Brief Encounter on a Sunny Sunday Afternoon By Holger Römers

in 31st Montreal World Film Festival

by Holger Römers

Because the “Festival des Films du Monde” takes a certain pride in not courting Hollywood’s big shots, there are no stargazers loitering around Montreal’s cinemas in hope of catching a glimpse of whichever famous face might turn around the corner. As it happens, though, a chance encounter with a real household name Hollywood star can become all the more astonishing and bizarre, under such circumstances.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon this festival goer chanced upon the following scene, when he exited the Cinema Quartier Latin, one of the festival’s main venues: On a small side street that had been closed off to traffic, a frail man in a wheelchair approached the cinema. That in itself would, of course, not have been noteworthy, had it not been for the old man’s stunning outfit and for his female companion. The man, who appeared to be in his eighties, was completely dressed in black (including a pair of neat satin shoes) except for a cream-colored cowboy hat, while his companion was a tall, busty blonde about half his age.

What made the scene really strange, however, was that from the opposite direction a woman, who was also dressed in cowboy garb and carried a flag, approached on a horse. Horse and man simultaneously came to a stop, meeting eye to eye, whereupon the man started to pat the animal and eventually, at the prompting of a handful photographers, even kissed its snout. That scene, understandably, drew the attention of about two dozen people who happened to be present, which caused a German veteran of the international festival circuit to ask her companion if he knew who caused this modest ballyhoo.

When I chipped in with the information that the man in the wheelchair was Tony Curtis, she first reacted incredulous before starting to reminisce with her companion about dancing with the star at the Cannes festival some two decades ago. Those reminiscences prompted speculations on how old Curtis might meanwhile be, which, in turn, triggered memories of his most famous movie roles, until loud shouting drew our immediate attention back to the present scene. “Je t’aime! Je t’aime! Je t’aime!” a French-Canadian woman with wild red hair exclaimed while blowing kisses at Curtis, who now sat petrified in his wheelchair, his face only inches away from that of his ardent fan’s. Only when the befuddled actor had endured a smacking kiss on his cheeck the small circus was finally over.

The purpose of the whole thing was, by the way, to promote The Jill & Tony Curtis Story, a documentary that premiered in Montreal and which itself mainly serves the purpose of promoting Jill Curtis’s charity work. As we learn from Ian Ayres’s modest film, the former actor’s wife (who turned out to be the woman pushing his wheelchair) has founded a horse rescue outside of Las Vegas, where the couple lives. And while we witness her and like-minded activists rescuing and coddling up slaughter-bound horses, Jill Curtis, who self-deprecatingly remarks that she used to call herself “a bimbo wife”, comes across as smart, down-to-earth and likable — even if one does not quite share her outrage at the fact that horses get slaughtered just as other animals do. Since the main focus of the film is the horse rescue operation, which Tony Curtis does not seem to be a big part of, the filmmaker, however, had to go to some length to include scenes with the former actor. For example, we see Curtis lecturing at a college, telling his audience how he used to date the still unknown Marilyn Monroe for a few weeks. Oddly, this serves as a cue for his wife to draw some parallels between herself and Monroe — which, for a moment, makes the couple’s relationship seem stranger than it otherwise appears.

While the film and the above mentioned entrance of its titular subjects had their share of bizarre moments, the whole affair still left a touching impression. Particularly memorable was what the Hollywood star said during a short Q & A session, when an audience member asked him about the end of his film career. It was not him, who made the decision that his film career was over, Curtis remarked bitterly, “it was the film business.” And then he went on to laconically describe how he would sit and wait in vain for the telephone to ring. “You couldn’t call that a profession anymore.”