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THE CANNES FILE : American Takes Top Prize for Debut Effort ‘sex, lies’

Times Staff Writer

“sex, lies and videotape,” a remarkably skillful first film by 26-year-old Steven Soderbergh, won the Gold Palm Award as the best feature film in the 42nd Cannes Film Festival. Not since “Missing” in 1982 has an American film won the Gold Palm.

In awarding the festival’s top prize Tuesday night, jury chairman Wim Wenders went out of his way to say that “sex, lies and videotape” surprised the jury, “gave us great joy and gave us confidence in the future of the cinema.”

Wenders made the statement apparently because it is so unusual for a first-time film director to win the major award at Cannes. Most festival participants believed that Soderbergh would win the less important Camera d’Or Award, which goes to the most impressive work by a first-time director.

“sex, lies,” a $1.2-million film that premiered this winter in the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, also won the best actor award for James Spader, for his performance as a sexually insecure drifter who works out his fantasies by interviewing women about their sexual secrets.

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Nine of the 22 films in competition were honored with some sort of award Tuesday, but one of the critics’ favorites--Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing"--was shut out.

Meryl Streep was named best actress for her role of a woman wrongly accused of killing her daughter in “A Cry in the Dark.” Streep also was nominated for an Academy Award as best actress for the role.

American independent film maker James Jarmusch, a favorite at Cannes, was given a special award for “artistic contribution” for his “Mystery Train.”

Other winners Tuesday were Canada’s Denys Arcand (“Jesus of Montreal”), France’s Bertrand Blier (“Too Good for You”), Italy’s Giuseppe Tornatore (“The New Paradise Theater”) and Yugoslavia’s Emir Kusturica (“The Time of the Gypsies”).

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Most of the winning films have distributors lined up for the United States and will be distributed this year.

“sex, lies” has been picked up for U.S. release by small Miramax Films, which is distributing “Scandal.” “sex, lies” will begin its commercial run in the United States this summer.

The unassuming Soderbergh, who was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Studio City a year ago and wondering whether he had a career at all, seemed as stunned as everyone else by the award. “Well, I guess it’s all downhill from here,” he said.

The awards presentation was followed by the gala world premiere of Jane Fonda’s “Old Gringo,” in which the aerobics maven co-stars with Gregory Peck and “L.A. Law’s” Jimmy Smits.

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The film, a romantic drama set against the Mexican Revolution, was coolly received at a pre-gala press screening Monday night but the stars--Peck, in particular--were welcomed with applause and a volley of softball questions at a Tuesday press conference.

Fonda told the international crowd that director Luis Puenzo--whose “The Official Story” was a big hit here three years ago--turned “Old Gringo” into an epic film.

“It would have been a very small, intense psychological story,” Fonda said. “Luis saw it as an epic story . . . it is so intense and so profound.”

“Old Gringo,” adapted from Carlos Fuentes’ novel, is the story of a New England spinster (Fonda) who signs on as an English tutor with a wealthy Mexican family and arrives to find herself caught in the midst of Pancho Villa’s revolt against the Mexican government.

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Peck plays Ambrose Bierce, an aging asthmatic writer who shows up at the same time to aid the revolutionaries. Smits is the dashing and troubled revolutionary general who strikes a tenuous father-son relationship with Bierce and has a passionate affair with the virginal spinster.

The film, made at a cost of $24 million, was commissioned for Columbia Pictures by David Puttnam, who was ousted as the studio chief shortly afterward. The film was originally scheduled for release last Christmas. Fonda said Tuesday that the long delay--"Old Gringo” won’t be released in the United States until fall--was due to new Columbia chief Dawn Steel’s belief in the film.

“We could have rushed around and had it ready for Christmas,” Fonda said. “Dawn Steel saw it and said, ‘We believe in this film, don’t rush it.’ She is very committed to it, and so am I.”


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