A little party never killed nobody.
from the Great Gatsby
The word party may not be French, but it might as well have been invented for the Cannes Festival. As far back as the 1940s celebrations at the festival have been legendary. Invites are more sought after than tickets to the premieres. Often the fetès outperform the fest. Most of them are large and ostentatious, rather than intimate gatherings. Premiere afterparties often reflect the theme of the film, as was the case for the Hunger Games-franchise, when the studio rented one of the biggest villas on the Cote d’Azur a few years ago, with 13 terraces reaching all the way from the top of the hill to the ocean, and decorated it like scenes from the film. This was custom in the 1990ties and early 2000s as well.
Having attended Cannes for the first time in 1997 I vividly remember the opening night celebration of The Fifth Element. Swatch watches were our entry, and the more than 1000 guests were wowed with a futuristic ballet, a fashion show of the Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes in the movie and fireworks on the beach. Rumor has it, the cost was 2 million dollars, which must have been a large chunk of the total marketing budget. Three years later the same company turned the Palais into the 17th century castle from the Vatel afterparty. They also hired 100 actors in period costumes. And the flowers burst into a confetti rain, showering the guests with colorful dots. Problem was, they not only sparkled, they also stuck with one French lady complaining loudly about confetti ruining her wig.
The hottest ticket to get was for a shindig that took place ten years earlier. Nothing to this day has surpassed the frenzy for a little documentary called Truth or Dare. Madonna had hit the town to promote her concert-and-sex shocker, and producer Dino De Laurentiis, a man who always knew how to do it bigger than anyone else, rented the entire Palm Beach Casino and invited 999 guests. Everyone who was anyone in town was there, from Tina Turner to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Eddie Murphy. Madonna arrived with her hair in braids wrapped around her head, spilling out of a not-so Like-A-Virgin-version of an Austrian Dirndl (a traditional garb), which she paired with combat boots. On her arm was her director, Alek Keshishian. Madonna disappeared early with one of her dancers, but that did not keep the guests from dancing and drinking till dawn. As if no one had work to do the next day.
The history of Cannes as a party hub dates back to 1946, the year after the war and the official first festival. Europe, desperate to celebrate after years of bombs, death and starvation, was ready to forget amidst a sea of champagne and glittering lights.
In the Fifties the little town on the Cote d’Azur became a place of discovery and scandal. A little know actress called Simone Silva was photographed topless during a tête-a-tête with Robert Mitchum on an island off the coast. The affair ruined his marriage. An unknown young, blonde girl with full lips and curves had her picture plastered all over town. Her name? Brigitte Bardot.
In the 60ties and 70ties stars frolicked on the many beaches and parties turned into the paparazzi-havens they remain to this day.
In 2001 the two most talked about parties were for Moulin Rouge and The Lord of the Rings. The former was tough to get into. The studio had built a club resembling the one from the film in the Old Port, and had hired Can Can-dancers and DJ Fatboy Slim to spin the turntables. For the latter, guests were bused up the hills to the Château de Castellaras, where original sets imported from New Zealand served as a backdrop, and Hobbits and Ogres ran free. And no, I am not talking about some of the attendees.
Sometimes, parties cannot distract from the movie. After a press screening for The Da Vinci Code in 2006, reviewers broke the embargo and published scathing reviews. The elaborate and expensive bash after the premiere the next day was mostly remembered for the forced and frozen smiles on Ron Howard’s and Brian Grazer’s faces. Even the giant pyramid could not distract from a major air-conditioning problem that put everyone in an even worse mood. The film later became a worldwide hit. The bash in Cannes is still considered a party bomb.
24 years ago, one foundation made the clever decision to cash in on all this crazy partying: amfAR hosted its first event to benefit AIDS research. It has been a staple of Cannes ever since and is famous for turning out more stars than the Oscars. It is the event you better be at, and for stars the place where they loosen up the purse strings of the international haute volée by auctioning off vacations in the South Pacific, jewels and sometimes themselves. A kiss from George Clooney was going to cost the winning bidder a whopping 350,000.- in 2007. Emcee Sharon Stone tried to force the actor to do it. Instead he paid the sum on the spot and got off without having to lock lips with the bidder. Stone also made Calvin Klein drop his pants to prove he, in fact, wore Calvins for 5,000.-, and topped it off with getting someone to pay double that to see if Rod Stewart was wearing anything under his kilt. He was. Ringo Starr drummed it up with Elton John for 250,000.- and His Highness, Prince Albert auctioned off a tennis lesson with himself and a swimming lesson with his wife Charlene for half a million each. Two years ago, amfAR broke all records by raking in 30 million Euros in one night.
Another staple of the festival is the Vanity Fair bash at the Eden Roc that is usually so crowded, guests escape to the terrace for a breath of fresh ocean air. For the past five years Microsoft tycoon Paul Allen has hosted fetes on his yacht. Jewelry companies Chopard and Grisogono throw one tasteful and one tasteless party, respectively, each year.
Good, bad or ugly, there is only one motto for Cannes, and it could be said in the eternal words of Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World: Party on! Until the sun comes up on the very last day.