By Lars-Olav Beier
When the stars, the directors, the actors and the actresses have stepped out of their limousines in front of the Festival Palace in Cannes and have made their way through the cheering crowds, when they have survived the frenzy of hundreds of flashing cameras and have climbed the steps to the palace, they have only a few more meters to go before reaching the hallowed halls of cinema. They will have almost made it.
But there is still one man left to pass: Gilles Jacob.
Jacob has been in charge of the festival for more than 30 years and stands at the top of the stairway every evening, perhaps the most famous stairway of the modern age, the stairway to fame.
He stands there dressed in a tuxedo, looking very slim and erect, and runs his gaze across the crowd, across the stars below. It is the exacting gaze of a patriarch, proudly observing what he has created.
"The steps are a religious metaphor," says Jacob, 80. "At the festivals in both Venice and Berlin, the entrance to the theater where the premiers are played is at ground level, as it is at the Oscars. Only here in Cannes do people have to climb a stairway, going higher and higher."
The Danish director Lars von Trier allegedly said: When you have climbed the steps in Cannes and have finally made it to the top, you've arrived in paradise -- or not.
'When God Calls, You Have to Come Immediately'
"People always ask: What do you think about up there?" says Jacob. "About the friendships with the filmmakers who are climbing the steps up to where you are? Or do you have erotic fantasies when the actresses climb those steps? The truth is that I'm thinking of only one thing: Can we start on time? When God calls you to him, you have to come immediately. But it's a little different when I call."
But these days the actors and directors whom Gilles Jacob and his artistic director, Thierry Frémaux summon to Cannes -- a group including such luminaries this year as Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Brad Pitt, Jodie Foster, Pedro Almodóvar and Nanni Moretti -- make a concerted effort to arrive on time.
Even those who don't consider Jacob to be a deity know that he is the doorman at an extremely exclusive cinema club.
Today, as one of the most powerful men in European film, Jacob can afford to leave the task of choosing the competition films -- 20 out of some 1,700 submitted -- to Frémaux. But as the president of the festival, Jacob keeps a close eye on the empire, which he has steadily expanded since taking office as program director in 1978.
Year after year the festival, with more than 4,000 accredited journalists in attendance and several hundred TV crews filming along the entire length of the opulent Promenade de la Croisette 24 hours a day, is one of the world's biggest cultural events.
Saving 10 Years for Tarantino
Jacob turned Cannes into a global village for the first time in 1979, when he drummed up 1,100 journalists to attend the press conference for Francis Ford Coppola's war film "Apocalypse Now." In the ensuing decades, Jacob discovered directors like Jane Campion, Lars von Trier and Michael Haneke. He promoted Quentin Tarantino by showing his debut film "Reservoir Dogs" in 1992, and helped him achieve a breakthrough by including "Pulp Fiction" in the competition in 1994. Jacob saved me 10 hard years of my life, says Tarantino.
In 1992, he opened the festival with Sharon Stone's "Basic Instinct" and celebrated the actress, who had had little success until then, as the new sex goddess.
Stone is still treated like a major star in Cannes today, though she hasn't been one for a long time, as few have watched the films she made after "Basic Instinct." But her Cannes appearances brought Stone lucrative contracts with French cosmetics companies that support the festival. When Stone collects donations for her AIDS foundation in Cannes, she routinely raises millions.
"A few years ago, I took a picture of Sharon Stone as she walked across the red carpet and climbed the stairs to where I was standing. She looked completely surprised to see me standing there with a camera, and yet she was smiling confidently." As Jacob tells this story, he clearly seems pleased that Stone satisfies his standards for a modern star.
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