CANNES, France — The contortionist they call "Frogman" was here, hopping up on car hoods on his hands, his legs intertwined above his head, peering through windshields at startled drivers. So was Didier, the fake movie producer with the silver tongue and the sidewalk casting couch.
The two leopard-skin ladies from Dunkirk, mother and daughter, were installed in their usual vantage point beside the red-carpeted steps leading into the festival convention center.
According to Pascaline Petit, the mother leopard lady, who complimented her outfit with chicken bone earrings and necklace, the matching nylon costumes help movie producers and stars to spot the two women in the crowd. "But a lot of people think we might be spies for the CIA," she said.
Most of the regulars on the grotesque (the French prefer to say "baroque") sidelines of the annual Cannes Film Festival were in place when the 12-day event opened this weekend in this faded, jaded resort town on the French Riviera.
But a cold, dreary rain put an early damper on the gaiety. Already a declining species here, only the boldest, oldest and coldest starlets bared their breasts on the Cannes beaches.
A shaky world economy cinched up the promotional purse strings. Festival veterans said there were only about half the usual number of gaudy movie billboards erected along the beachline and hung from the facades of the old Carlton, Majestic and Martinez hotels. Only a few modest yachts bobbed in the waters opposite the beaches.
"I can remember when the bay was filled with boats until you could almost step from the deck of one to another," recalled Norman Katz, former president of Warner Brothers Pictures International who has attended all 44 Cannes Film Festivals since they began in 1946.
Like many Cannes veterans, Katz, 72, who comes here now as president of his own Beverly Hills publicity agency, waned nostalgic about the early days of the festival. Over the past two decades he has watched it evolve from a simple (if sometimes politically controversial) film competition and movie public relations playground into an international film marketplace. Today the film competition is a sideshow that has little to do with the $100-million TV-video deals being cut in the hotel suites and seafood restaurants. It is the market, not the movies, that dominates the Cannes festival scene.
"I just don't think it is as much fun as it used to be," said Katz, who is also chairman of the American Film Export Assn. "Most of the people who come here now really have to work their butts off. There is almost no time to have fun."
Cannes Festival movie star romances--such as those between Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier, Rita Hayworth and Ali Kahn, Romy Schneider and Alain Delon, Roger Vadim and--take your pick among Jane Fonda, Brigitte Bardot or Catherine Deneuve--seldom flower anymore on the Cote d'Azur. The closest thing this year is speculation about Madonna bumping into her ex-husband, Sean Penn, at the swimming pool of the Hotel du Cap-Eden-Roc in Antibes, where most of the big spenders now stay instead of at the fading vieilles dames hotels on the Promenade de la Croisette.
The grand, gala parties are mostly a thing of the past as well, victims of stockholder-inspired cost controls. Even the Japanese, who in recent years gained a reputation for lavish entertaining, have cut back. Only Madonna's party on Sunday and a vodka-caviar drinkfest announced by a dubious Russian movie producer--who also said he will lead a charge of 50 Cossacks on horseback down the Croisette--have caught the attention of the party set.
To Katz, this is all a far cry from the glamour days of the festival such as in 1960, when Melina Mercouri and her movie, "Never on Sunday," charmed the international film community. The 1960 festival was a banner year for international cinema, with several masterpieces receiving awards, including Ingmar Bergman's "Virgin Spring," Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Aventura."
"The film 'Never on Sunday' took everyone by storm," Katz recalled in his room at the Carlton Hotel. "People spilled from the screening to the party at the Ambassador Club of the old Casino. Melina Mercouri, Tony Quinn--everyone who was anybody was there. They played Greek music, drank wine and danced. It was just a great, great party and we must have destroyed 100,000 dishes throwing them against the wall the way the Greeks do."
But after the addition of the film market as a part of the festival in 1970, the Cannes gathering has never been quite the same.
Rene Bonnell, director of film purchases for the French television movie channel Canal Plus, reflects the increasingly business-oriented nature of the festival that used to be known for its frivolity, gala parties and outrageous publicity stunts.
"In 10 days here I can do six months of work," he explained. "You can find everyone you need at Cannes--agents, bankers, directors, actors, French, Americans, Japanese. . . . "