The lesson at the Cannes Film Festival was clear and simple: There's no star like an old star.
In an event parched of celebrity, Elizabeth Taylor, who hasn't made a decent movie in years, blew in Thursday and ignited the town like a torch. She even outdrew little Sylvester Stallone at the premiere of his film "Cliffhanger" in the Palais du Festivals, where thousands of fans gathered for a glimpse. It was like the premiere of "Gone With the Wind" in Atlanta in 1939, one of those majestic, formal movie moments that combine crowd frenzy, tan beautiful people in tuxedos and strapless gowns, artificial snow and movie hype to create that sense of glamour the festival had so sorely lacked, particularly after two drippy, rainy days and a series of enigmatic and remote movies.
Earlier in the day, Miss Taylor galvanized the international press with a rare news conference.
The setting was the Hotel Martinez, along the city's legendary Boulevard de Croisette. By midafternoon, on the sheer power of rumor, a huge crowd had gathered. But that was all right: There was a single policeman present.
Surely one of the great obscurities of French culture is the way the French love policemen everywhere except where they're needed. Two hundred yards down the Croisette, two buses were parked, and on those buses lounged dozens of tough-looking riot police, sunning themselves, sleeping, playing cards. Meanwhile, at the hotel, one of those majestic, expensive white beasts thatdominate the Croisette, thousands had gathered and single sweaty man in uniform had charge of them.
Fighting one's way through the crowd, one reached the lobby of the hotel to discover . . . another crowd. If one phenomenon marks Cannes, it is crowds, usually jammed with desperate people with cameras, notebooks, deadlines and pathological personalities. The French, of course, had no mercy; journalists were not allowed into the hall until precisely 4:40 p.m., though they formed a huge, seething queue full of fainting women and bullying men.
"It's the worst of all possible worlds," said Tony Crawley, a British free-lancer who has covered dozens of film festivals, "planned by the Brits and the Americans but with the French controlling the door."
So chaotically planned was the event that at one point television cameramen were admitted one by one through the dense crowd of print reporters. It was not a scene of happy faces as the camera boys torturously bullied their way between their sweaty, resentful press colleagues.
Finally, the doors squeaked open and one by one the writers themselves squirted into the vast room.
Miss Taylor, who was appearing on behalf of her AIDS charity, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, had come to Cannes to appear at the premiere of "Cliffhanger" and to be host at a $2,500-a-plate fund-raiser at the exclusive Le Moulin de Mougins restaurant. But the true nature of her appearance -- these events all have double meanings in the huckster's paradise that is Cannes -- was to shill for an HBO movie based on reporter Randy Shilts' book about the AIDS epidemic, "And the Band Played On." She was joined on the dais by Sir Ian McKellan, a gay British actor and AIDS activist; Michael Fuchs, president of HBO; and rock singer Phil Collins, who stars in the film. Notably absent was Roger Spottiswoode, who directed "And the Band Played On" but has since left the project and openly criticized "compromises" made in editing and post-production.
But on to important issues: What did she wear and how did she look?
Entering regally at the appointed hour, she wore a white sleeveless sheath and diamond earrings as big as the Martinez. She was tan, her raven-black hair was piled high, and she looked great. She had the look of legend. Fuchs, introducing her, hit exactly the right note, pointing out that "aside from the magnitude of celebrity and history surrounding her, this is a wonderful, down-to-earth, funny lady." Miss Taylor's aura radiated through the room. Photographers lay at her feet, grown men swooned, women were jealous. Her comments, given the public nature of the ceremony, were appropriately public; she issued the right platitudes and bromides as expected.
"I thank you all for your willingness to support the global effort to combat this health crisis. . . . We do not have the time to disagree or compete; we only have time to work together."
She was somewhat more relaxed during the brief Q-and-A session her handlers permitted, at one point queried as to how come she wasn't in the HBO movie?
"God," she said in that trademark Hollywood-English accent, "I offered myself, but nobody would pick me up."
She agreed that generally Hollywood had done a poor job dramatizing the AIDS crisis. "Hollywood makes entertainments. Hollywood likes happy endings. There are no happy endings with AIDS."
Asked if she was in despair, she said: "Yes, I despair for all of humanity, because I don't think the world is aware yet of what is happening. And unless people listen and take seriously what we're trying to say, the pandemic will spread with frightening increase."
And on that cheerful note, the conference ended; the great lady was whisked away behind clouds of security men, and the reporters were left to fight their way out, just as they had fought their way in.