Long live the Venice Film Festival! Hanging out with George, Sandra, Denzel and Jack at the best-kept secret in the cinema calendar
- The 71st incarnation of the iconic Venice Film Festival begins on 27 August
- The festival is a less-known gem – and offers closer glimpses of the stars
- A-listers like Angelina Jolie and George Clooney have appeared recently
As I took a vaporetto from Venice Marco Polo airport, I was stunned to see a huge grey submarine emerging from the lagoon.
When the two vessels drew closer, I saw the unmistakable figure of Denzel Washington on board, waving frantically at me, surrounded by Italian naval officers.
Momentarily, I thought I might have to rescue Denzel from his captors – then realised it was a stunt to promote his film Crimson Tide, a thriller set on a submarine.
Stars: George Clooney, Sandra Bullock and Jack Nicholson have all made recent appearances at the festival
It was 1995, and I was on my first visit to the Venice Film Festival, held annually at the end of August on the sybaritic island of the Lido, with the lagoon on one side and the lapping waters of the Adriatic on the other.
The film festival is the oldest, and arguably the most glamorous, in the world.
It celebrated its 70th edition last year. Remarkably, it makes little attempt to promote itself to the hordes of tourists who descend on Venice each summer.
At the airport and on the mainland, in the vicinity of St Mark’s Square and as far as the Rialto Bridge, there are no posters for the festival and absolutely nothing to indicate that some of the planet’s biggest movie stars are in town.
It is as if the city fathers have taken a vow of omerta, to allow the Italian cognoscenti to enjoy the pleasures of the festival to the exclusion of sweaty foreigners.
Boats and beauty: The Venice Film Festival coincides with the colourful pageantry of the city’s Regatta Storica
Yet, unlike the Cannes Film Festival, where it is virtually impossible for ordinary mortals to attend the red–carpet screenings, anyone can buy tickets to the premieres and galas at Venice. They go on sale at the ticket booth on the Lido (easily accessible by water-bus from the mainland).
I have rarely seen queues, as the booth is hidden away in the leafy shadows of the Casino building.
At Venice the actors walk the red carpet, sign autographs and take photos with the fans. So even if you fail to get a ticket, a selfie with a movie star is a fair consolation prize.
Last year, the festival opened with the world premiere of sci-fi thriller Gravity. Stars cannot arrive by limo at the Lido. Instead George Clooney arrived by water-taxi, accompanied by his co-star Sandra Bullock and director Alfonso Cuaron. At the press conference, when asked how he prepared for the role of an astronaut, he joked: ‘Sandy and I did a lot of Bikram yoga together.’
Afterwards, the gala dinner was in the magnificent setting of the sea-front Excelsior Hotel, in two large marquees on the beach. This hotel – a favourite of Quentin Tarantino when he served as jury president, the head of the panel judging the films – is the main hub of the festival, and the terrace is a wonderful place to enjoy a sundowner.
Light and shade: George Clooney (left; second left in shot, white shirt) arrives in Venice by water-taxi during the 2013 festival; Julie Christie (right), experiencing a darker side of Venice – as the setting for Don’t Look Now
Many of the stars choose to stay in the more secluded Cipriani Hotel, located in the verdant Giudecca island. Set primarily in a 15th century pastel-coloured building, it was opened in 1958 by Giuseppe Cipriani. The story goes that Giuseppe was inspired by the light of the late evening sun setting on the lagoon to create a cocktail that captured the colour of the sunset.
And so the bellini was born, with its mixture of prosecco and peach puree. No visitor to the hotel would dream of ordering anything else in Harry’s Bar, named after Giuseppe’s son.
Like the Excelsior, the Cipriani Hotel has its own private moorings, free water-boat shuttle service and a lovely restaurant, Cips, which faces the Grand Canal.
It also has an Olympic-size pool and delightful gardens.
The notorious Venetian lover Giacomo Casanova is said to have enjoyed many trysts there.
It was here in this same garden, as the evening sunshine rippled through the trees, that I attended a dinner for that modern-day lothario, Jack Nicholson.
He was starring in the Sean Penn-directed movie The Crossing Guard.
Penn, producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Spike Lee and The Exorcist director William Friedkin were guests, and it was a relaxed affair, with Nicholson wearing his trademark shades through-out dinner.
Towards the end of the evening our host, an Italian media mogul, got up to toast Nicholson.
