September 20, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

”It’s 1 a.m., and we’re sitting by the Grand Canal. Let’s not talk about movies.” — A Hollywood blond, overheard on the terrace of the Gritti Palace hotel during the Venice Film Festival

Every September, Hollywood attempts to succeed where Huns, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and other barbarians failed before them centuries earlier. Ostensibly, the purpose of its mission is different — winning the Venice Film Festival — but the desired result is the same: conquering the city of canals.

This year, the merchants of moviemaking supposedly came to launch American films like Independence Day and Multiplicity on their crusade for Holy Roman (and French and British) box office. ”The films are in the spotlight for the European press,” says ID producer Dean Devlin. ”Should your film win the approval of this very tough audience, you get a great boost going into European release.” Hollywood was also allegedly present to witness the first battle in the Academy Awards campaign: Both Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, starring Nicole Kidman, and Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, winner of the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, are potential contenders for the golden Oscar.

But unlike the most important European film festival, Cannes, or the ultrahip American showcase Sundance, Venice is less about savoring movies or discovering new talent than it is about sipping Bellinis by the canal and catching up on Stateside gossip — why Jack and The Fan were pulled at the last minute (nobody liked them) — and trashing Hollywood executives without worrying who might be at the next table. (Overheard, from a producer: ”Harvey [Weinstein, Miramax’s head] might be an a–hole, but at least he likes movies, unlike [Sony’s] Mark Canton.”)

Hollywood is here for just one reason, or actually three: location, location, location. Where else can you observe Andie MacDowell, in town to promote Multiplicity, playing paddleball barefoot on the beach; Tom Cruise (who, for once, took a backseat to wife Nicole Kidman) playing tennis at the Cipriani Hotel; or Basquiat director Julian Schnabel, whose film was embraced by the Italian press, bask in the success of his directorial debut by singing the blues at a poolside party on the Lido?

Not that you can blame the stars for playing hard in Venice. Italy, as it turns out, is unimpressed by workaholics. Want to go to an early-morning screening to see Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing? Forget the festival’s motorboats: Hire your own water taxi to the main screening room — for $80 — and bring your own coffee, since the cafe doesn’t open until 11 a.m. Not into afternoon siestas? Too bad — the festival screeches to a halt every afternoon between noon and 3 p.m.

Venice is a city that can be frustrating to navigate for the freeway-accustomed. ”You gotta go here, you get on a boat. You gotta go there, you get on a boat. Here’s water, there’s water,” groused director Barry Levinson, whose film Sleepers was met with a lukewarm reaction by the giornalisti in attendance. But inconveniences aside, Venice has perfected the art of beautiful spectacle known as bella figura, and Kidman, dressed in a black Givenchy dress, fit right in at Portrait’s midnight gala in a 17th-century palazzo. ”The thing about this festival that’s so wonderful is that it’s not about business at all — it’s about having a good time,” Kidman said. So mesmerized was the foreign press that Portrait coproducer Steve Golin was heard to say, ”Look at her, she’s such a master…guess who’s going to win the Golden Globe this year?”

As for the movies themselves, world premieres of Portrait (which opted out of the competition) and screenings of Independence Day garnered as much attention as the 17 Golden Lion contenders, which even festival jury president Roman Polanski called ”average.” English-language films included in the prize race were Basquiat, Abel Ferrara’s The Funeral, and Michael Collins, as well as the more obscure comedy Box of Moonlight, political drama Carla’s Song, and war drama The Ogre. Still, a number of films managed to make a lasting impression in Venice. The Lido lowdown:

Michael Collins (opening Oct. 11 in the U.S.) Warner Bros. took Neil Jordan’s Irish epic to Venice to gauge British press reaction before deciding when to release Collins in the U.K. At a press conference, Jordan drew flak for perceived historical inaccuracies, and for what some felt was a celebration of the father of terrorism. But the filmmakers’ spirits were buoyed by Oscar buzz for Neeson (who spent much of the festival in a Padua hospital, recovering from emergency intestinal surgery), and after Collins took home the Golden Lion for best film and Neeson was named best actor, the studio’s confidence was bolstered. ”I challenge anybody to make a historical movie more accurate,” Jordan said. ”Yesterday’s terrorist is today’s statesman; I make no apology about that.”

Sleepers (Oct. 18) Costar Brad Pitt was a no-show, but Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro — his head shaved for Great Expectations (”I feel like s—,” he said of the close crop, ”but what can you do?”) — Jason Patric, and Levinson added star wattage to the world premiere and midnight dinner that kicked off the festival Aug. 28. Never mind that reactions seemed mixed among the press: ”You can’t tell an artist when there’s too much yellow in a painting,” one agent noted with a shrug, reacting to complaints about Sleepers‘ 2-hour-and-20-minute length.

BOUND (Oct. 4) Although the audience embraced the lesbians-against-the-Mob thriller, its star Gina Gershon never got to witness the standing ovation at the end of the midnight premiere. She fled after only 15 minutes, exhausted from meeting the press. ”My attitude was, either they liked it or they didn’t,” says Gershon. ”I don’t speak Italian, so I wouldn’t have been able to tell anyway.”

Last Man Standing (Sept. 20) Walter Hill’s poetic gangster Western, starring Bruce Willis, didn’t inspire much argument among journalists. But that may have had something to do with the 8:30 a.m. screening time for a film that features more shoot-outs than most pre-breakfast stomachs can take. ”I wasn’t happy when I heard it was shown in the morning,” admitted Willis, managing to look suave despite his white hair (dyed for his role as an assassin in the upcoming remake of The Day of the Jackal). ”I think it might be more of an evening film.”

The Funeral (Oct. 25) Abel Ferrara’s bleak look at an Italian-American Mafia family had a leg up in Venice, and not only because the Italians loved it: Annabella Sciorra, Chris Penn (who took the festival’s best supporting actor prize), and Christopher Walken (who also costars in Last Man Standing) were all on hand to win praise.

The Portrait of a Lady (Dec. 25) People shoved their way into the festival’s most popular screening, and some of them instantly predicted Oscars for Barbara Hershey and Kidman. But others didn’t take to Jane Campion’s postmodern adaptation of the Henry James novel about a 19th-century American in Europe, perhaps because it includes some distinctly un-Jamesian scenes, including one in which a bowl of food mutates into talking lips. Why didn’t Gramercy put the film up for the Golden Lion? Campion, who won the 1993 Palme d’Or at Cannes for The Piano, said, ”The stress [of competition] is too much for me.”

Perhaps Campion missed the point: In a decision that shocked almost everyone except the unflappable and unfathomable jurors, the best actress award went to Victoire Thivisol for the French film Ponette. Victoire Thivisol is 4 years old. In Venice, at least, competition is child’s play.

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