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As news emerged from Venice that a documentary feature had won that film festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, for only the second time — All the Beauty and the Bloodshed (Neon), Oscar winner Laura Poitras’s look at Nan Goldin’s crusade against the Sackler family, was crowned the winner on Saturday, Italian time — the film festival in Toronto, where that film will have its North American premiere on Monday evening, was just hitting its stride.
On Sunday evening, Harry Styles mania — which had struck Venice days earlier with the premiere of Olivia Wilde’s Don’t Worry Darling (Warner Bros.), in which he stars opposite Florence Pugh, and with an interaction between him and Chris Pine that may or may not have involved spit — came to Canada, as Styles’ other 2022 film, Michael Grandage’s My Policeman (Amazon), world premiered here.
Not at all unexpectedly, a massive crowd surrounded the Princess of Wales Theatre, trying to catch a glimpse of the pop star/actor on his way into the venue. But somewhat unexpectedly, many critics and pundits, including yours truly, came away from the film — a story about a man (Styles) married to a woman (Emma Corrin) but in love with another man (David Dawson) in 1950s England — with quite kind things to say about Styles’ performance, if not the film itself (which is currently at 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes).
Sunday night’s other big Toronto premiere — this one just a North American debut, as the film had already taken Venice by storm — was Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale (A24), Samuel D. Hunter’s adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical play, which stars 1990s heartthrob Brendan Fraser as a 600-pound man, living under the care of a friend (Downsizing’s Hong Chau), who trying to repair his relationship with his estranged daughter (Stranger Things’s Sadie Sink) before it’s too late. The film rocked the Royal Alexandra Theatre, garnering a lengthy standing ovation, and furthering momentum for Fraser’s Cinderella-story best actor Oscar campaign.
Something to think about: Aronofsky previously made another film (a) about a guy racing against the clock to make things right with his daughter that (b) also marked a comeback-from-a-dead-career for its star and (c) also came to Toronto via Venice: 2008’s The Wrestler, starring Mickey Rourke, who ultimately wound up with a best actor Oscar nom. But one major difference: Rourke was never exuded the warmth, decency and humility that Fraser does, on screen or off — no amount of fat prosthetics can hide it — which is why I think he can go even further with the Academy.
After their premieres, Styles and Fraser hustled over to the historic Fairmont Royal York Hotel — the home-base for the recently departed Queen Elizabeth II when she was in Toronto — for the fourth annual TIFF Tribute Gala, a fundrasier for TIFF’s year-round diversity and inclusion efforts, at which a number of pre-announced honors are bestowed upon distinguished filmmakers.
I was delighted to sit at the A24 table, which attracted many visitors (including Academy president Janet Yang and CEO Bill Kramer) and lookyloos because two of the evening’s honorees, Fraser and Everything Everywhere All at Once star Michelle Yeoh, who happen to have costarred in 2008’s The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and are now the consensus frontrunners for the best actor and best actress Oscars, were seated there beside each other.
Following welcome remarks from TIFF CEO Cameron Bailey, the festivities kicked off with the presentation of TIFF’s Ensemble Award to Styles and his My Policeman costars, who were escorted by security into the room to accept their prizes and then right back out afterwards, presumably to avoid a mob-scene around Styles. Styles got a chuckle from the audience by kicking the long train of Corrin’s otherwise barely-there dress en route to the podium, and then led off the group: “Hello. Thank you so much, everyone here, on behalf of all of us, for this wonderful award. We all loved working on this film so much, and we hope you enjoy it. I’ll pass you along to Emma.”
Following the presentation of the Emerging Talent Award by Jason Reitman to director Sally El Hosaini for The Swimmers (Netflix), Olivia Colman, star of Sam Mendes’s new film Empire of Light (Searchlight), was introduced — to voluminous applause — and presented, alongside Roger Ebert’s widow Chaz Ebert, the Ebert Director Award to Mendes. After being received with a standing ovation, Mendes noted that his career effectively began at TIFF 23 years ago with the world premiere of his first film, American Beauty, and shared important lessons that he has learned over the years since.
Stephanie Hsu, the Marvelous Mrs. Maisel actress who also plays Yeoh’s daughter in Everything Everywhere All at Once, then brought the 60-year-old to tears while presenting her with the TIFF Share Her Journey Groundbreaker Award — their film, Hsu cracked, “shows us a version of Michelle Yeoh that we haven’t seen, but we have all been desperate to see: every single version of Michelle Yeoh!” Unlike the other TIFF Tribute honorees, Yeoh doesn’t even have a film playing in Toronto, but this fest, like last week’s Telluride Film Festival, still wanted her on hand because, well, everyone is happy for the veteran actress and cheering her career-defining performance. “With this award, I guess I am officially a groundbreaker,” Yeoh said, to cheers. “And now that the ground has been broken, it is up to the next generation of women to build a foundation of something even greater.”
After that, Sarah Polley presented the Artisan Award to her Women Talking composer Hildur Gudnadóttir (the Joker Oscar winner also scored — and is name-checked in — another 2022 contender, Tár); the Oscar-winning Indigenous Canadian-American singer/songwriter/composer Buffy Sainte-Marie was celebrated with the Jeff Skoll Award in Impact Media; and then it was Fraser’s turn in the spotlight.
Introductory remarks from Aronofksy and Hunter, as well as a terrific reel comprised of highlights from across Fraser’s career, clearly moved the 53-year-old, who then won over the crowd by sharing with them that he spent his teenage years in Toronto (he name-checked several sections of town), volunteering that he had much more experience presenting awards than receiving them (he described the perfect hand-off, and noted that the only prior award that he had received for individual achievement came when he was in fourth grade, a bowling trophy that misspelled his name) and expressing his gratitude to Aronofsky and Hunter (“Art is about taking a risk, and you should know that they took a chance on me, and I will be forever grateful”).
Monday at TIFF was highlighted by a special screening of Nope (Universal), a film which has already cycled through theaters, but was boosted here with an IMAX showing preceded by a Q&A with writer/director Jordan Peele. And I and other members of the press who were unable to make it to Saturday night’s world premiere of Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (Netflix), which surrounds Daniel Craig’s Benoit Blanc from 2019’s Knives Out with a new cast of colorful characters, were able to catch the comedic crowd-pleaser at its press/industry screening, which was held at the Royal Alexandra Theatre to accommodate great interest in the film. I’m not sure that Glass Onion is going to be a serious Oscar contender beyond the adapted screenplay category, but I am sure that it will do massive numbers once it begins streaming on Dec. 23.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to cover the Emmys — from Toronto!
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