Big names: Angelina Jolie puts in an appearance at the 2004 festival; Denzel Washington has also attended
But he was so tipsy that he stumbled, barely managing to stay upright. As he stared blankly at Nicholson, it was clear he had momentarily forgotten Jack’s name, so – flashing that famous grin – the actor came to his rescue by shouting: ‘Jack!’ Every-one burst out laughing, and the media man looked relieved to have escaped a ‘Here’s Johnny!’ scene.
British films were well represented last year with the world premiere of Philomena, attended by Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
They stayed at the 14th century palace in the gilded splendour of the Hotel Danieli (which also incorporates a 19th and 20th Century palace) a few gondola-lengths from the Bridge of Sighs.
It is a hotel steeped in celluloid heritage, with Moonraker, Casino Royale and The Tourist, which starred Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp, being filmed there.
The Restaurant Terrazza Danieli, with its breathtaking views of the lagoon, is probably the most popular spot in Venice for marriage proposals.
Last year, the hotel terrace played host to a lavish party thrown in honour of that year’s jury president, Bernardo Bertolucci, the Oscar-winning director of The Last Emperor.
The theme was Bertolucci’s greatest hits so, showing a strange sense of humour, the hotel’s chef had arranged for the butter to be sculpted in homage to Marlon Brando’s famous sex scene in Last Tango In Paris.
One enormous film set: Daniel Craig and Eva Green (right of shot) filmed the climax of Casino Royale in Venice
If cinema does not float your boat, the festival coincides with two spectacular events – the Regatta Storica and the unmissable arts and architecture extravaganza, the Biennale.
Venice has hosted the Regatta Storica, the historic ceremonial pageant and gondola race down the Grand Canal, since 1315.
On the first Sunday of September, thousands congregate to catch a glimpse of the beautiful boats and the brightly coloured participants who compete in traditional Venetian costumes for hotly contested prizes of pennants and the title King Of The Oar.
Little has changed since Canaletto painted the scene in 1740 – apart from pollution.
Pity any gondolier who falls into the water. When filming David Lean’s Summertime, Katharine Hepburn had to fall into the canal backwards. She suffered a chronic eye infection for the rest of her life which she blamed on the Venetian waters.
One of the best places to watch all the regatta action is the terrace of the Hotel Bauer Palazzo, where Madonna threw her party to celebrate the premiere of her film about Wallis Simpson, W.E. Above the terrace, the love scenes from the iconic Venetian thriller Don’t Look Now, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, were shot.
Worth exploring is the 13th century church of San Nicolo dei Mendicoli (St Nicholas of the Beggars), which Sutherland’s character is restoring in the film.
Stars of a different kind: Characters from the big hit Despicable Me pose in a water taxi at the Excelsior Hotel
It is situated in the tranquil quarter of Dorsoduro – and its shady courtyard, overlooking a little canal, provides a welcome respite from the tourists and the scorching sun. The success of the movie helped the church raise the funds necessary to restore it.
A popular restaurant with festival-goers is Locanda Cipriani on the romantic island of Torcello, the first Venetian island to be inhabited, and still blissfully peaceful, with sheep often wandering around its pretty town square. The island features in Betrayal, Harold Pinter’s play about marital infidelity (inspired by his own real-life affair with Joan Bakewell).
The restaurant garden is the scene of many marriage proposals – but if the big question fails to materialise over a meal there, in the nearby cathedral courtyard is a stone throne, supposedly built by Atilla the Hun. Legend has it that whoever sits on it will be married within a year.
Casanova would have run a mile.
This year’s festival opens on August 27 with the world premiere of Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and Naomi Watts.
In this era of perpetual change, there is something life-affirming about the old-world glamour of the Venice Film Festival. With its selection of cinema from all over the world, it is following in the best traditions of Venice’s favourite son, the renowned adventurer Marco Polo.
If he were alive today, it is surely a festival he would want to explore.
Frank Mannion is a film producer whose movie The Quispe Girls won Best Cinematography at Venice 2013.
Travel facts: Plan your own date with the stars at the Venice Film Festival
Kirker Holidays (www.kirkerholidays.com, 020 7593 2283) offers a range of luxury breaks to Venice during the film festival. Prices start at £1,325 per person for four nights at the Luna Baglioni, including return British Airways flights from Gatwick, B&B accommodation, water-taxi transfers, entrance to the Doge’s Palace and guide notes, plus concierge service.