When abortion was illegal in the U.K.: ‘Vera Drake’ is Venice winner + Imelda Staunton named Best Actress
Mike Leigh’s social/family drama Vera Drake, starring Imelda Staunton as a kind-hearted abortionist in 1950s England, a time when abortion was illegal in that country, was turned down by the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.
Lucky film: At least partly thanks to its Cannes’ snub, Vera Drake has gone on to win the 2004 Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion. Additionally, the well-regarded drama has earned Imelda Staunton the Best Actress Silver Cup, automatically making the British stage, TV, and film veteran a potential Academy Award contender.
The Best Actor winner was another potential Oscar nominee, Javier Bardem, for Alejandro Amenábar’s Spanish-made, real-life-inspired right-to-die drama – and (runner-up) Grand Jury Prize winner – The Sea Inside / Mar adentro, in which Bardem plays a tetraplegic anxious to end it all.
Among this year’s other Venice Film Festival picks were:
- Best Director Kim Ki-Duk for the South Korean romantic drama 3-Iron / Bin-jip.
- Young Actor Award recipients Tommaso Ramenghi and Marco Luisi for Guido Chiesa’s socially conscious drama Working Slowly (Radio Alice) / Lavorare con lentezza.
- Ismaël Ferroukhi’s odd couple/father-son road (to Mecca) drama Le Grand voyage, named Best First Film.
- Kamel Cherif’s Best Short Film Signe d’appartenance (lit., “Sign of Belonging”).
And finally, Hollywood veteran Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Charade) and nonagenarian Portuguese veteran Manoel de Oliveira, whose A Talking Picture / Um Filme Falado was in the running for last year’s Golden Lion and whose The Fifth Empire / O Quinto Império was screened out of competition this year, were handed Career Golden Lions.
Nativist Italian media warns: Heads will roll!
As usual, not everyone was happy with the Venice jury’s choices – but some were definitely more riled up than most. And for nativist reasons.
“Venice disappoints our cinema,” the Roman daily La Repubblica grumbled on its front page, while Milan’s Corriere della Sera painted itself red, white, and green, blasting “Venice betrays [Gianni] Amelio.”
In fact, prior to the announcement of this year’s winners, La Repubblica had stated that Venice Festival Director Marco Müller and Davide Croff, the head of the Biennale (the organization that oversees the festival), could be axed by “vindictive powers” if Gianni Amelio’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar entry The Keys to the House / Le chiavi di casa, a family drama starring Kim Rossi Stuart and Charlotte Rampling, failed to take home the Golden Lion.
After all, last year’s festival director Moritz de Hadeln got the boot purportedly because the Silvio Berlusconi government and the publicly owned film company Rai Cinema were unhappy that veteran Italian filmmaker Marco Bellocchio’s acclaimed political drama (and Rai Cinema production) Good Morning Night / Buongiorno notte had failed to win Venice’s top prize – even though the jury had been led by another veteran Italian filmmaker, Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Organizer).
The previous year, when de Hadeln took control of the festival, the Berlusconi gang had gotten rid of his predecessors, Alberto Barbera and Biennale head Paolo Baratta, throwing the festival into chaos.
Mike Leigh ‘not just some nobody’
As it turned out, Amelio’s well-received The Keys to the House – surprisingly – didn’t win a single Official Competition Award, though it did nab several of the “lesser” Venice prizes, including the Sergio Trasatti Award and the CinemAvvenire Award for Best Film.
At least publicly, Amelio seemed unfazed by Mike Leigh’s victory, telling La Repubblica: “Frankly, I don’t feel defeated, and I don’t see why I ought to say I’m the victim of an injustice,” adding, “Mike Leigh won the Golden Lion, not just some nobody.”
Coincidentally, Amelio was the last Italian filmmaker to be awarded the Golden Lion. That was back in 1998, for the Turin-set socially conscious period drama The Way We Laughed / Così ridevano, toplining the director’s frequent collaborator Enrico Lo Verso (The Stolen Children, Lamerica).
Will heads roll?
