The party for the Men Who Stare at Goats premiere was in a modernist glass mansion on Toronto’s exclusive Bridle Path. And the guests, trying not to stare at the movie’s star, George Clooney, were acting strange. When I ran into a friend who refused to shake my hand, I thought she was paranoid about spreading the swine flu virus. No, she said, it was because her hands were “goaty.” She had been petting some goats that were huddled in a pen on the red carpet; they were clad in promo T-shirts that read “Stop staring at me”—the same T-shirts worn by hostesses serving Vitaminwater and vodka cocktails inside.
The Toronto International Film Festival is a kind of marathon staring contest. You gaze at the screen, and the stars, until it makes you crazy. And at the 34th annual edition of TIFF (Sept. 10-19), there was a lot to look at—335 films from 64 countries, and enough celebrities to choke downtown traffic with limo gridlock.
George and Oprah were prom king and queen of the opening weekend. Clooney had two TIFF premieres, the goat movie and Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air, which became an early hit. Crossing the velvet rope, he waded into a throng of fans like a seasoned politician, and worked the media with the panache of a Vegas comic, offering lines like, “I would rather have a prostate exam on live television by a guy with very cold hands than have a Facebook page.”
But while George played the amiable court jester, Oprah’s arrival was hailed like a royal visit. She showed up to launch a juggernaut publicity blitz for Precious, a harrowing drama about an overweight, illiterate Harlem teen who is pregnant with her second child by her own father. The movie premiered at Sundance last January, which is when Oprah jumped on board as executive producer, turning a small underdog film into a cause. Last Sunday, as she appeared with a phalanx of African-American talent—including mogul Tyler Perry and diva Mariah Carey, who both talked of their own history of abuse—a TIFF press conference turned into an inspirational love-in. Its Cinderella princess was the radiant Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe, the novice actress who plays the title role of Precious—living proof that Oprah can make somebody a star as easily as give everyone a car.
The next day, another African-American icon, Chris Rock, did the rounds for the premiere of Good Hair, a comic documentary about the massive industry that caters to “relaxing” black women’s hair with corrosive chemicals and extending it with expensive weaves and wigs—which are often composed of locks shorn from South Asian women in acts of religious sacrifice. As the film’s host and co-writer, Rock takes a satirical razor to the subject, pointing out that black women spend a fortune on their hair, then forbid men to touch it. But there was one subject he himself was loath to touch. Asked for his expert opinion on Oprah’s hair, he sighed. “I can’t do that. I can’t out people’s hair. I know her. I got to go do her show on Wednesday, and I don’t know what she wants out there. Ask me about another one. Beyoncé, she has a wig. Michelle Obama probably has tracks that run along here [he traces a finger around the base of his head] to give her a little body. I can tell. Her hair is definitely relaxed.”
In the film, Rock jokes about how hair relaxants are really designed to make white folks more relaxed about black folks. My hair is so relaxed, and white, it’s virtually asleep, and as we ended our interview, Rock, who seemed relieved it was over, turned to me and said, “You look like Clint Eastwood in, what the hell’s that movie? Bridges of Madison County. Pick up housewives, love ’em, leave ’em!”
Like I said, TIFF makes people crazy.
Hair was also the icebreaker in my chat with Diablo Cody, the stripper-turned-screenwriter who penned Juno and was on hand to promote Jennifer’s Body. Cody, who once sported jet-black bangs, now has a platinum blond pixie cut. “I like to have a specific look for each project,” she said. “I feel there’s something a little evil about this haircut.”
Jennifer’s Body is a teen horror movie starring Megan Fox as a brunette vixen who turns into a voracious cannibal, and Amanda Seyfried as her virtuous best friend—yet another makeover of the old blond-brunette archetype of Betty and Veronica. Fox’s character, Cody told me, is “every terrifying icy-blooded alpha female I’ve ever known.” Recalling a girl who used to follow her around in high school saying cruel things literally behind her back, she said, “I still think mean women are scary.” As for Fox, she added, “She’s exactly as she appears.” When it was suggested that Fox resembles Angelina Jolie in her knife-fetish, Billy Bob Thornton phase, she heartily agreed: “She’s a truly weird lady, and incredibly smart. She has an old soul. Some of these kids in Hollywood have just been groomed to please you. Megan doesn’t care what anybody thinks. And she’s so beautiful she gets away with saying whatever she wants.”
