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Times Staff Writer

Cannes, France--”When Father Was Away on Business,” only the second feature ever made by a relatively unknown 30-year-old Yugoslav director, won the Golden Palm award Monday night as the best film of the annual international Cannes Film Festival.

Milos Forman, president of this year’s jury, said the choice of the Yugoslav film by Emir Kusturica was unanimous. But it still came as somewhat of a surprise in a competition that was generally regarded here as weak.

In fact, before the prizes were announced, Claire Devarrieux, a critic for the influential Paris newspaper Le Monde, wrote that the jury, if it really wanted to keep up the tradition of the Golden Palm, would award it to no movie this year.


But no one expected the jury to set this kind of offbeat precedent. “When Father Was Away on Business” depicts life in Yugoslavia during the 1950s, as seen through the eyes of a 6-year-old boy.

American actors dominated the awards for acting. William Hurt won the award for best male actor for his role as a prisoner in the Brazilian film “Kiss of the Spider Woman” by Hector Babenco. The film is in English.

Cher shared the award for best actress for her role in the Peter Bogdanovich movie “Mask.” Cher plays the mother of disfigured teen-ager Rocky Dennis in the film.

Cher shared the award with Argentine actress Norma Aleandro who starred in the Argentine film “Official Story,” a powerful account of the repercussions from the recent years in which the Army tortured and killed thousands of young people in a hunt for subversives. Aleandro plays a bourgeois woman who discovers that her adopted daughter was probably the child of parents killed by the army and that her army officer husband probably had a hand in the torturing.

The Cannes jury also awarded its special grand prize for a film of originality to Alan Parker’s “Birdy,” an American film about a young man who tries to bring his friend, a psychiatric and disabled Vietnam War vet, back to reality.

Cannes juries have a reputation for handing out various consolation prizes, and a second jury prize went to “Colonel Redl,” a Hungarian film directed by Istvan Szabo and starring Klaus Maria Brandauer. Szabo directed and Brandauer starred in an earlier Hungarian movie, “Mephisto.”


The Cannes prize for best direction went to a young French director, Andre Techine, for his movie “Rendezvous.” Oddly, most of the commentary in French newspapers about the film had focused less on the director than on a new young actress, Juliette Binoche, who plays a young provincial girl who arrives in Paris and quickly makes her way through various lovers and begins a career on the stage.

The controversial Paul Shrader film, “Mishima,” a stylized biography of the late Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, won awards for best artistic contribution to the festival. The awards went to John Bailey, the director of photography; Eiko Ishioka, the production designer, and Philip Glass, the composer.

During the final ceremonies of the festival, director Milos Forman, the president of this year’s festival jury, presented a special trophy to actor James Stewart for his contribution to the movie industry over five decades.

On the eve of the awards, the festival paid homage to Stewart with a special showing of his 1954 movie, “The Glenn Miller Story.” At a news conference after the screening, Stewart, seated next to June Allyson, his co-star in that film, was asked what he thought about the direction that the movie industry had taken since the film was made.

“I wouldn’t say that I am pleased by what has happened in the film industry,” Stewart replied. “There are a lot of things that are not being used and are not taken advantage of these days. My main complaint is there is not enough variety in what is being made these days. . . .

“I think,” he went on, “they’re substituting action which doesn’t have enough reference to the story. The movies are a visual medium, and I must say that I am getting a little tired of automobiles running off cliffs and running into a tree and then exploding. It’s as if the whole cinema industry is being taken over by the special-effects department.”