Now it remains to be seen whether or not Marco Müller and Davide Croff will keep their jobs and/or their heads, or – at least in Müller’s case – be drowned in the lagoon, as per Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein’s threat. (See further below.)
Either way, future Venice Film Festival jurors better beware.
The 2004 Venice Film Festival Golden Lion jury was led by veteran British filmmaker John Boorman (Best Director Oscar nominee for Deliverance, 1972; Hope and Glory, 1987).
October 2004 update: Marco Müller and Davide Croff did manage to weather the nativist storm.
More Venice controversies: …And snafus for all
From when abortion was illegal to when Malaysian cinema was snubbed: Aside from the Golden Lion controversy, the 2004 Venice Film Festival seemingly consisted of nearly two weeks of Glitz, Glamour, and Glitches.
Festival presentations featuring all three of Venice’s Big Gs included those of Michael Radford’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, starring Al Pacino as Shylock and Lynn Collins as Portia, and Teong Hin Saw’s Malaysian epic period romance A Legendary Love / Puteri Gunung Ledang, starring Tiara Jacquelina and M. Nasir.
Overbooking and long delays at the screenings gave headaches to world-renowned stars and obscure audience members alike. The culprit, according to festival officials, was an uncooperative computer system.
As a result of the electronic snafu, Al Pacino couldn’t find a seat for himself at the screening of The Merchant of Venice, whereas the crown prince of Malaysia and his entourage arrived at the long-delayed presentation of A Legendary Love – at a reported US$4 million, the most expensive Malaysian movie ever – to find nearly every seat available.
Harvey Weinstein death threat
Perhaps echoing a sentiment felt throughout the festival, at the (much-delayed) 2 a.m. screening of Marc Forster’s J.M. Barrie-themed Finding Neverland, starring Johnny Depp, Kate Winslet, Radha Mitchell, and Best Actress Oscar winner Julie Christie (Darling, 1965), Harvey Weinstein remarked – supposedly in jest: “I’ll drown [Marco Müller] in the lagoon, with his feet encased in cement.”
In addition to pesky computer woes, other Acts of God (or Acts of Lack Thereof) blamed for the overall mess were, in no particular order of importance: bigger than expected crowds, outdated infrastructure, demands by the Hollywood studios that their films be shown during the first five days of the festival, and overlong autograph sessions on the red carpet.
That may help to explain why Marco Müller, who at first had Hollywood stars in his eyes, underwent a major about-face sometime in the last few days.
Müller now says that “my main problem is the American films,” and claims that he may eliminate the out-of-competition slots that have served as a European entryway for Hollywood blockbusters.
The recovering Hollywood-addict explains, “The problem is that those who are suffering the gridlock the most are the small and fragile films that we are supposed to highlight.”
Steven Spielberg disappointment
However belatedly, Marco Müller has a point. For starters, let’s not forget that on Sept. 1 Venice 2004 kicked off with a gala screening of something called The Terminal.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, and starring two-time Best Actor Oscar winner Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, 1993; Forrest Gump, 1994) and Best Supporting Actress winner Catherine Zeta-Jones (Chicago, 2002), the JFK Airport-set romantic drama could hardly be labeled a “small and fragile film” despite having been a critical and financial misfire in the United States, where it had opened a couple of months earlier.
At Venice’s press screening, The Terminal received an equally unenthusiastic reception. But surely none of that mattered to festival organizers, who hadn’t selected the latest Steven Spielberg movie as their opening night presentation because of its cinematic qualities.
What mattered was that both Spielberg and Tom Hanks were on hand at the gala evening – a surefire way of guaranteeing worldwide coverage of the event.
Hollywood celebrities & the international media
Besides Spielberg, Hanks, and Al Pacino, among the other Hollywood luminaries generating free publicity for this year’s Venice Film Festival were:
- Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber, Denzel Washington, and Jonathan Demme, promoting the filmmaker’s remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate, with Washington, Streep, and Schreiber replacing Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, and Laurence Harvey.
- Nicole Kidman and veteran Lauren Bacall (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep) plugging Jonathan Glazer’s controversial – there were loud boos at the press screening – psychological drama Birth.
