"This is way above my level. I'm a little intimidated," said the man on the stage, clearly emotional as he addressed the crowd in the Théâtre Debussy who had just greeted his arrival with a standing ovation. "I've never experienced anything like this in my entire life. Thank you all so much for coming."
Experimental filmmaker from Azerbaijan? Subject of a wrenching family documentary made in a remote Colombian village? No and no. The speaker was former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson, given a hero's welcome here for the premiere of "Tyson," the documentary about his life made by American movie maverick James Toback. On one level the reaction seemed bizarre; as Toback's film makes clear Tyson spent his entire athletic career psyching out opposing fighters and the public. But when I talked about it later over drinks with a few other critics, it dawned on us that Tyson has never before faced a crowd that was cheering for him as a person, rather than because they wanted to see him beat the living crap out of somebody.
Another famous American with a tabloid-heavy history who's coming on all friendly-like with the European public is Woody Allen, whose new film "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" debuts on Saturday night. As I write this in the festival press room, in fact, Allen and his wife Soon-Yi Previn, along with Penélope Cruz and British actress Rebecca Hall, are ascending the steps a few hundred meters away. (Scarlett Johansson appears not to be present.) Cruz has just told a television reporter that this evening's gray and rainy skies over Cannes are "beautiful in a different way."
Allen has always had a different status on this side of the Atlantic than at home, but the contrast has grown ever starker in recent years. At age 72, he gets the prime spot on opening weekend in Cannes for a film that's likely to be a fleeting afterthought in the American indie marketplace. (If all goes as planned, I should have brief interviews with Allen, Hall and Cruz up in this space in a couple of days. After a long career of Garbo-like reticence, Allen is suddenly Mr. Availability.)
Maybe Allen is another of those Jerry Lewis figures in American culture who just reads differently in Europe (see also Jim Jarmusch, Abel Ferrara and, increasingly, Quentin Tarantino) but I'm inclined to believe that both sides are wrong about him. Allen seems to me to have been punished unjustly by his former American admirers for perceived failings in his private life, and it's no good judging an artist on that basis.