Rebecca Ascher-Walsh and Daniel Fierman
May 28, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

By day, he rallied striking hotel workers with a bullhorn. By night, he flitted through the glittery Hotel du Cap, pressing palms with Mick Jagger and Cameron Diaz. And then there was that little movie he directed. If anyone was questioning whether the first half of the 2004 Cannes film festival belonged to Michael Moore, those doubts were dashed by 6 p.m. Monday afternoon. That was when the competition screening of his film ”Fahrenheit 9/11” — a nearly two-hour, deeply partisan attack on the Bush administration — ended. That’s also when the applause began.

And it didn’t stop for 25 minutes.

Cannes has always been a place where politics and showbiz strike an odd harmony. But this year, with events in Iraq worsening by the hour, those unlikely bedfellows snuggled up to Moore and pushed his incendiary movie — which Disney only weeks earlier had refused to distribute — into the foreground. Moore and ”Fahrenheit” financier Miramax took the Croisette by storm, crying censorship and searching for a new distributor. Some claimed it was all publicity mongering, but when the film screened, it was clear the ado was actually about something. ”[Festival artistic director] Thierry Fremaux has confirmed that it was the longest standing ovation in the history of the film festival!” gloated Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein at a seaside party for the movie. Which led to the obvious question, voiced by Uma Thurman, who was in town to promote ”Kill Bill — Vol. 2”: ”I’d like to hear why it is that Disney thinks [Moore] should be censored. I’d like to hear a statement to that.”

Disney declined to comment for this story, but by mid-festival it was clear that ”Fahrenheit 9/11” had turned into a spectacular mess for the company and its embattled CEO Michael Eisner. The history: Shortly after Moore’s last documentary, the highly profitable ”Bowling for Columbine,” won an Oscar in 2003, he signed a deal with Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions to finance his next movie — a combative, $6 million examination of the current presidential administration, the war in Iraq, and the Bush clan’s connection to the Saudi royal family. Two weeks into production, Icon pulled out. (Moore and his agent claim someone in the Bush administration called the politically conservative Gibson; Icon has denied that ever happened.) Miramax then played the white knight, swooping in and financing the bulk of the film. But only months before the movie’s hoped-for release (July 2), Eisner informed Weinstein that Disney (Miramax’s parent company) wouldn’t allow Miramax to distribute ”Fahrenheit” and the controversy started to rage. (Eisner has claimed he warned Miramax as far back as last May about vetoing distribution of the film.) The timing was perfect: Gleefully stoked by Weinstein and Moore, the brouhaha exploded in Cannes, leaving the Croisette divided between Moore’s supporters and detractors, between those crying conspiracy or claiming it was all business.

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