- Reese Witherspoon, the star of Mira Nair’s filmization of William Makepeace Thackeray’s 19th-century novel Vanity Fair, with Witherspoon as Becky Sharp.
- In addition to Angelina Jolie, Scarlett Johansson, and Will Smith, plus the Italo-surnamed John Travolta, Robert De Niro, Joe Dante, and Quentin Tarantino.
Unsurprisingly, in their initial English-language reports about Venice 2004, Reuters, The Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse made no mention of any non-Hollywood celebrity attendee. That is, unless one considers Golden Lion presenter and Best Actress Oscar winner Sophia Loren (Two Women, 1961) a non-Hollywood talent.
But why should one?
That’s the very same Italian-born actress whose long list of leading men includes not only Marcello Mastroianni, Vittorio De Sica, Vittorio Gassman, and Jean-Paul Belmondo, but also U.S. movie icons and near-icons Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Alan Ladd, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, Tab Hunter, Richard Burton, Clark Gable, and Frank Sinatra.
‘Small and fragile films’
But what about Venice’s “small and fragile films” in need of all the publicity they could get?
Just in case, below are a few of them.
- Wim Wenders’ Land of Plenty, a downbeat exploration of life in the United States following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Michelle Williams stars.
- François Ozon’s 5×2, about the five stages of romance between a man (Stéphane Freiss) and a woman (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi).
- Veteran Claude Chabrol’s thriller The Bridesmaid / La Demoiselle d’honneur, an adaptation of Ruth Rendell’s 1989 novel. In the cast: Benoît Magimel, Laura Smet, and Aurore Clément.
- Claire Denis’ psychological/family drama The Intruder / L’Intrus, in which a recluse (Michel Subor) about to get a heart transplant travels to Tahiti in an attempt to connect with the son he had never met.
- Eros, an amalgam of three erotic short films directed by Wong Kar-Wai, Steven Soderbergh, and nonagenarian veteran Michelangelo Antonioni (La Notte, L’eclisse, Blow-Up). In the international cast: Gong Li, Chang Chen, Christopher Buchholz (son of Horst Buchholz), Regina Nemni, Luisa Ranieri, Robert Downey Jr., Ele Keats, and two-time Best Actor Oscar nominee Alan Arkin (The Russians Are Coming the Russians Are Coming, 1966; The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1968).
Woody Allen comedy/tragedy ‘Melinda and Melinda’ to open San Sebastian Film Festival
In other film festival news, Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, starring Radha Mitchell and Will Ferrell, will have its world premiere as the 2004 San Sebastian Film Festival’s opening night gala presentation. Additionally, Allen himself will be the subject of a career retrospective.
There’s more: four-time Academy Award nominee Jeff Bridges and two-time Academy Award nominee Annette Bening will be honored with Lifetime Achievement awards. This year, Bening is a potential Oscar contender for her work in István Szabo’s London-set period comedy Being Julia.
The San Sebastian Film Festival’s 52nd edition kicks off on Sept. 17. Nine days later, a jury headed by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa will hand out the Golden Shell to one of 19 films in competition, among them Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly (Iran / Iraq), Pete Travis’ Omagh (United Kingdom), and María Victoria Menis’ El Cielito (Spain / Argentina).
‘Melinda and Melinda’ cast
Besides Radha Mitchell and Will Ferrell, Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda features:
Larry Pine. Jonny Lee Miller. Wallace Shawn. Chloë Sevigny. Zak Orth. Andy Borowitz.
Amanda Peet. Chiwetel Ejiofor. Steve Carell. David Aaron Baker. Vinessa Shaw. Daniel Sunjata.
Venice Film Festival website.
When abortion was illegal – image of Imelda Staunton and Philip Davis in Mike Leigh’s 1950s-set drama Vera Drake: Momentum Pictures.
Tiara Jacquelina A Legendary Love image: Enfiniti Productions.
Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones The Terminal image: DreamWorks Pictures.
Radha Mitchell and Will Ferrell Melinda and Melinda image: Fox Searchlight.
“When Abortion Was Illegal: Social Drama Venice Win Unleashes Nativist Ire + Malaysian Culture ‘Snubbed’” last updated in August 2019.