Venice Film Festival showcased Oscar winners from ‘Joker’ and ‘The Shape of Water’ to ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Jekyll and Hyde’

The show must go on. At least the Venice Film Festival must go on. Even a pandemic can’t stop the oldest international film festival from taking place Sept. 2 through Sept. 12 in the picturesque of grand canals. Of course, safety is first with masks, social distancing etc. are all in place as critics get a first glance at possible award-winners.

Over the past seven years, the festival has held world premieres of such Oscar-winners as 2013’s “Gravity”; 2014’s “Birdman”;  2015’s “Spotlight”;  2016’s “La La Land”; 2017’s “The Shape of Water”;  2018’s “Roma”; and 2019’s “Joker.” Only two films that won the festival’s top prize have gone on to win Best Picture at the Oscars: 1948’s “Hamlet” and 2017’s “The Shape of Water.”

The festival began in 1932 as part of the Venice Biennale, the city’s legendary exhibition of the arts under the guidance of President of the Biennale, Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, sculptor Antonio Maraini and Luciano De Feo. The first festival opened with Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” starring Fredric March in his Oscar-winning role. Though no juried awards were handed out, there was an audience referendum on their favorites. Rene Clair’s 1931 “A Nous la Liberte” was voted the funniest and best film while 1931’s “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” was the most moving with its Oscar-winning star Helen Hayes proclaimed best actress. Most original film went to “Jekyll and Hyde” with March the audience’s favorite actor. The audience referendum chose the Russian filmmaker Nikolai Ekk best director for 1931’s “Road to Life.”

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The first official awards were handed out in 1934 were very Il Duce-centric with the Mussolini Cup for best Italian Film and Mussolini Cup for best foreign film. Needless to say, Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 “The Great Dictator” never won an award at Venice. When Il Duce was deposed in 1943 so was the Mussolini Cup.  (Il Duce was also  executed that year.)

The first foreign film award was given to Robert J. Flaherty’s “Man of Aran.” Subsequent winners include the classic 1935 Greta Garbo tragedy “Anna Karenina” and Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 Nazi propaganda documentary “Olympia.” King Vidor was the first to win a best director juried honor in 1935 for his romantic drama “The Wedding Night” with Gary Cooper.

Among the early winners for the Volpi Cup for acting were Paul Muni for his Oscar-winning turn in 1936’s “The Story of Louis Pasteur”; Bette Davis for 1937’s “Marked Woman”; Norma Shearer for 1938’s “Marie Antoinette”; and Leslie Howard for 1938’s “Pygmalion.”

Over the decades, the honor has gone to the likes of Olivia de Havilland in 1949 for “The Snake Pit”: Vivien Leigh for her Oscar-winning role in 1951’s “A Streetcar Named Desire”; Jimmy Stewart for 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder”; Burt Lancaster for 1962’s “The Birdman of Alcatraz”; Jack Lemmon for 1992’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”; Wesley Snipes for 1997’s “One Night Stand”; Ben Affleck for 2006’s “Hollywoodland”; Emma Stone for her Oscar-winning turn in 2016’s “La La Land” and Olivia Coleman for hers in 2018’s “The Favourite.”

Though World War II closed the festival in 1942, it reopened in 1946 with Jean Renoir’s acclaimed 1945 drama “The Southerner” winning what was then called Best Feature Film. Laurence Olivier’s “Hamlet” won the Grand International Prize of Venice in 1948.

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The Golden Lion Award, the highest prize of the festival, was introduced in 1949 as the Golden Lion of Saint Mark and was officially named the Golden Lion five years later with the British-Italian co-production “Romeo and Juliet” taking the prize. From 1969-1979 no awards were handed out because the festival was either not competitive or organized.

The Golden Lion returned in 1980 with a tie between Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” and John Cassavetes’ “Gloria.” Besides Cassavetes, other American filmmakers who’ve won the Golden Lion include Robert Altman (1993’s “Short Cuts”); Darren Aronofsky (2008’s “The Wrestler”), Sofia Coppola (2010’s “Somewhere”); and Todd Phillips (“Joker””). Taiwanese director Ang Lee also won for the U.S. production, 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.”

The Grand Jury Prize, which began in 1951, is considered the second place award to the Golden Lion. There haven’t been many U.S. winners: 1951’s ‘A Streetcar Named Desire”; 1954’s “Executive Suite”; 1994 “Natural Born Killers”; 2000’s “Before Night Falls”; 2005’s “Mary”; 2007’s; “I’m Not There’;  2015’s “Anomalisa”;  2016’s “Nocturnal Animals”; and 2018’s “The  Favourite.”

The Silver Lion has gone through many changes over the decades, but for the past 30 some years has honored the best director. Martin Scorsese won for 1990’s “Goodfellas,” Brian de Palma for 2007’s “Redacted” and Paul Thomas Anderson for 2012’s “The Master.”

This year, Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton (2007’s “Michael Clayton”) and filmmaker Ann Sui, a major player in the Hong Kong New Wave cinema, are receiving the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Previous recipients include Orson Welles, John Ford, Billy Wilder, Frank Capra, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, Jerry Lewis, yes, Jerry Lewis, Clint Eastwood, Stanley Donen, David Lynch, Tim Burton,William Friedkin, Thelma Schoonmaker, Frederick Wiseman, Jane Fonda and Robert Redford.

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