that it will have come as a surprise to him, of course: he provisionally accepted the job when it was offered to him two years ago.)
“My admiration for the steadfast mission of the Festival to champion the international language of movies is second to none,” said Spielberg in response to the announcement. “The most prestigious of its kind, the festival has always established the motion picture as a cross cultural and generational medium.”
Only the greatest of the film world’s great and good have been deemed fit for this role by the prestigious French fest: past American filmmakers to have held the position include Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood and Tim Burton. Last year’s president was the Italian actor-auteur Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d’Or in 2001 for “The Son’s Room.”
Spielberg may seem a more mainstream pick than usual, but he has his own history with Cannes. Like all the aforementioned names, he has also competed for the Palme d’Or — way back in 1974, with his very first theatrical feature, “The Sugarland Express.” (It didn’t win the big one, but he shared the Best Screenplay award with co-writers Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins.) And while he’s never been in Competition since, he’s maintained his relationship with the Croisette: “E.T.” had its world premiere in an out-of-competition slot at the festival in 1982, as did “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in 2008.
“The memory of my first Cannes Film Festival, nearly 31 years ago with the debut of ‘E.T.,’ is still one of the most vibrant memories of my career,” Spielberg further stated. (Was he not present in 1974, or has it slipped his mind?) “For over six decades, Cannes has served as a platform for extraordinary films to be discovered and introduced to the world for the first time. It is an honor and a privilege to preside over the jury of a festival that proves, again and again, that cinema is the language of the world.”
With or without his Cannes credentials, Spielberg is, as the foremost directorial brand name in all cinema, an inarguably worthy choice. It’s also worth noting the extreme high regard in which the French hold him and his work: in 2010, august film journal Cahiers du Cinéma named “War of the Worlds” one of the 10 best films of the previous decade.
Indeed, the only surprising thing about Spielberg’s selection is that it’s taken this long to happen — and not for lack of trying on the festival’s part. Festival president Gilles Jacob states that they had been courting Spielberg for some time, but this was the first year the director’s busy schedule allowed for it:
“It was with ‘E.T.,’ that I screened as a world premiere in ’82, that ties were made of the type you never forget. Ever since, I”ve often asked Steven to be Jury President, but he”s always been shooting a film. So when this year I was told, ‘E.T., phone home,’ I understood and immediately replied: ‘At last!'”
This year’s Cannes Film Festival runs from 15 to 25 May. Once again, we’ll be in attendance. Roll on spring.