Yesterday Harvey Weinstein was feted at the first annual Champs-Elysees Film Festival where the producer was honored with an homage to his career by French Cultural Minister Frederic Mitterand. Earlier this year, Weinstein was also presented with the prestigious Legion d’Honneur from former French President Nicholas Sarkozy for his enduring contributions to cinema. But, Weinstein’s love affair with French cinema is nothing new. From his childhood discovery in Queens, through Miramax hits like Amelie and Les Chorus and, of course, last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist it has been a true lifelong passion for the producer and he has no intention of slowing down. Next up is international blockbuster The Intouchables, which has already become the 2nd highest grossing French film of all time. Also, the French family film War of the Buttons, based on the classic French story, is set to open in July.
People know that I have a great love for cinema. Not just for commercial cinema, but for the “cinema d’auteur.” But to me, two of the great “auteurs” are actually actors and they both happen to be French. One is Alain Delon and the other is Jean-Paul Belmondo. Late in the afternoon, on the day before the Cannes Film Festival, I met my friend Len Blavatnik and some of his buddies for lunch at the Eden Roc at the Hotel Du Cap. Upon arriving, Len asked me if I noticed the gentleman sitting at the table next to us, the only other patron in the restaurant this time of day. Much to my delight it was none other than Jean-Paul Belmondo himself. I started giggling so much I felt like a teenage girl seeing The Beatles for the first time in 1964.
Jean-Paul Belmondo is a true auteur. He is a symbol of France with a can-do spirit. He has “la joie de vie” that is infectious, and that us Americans seldom have. Simply put, there couldn’t be two cooler guys than Delon and Belmondo. In America, we know Belmondo from Breathless, the Godard film. But for me, it is far more personal. As a kid, I would haunt movie theaters that showed many of his films in a small, remote corner of Flushing, Queens. The first movie I saw when I was 14 was The 400 Blows. I thought this was going to be an “adult” film, but instead it was Truffaut’s masterpiece. The second film I saw was Cartouche, with Belmondo and Claudia Cardinale. I told Belmondo that I not only loved his sword fighting from Cartouche, but loved Claudia Cardinale in the bath as well. He asked me which I enjoyed more and I had to admit, in the case of Cardinale, it was a tie.
From Cartouche on, I continued to visit the theaters whenever a Belmondo film came to New York. Though he was a movie star all over the world, his commercial films were never shown a proper release in the United States. The one exception was Borsalino, which starred both Belmondo and Delon. At the time of its release, I was working the graveyard shift at the post office. I had my coworkers cover for me one night so I could duck out to catch a late showing of the film. With two gangster brothers in arms, it was adventurous, it had gorgeous women, amazing clothes, beautiful locations and it was French. It had two remarkably charismatic actors with an unhappy ending. Had this been made in America, the ending would have been different, everyone would have lived. From the moment I saw the movie as a teenager, I could hum the music and still can to this day. (Maybe the fact that I’ve seen the film 30 times since then has something to do with that.)
As a young man, I went to Paris and soaked up many hours of film knowledge from Robert Hakim in my efforts to become a producer. The stories he told me in the Hotel George Cinq lobby were filled with Delon and Belmondo. Stories about Plein Soleil, which was Hakim’s film starring Delon (a film that I would later remake with Anthony Minghella starring Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law called The Talented Mr. Ripley), and about Weekend at Dunkirk, which was the first time I saw a film by Henri Verneuil. Of course I marveled over Hakim’s other films like Belle Du Jour and Pepe Le Moko, but it was always Belomondo and Delon’s anecdotes of hijinks and adventure that captivated me.
That day in Cannes when I went to say hello, Jean-Paul Belmondo said he knew of me and my work. To say I was flattered would be an understatement. I sat and talked with him, asking questions about movies while relishing in a moment of fan boy awe. My friends made fun of me later saying that I was acting like a teenager and, trust me, I’m no teenager. I have always loved Melville, Lelouche, Goddard and Verneuil and all the great directors Belmondo has worked with. And there he sat, telling me stories of their films and his relationship with Delon. What Paul Newman and Robert Redford were to the U.S., these guys were to the cinema of the entire world.
In the middle of our lunch, Robert De Niro came by to wish Belmondo well and give him a hug. I looked at Bob and then at Belmondo and like a lightning bolt, the idea of another heist film hit me. As Shakespeare said, “Once more unto the breach.” I looked at these two icons, De Niro and Delmondo, and I knew it was time to round up the great ones once more. We would hit the banks, the museums and of course only rob from the rich to give to the poor as they had done.
Later that day, I walked by the Du Cap and there was a picture of Belmondo from one of his films, his feet precariously hanging off a helicopter. At his age, he was the only actor outside of Jackie Chan who did his own stunts, breaking every bone in his body and giving his all to cinema. As I celebrate this week, in the city I love, it’s an honor and a privilege to be considered a part of this great cinematic tradition.