Croissants and decaff with reptile man; CANNES FESTIVAL

'I'm handsome, good-looking and I wanna career, I wanna haircut, I wanna go to Palm Springs. I want ejaculations just like anyone else.' Sheila Johnston takes breakfast with Tony Curtis before battling her way to the next round of screenings

As I loiter in the lobby of one of the larger hotels, my eye is caught by a sign announcing "press breakfast with Tony Curtis". I have a fair suspicion of what this is in aid of. One of the more extraordinary sights in this town full of strange spectacles is, after all, a life-size cardboard cut-out of Curtis bulging out of a pea-green lycra catsuit with gold lame jockstrap and sequinned cape. He is promoting a flick called The Continued Adventures of Reptile Man and His Faithful Sidekick Tadpole. Why not look in?

It is 10.15am but the room is empty; an anxious press flunkie explains that the guest of honour is caught in traffic but should arrive any second. The invited hacks have all long-since departed and I, a shameless gatecrasher, am more than welcome to break croissants with Tony. I hesitate briefly because Reptile Man (budget $6m) might not be a cinematic masterpiece. In fact, although the film has been snapped up by Turkey,Thailand and Brazil, it hasn't started shooting yet and the ads, on close inspection, bear the tell-tale disclaimer in microscopic print, "credits not contractual". But the prospect of a tete-a-tete with Tony Curtis is too tempting to pass up in Cannes, where an "exclusive" interview with the most minor celebrity means, as likely as not, 15 minutes shared with a dozen other journalists - none of whom have English as their first or even second language.

A flurry of excitement; a big booming voice; a cotton-candy pompadour; our guest has arrived. He plops himself in the seat directly opposite me and orders a decaff ("I don't wanna get more hyper than I already am"). At his right hand, a small, intense man introduces himself as Reptile's writer-director and cuts to the chase; his picture will be the tale of a fading star "with an ego the size of Montana", whose only claim to fame is as the pea-green superhero in a tacky TV show. It is, he says, the story of Tony Curtis's life. It will be funny and poignant. It will be the new Sunset Boulevard.

Tony is keen to tell me how thrilled he is to be involved in this exciting new venture. "I'm gonna have my own dress designer. I'm gonna wear mini- skirts. I'm gonna have a 20ft tongue that I attack my enemies with... and," he leers confidentially across the table "do all sorts of other things with." One or two other reporters have trickled in by now, but I note to my extreme discomfiture that I'm the only woman. The Curtis eye-contact is blinding.

"When I was 27," he booms on, "Hollywood was much more laid back, y'know what I mean? I told myself, 'I'm handsome, good-looking and I wanna career, I wanna haircut, I wanna go to Palm Springs. I want ejaculations just like anyone else.' " I bend busily over my notebook. "Then it got very hard to find film material if you weren't in the vortex, in the loop. I had six kids and I had to say, 'I can't wait to play Cockroach Girl'.

"I don't think of this as a movie. I don't act on the screen, I be on the screen. Hamlet said it, 'To be or not to be.' Remember Being There with Peter Sellers? What a picture!" On his right, Tadpole is getting fidgety. "Shall we get back to Reptile Man?" he pipes up. "We've had people coming out of the woodwork to work on this movie. Some really top-notch people."

I edge quickly towards the door as Curtis's voice echoes after me. "From his mouth to God's ear, y'know what I mean. I like to see this picture as a male version of Sunset Boulevard..."

The morning screening is Kids, which proves to be quintessential Cannes experience. The Romanian and Japanese films had been sparsely attended; scarcely 50 people turned up for the late-night show of the African entry. But Kids is about drugs, HIV-positive teenagers, underage sex. It is having a little trouble with the censor. More to the point, it is American - the first American movie, indeed, to play in competition. Everybody wants to see it. Consequently it has been scheduled in the smallest auditorium in the Palais.

Thanks to Tony Curtis, I am late, and the scrum before the door is turning ugly. People are waving their badges in the air. An Italian critic is yelling: "This is not a private screening! Let me in!" Someone else mutters: "So this is why they call them press screenings." I'm about to slope off when I notice someone with a yellow dot on his badge being ushered through the throng. Yellow dots are for the privileged - writers working for daily papers. I have a yellow dot! Elbows akimbo I shove my way through. Kids turns out to be dismal: the characters shallow, the narrative rambling, the film-making rudimentary. Although the director, Larry Clarke, is a photographer of some repute, there's not a memorable image in it. Some people reckon it's the best thing they've seen so far.

To lunch with Michael Kuhn, the self-styled big cheese at PolyGram, whose thoughts on being a new mogul in town appeared in these pages last week. Thanks to Kids, I am late, arriving with another veteran of the morning's skirmishes who has a large rip in his shirt. We are in time, however, to hear Kuhn give a speech outlining the company's new projects - which include a musical remake of Whistle Down the Wind with a score by Andrew Lloyd Webber and a screenplay by the woman who wrote 91/2 Weeks. Then, while we were digesting this, he lobs in a complaint that Channel 4 put "tuppence ha'penny" into Four Weddings and a Funeral and then grumbled when they got only pounds 5m back. The next morning's headlines in the local trade papers flash before our eyes: "Kuhn to Channel 4: Screw you".

Later Kuhn talks, too, of Carrington, and of how to get America to see it. Jonathan Pryce is best known there right now for a series of television ads, and he speculates on the impact of pitching Carrington as the movie that stars the guy from the Honda commercials. It could be a smart move; this, after all, is the town where Sir Ian McKellen's forthcoming film version of Richard III is being pre-sold with the copyline "He came on earth to make this world a hell."

Any film that doesn't fit some kind of template may expect a rough ride: Terence Davies's beautiful The Neon Bible met with catcalls and hissing at the press screening. And some have felt that, despite a different setting - the American South in the Forties - the film is too close a reworking of its director's established themes: a brutal father, an oppressively religious community, a sensitive boy coming of age in a matriarchal family (although it seems perverse to berate a film-maker for having strong personal obsessions). This is a very delicate film, slow and elliptical, almost a tone poem; it looks sensational (very different, actually, from either Davies's early trilogy or Distant Voices, Still Lives) and displays cinema craft of a high order. He shouldn't lose heart; booing is at least a sign that the audience is still present, awake and emotionally provoked (which has by no means been the case with many films seen this year). And he's in good company; Antonioni has been given the bum's rush here, as was Jane Campion for Sweetie. A couple of years later, with The Piano, she was the toast of Cannes.

Out of competition, two films have found favour: Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspects a clever, intricate film noir, and Gus van Sant's To Die For, a black satire about the vacuity of American television and a bitchy, ambitious woman's bid for fame at any price. It's something of a one-joke movie and surprisingly conventional for Van Sant (perhaps he's drawing in his horns after the grand disaster of Even Cowgirls Get the Blues), but polished and funny with a knockout comic performance from Nicole Kidman.

Zhang Yimou's Shanghai Triad starts off like a Chinese Godfather - a young boy enters the family business, the mafia that ran Shanghai in the Thirties - and suddenly switches midway to an intimate drama of betrayal, as Gong Li's gangster's moll finds herself a pawn in a power struggle between the capo and his henchman. This is an ornate, good-looking film, but feels at the end a little mechanical.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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