But it’s Seyfried who gives the more startling performance in Jennifer’s Body, as a hard-headed good girl who still knows her way around a condom. Coupled with her sensational work as a diabolical hooker in Atom Egoyan’s new movie, Chloe, she emerged as the It Girl of the festival—not just another hot blond with pillowy lips and endless eyes but a powerful and mercurial actress who shape-shifts through an astonishing range of personas.
In Chloe, Seyfried plays a prostitute who is hired by a doctor (Julianne Moore) to test the fidelity of her husband (Liam Neeson). The movie, which is set explicitly in Toronto, is Egoyan’s erotically charged love letter to the city. Scripted by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), this propulsive intrigue—the first Egoyan movie he didn’t script himself—is a funny, sexy and ultimately thrilling trip into his favourite taboo: sexual horror within the family. It also consummates a weird odd-couple marriage—between Egoyan and Hollywood legend Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters), the producer who recruited him to direct it. Chloe could be Egoyan’s first hit since The Sweet Hereafter (1997).
TIFF, which has shown all 11 of Egoyan’s features, beginning with Next of Kin, prides itself on launching the careers of local filmmakers. This year two spirited Canadian comedies were embraced by audiences and snapped up by U.S. distributors—Rob Stefaniuk’s vampire romp, Suck, starring Jessica Paré as a bloodsucking bass player; and Jacob Tierney’s The Trotsky, in which Jay Baruchel plays a high-schooler who thinks he’s a reincarnated Russian revolutionary.
But the expatriate Reitmans—Ivan and his son Jason—emerged as the festival’s real hometown heroes. As Jason held court with Clooney at the press conference for Up in the Air, Ivan, the proud parent, sat beaming in the front row. A couple of days later, he introduced Egoyan at the gala premiere of Chloe, as if welcoming an adopted protege, grinning like a crazy magician about to unveil the impossible—a commercial Atom Egoyan film.
The premiere went well. Later there was a posh after-party for Chloe on the roof of a four-storey parking garage in Yorkville, the chic Toronto neighbourhood where much of the movie is set. The party was even stranger than the movie. To get up there, you could take the elevator like a normal person, or ride a golf cart to the top, past a sign saying “Lot Full,” which was there presumably to discourage errant motorists from mowing down movie stars. Film festival parties tend to have roped-off VIP areas. But, inevitably, VIPs drag in less important friends, so this party had a VVIP pen, an inner sanctum enclosed by a sultan’s tent of sheer white fabric where “the talent” lounged on white leather sofas around a bucket of Veuve Clicquot.
That’s where I found myself talking to Amanda Seyfried about what it was like to come to the festival and watch herself perform girl-on-girl sex both in Chloe and in Jennifer’s Body. In the former, she plays a nude love scene with Julianne Moore, and in the latter she and Megan Fox make out in a long, luxurious close-up.
“Both were done so tastefully,” she said, comparing them with an air of clinical detachment. They were “very separate experiences,” but in the end she felt the delicate French kiss with Megan Fox was more uncomfortable to watch. “It was kind of creepy because it went on too long. And I guess it was just weirder watching myself put my tongue in someone’s mouth.” It didn’t bother her that she was nude in Chloe’s sex scene, she added. “It was shot so stunningly and you believe everything is really happening.”
Later, en route to the bar, I bumped into Atom Egoyan’s father, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Leonard Cohen. He asked me what I thought of his son’s film.
“I liked it a lot.”
“Yes, but is it . . .”
“Is it commercial?”
“Very much so. If it gets the right promotion and distribution.”
A little while later, just as I was about to have a word with Atom, there was a sudden commotion in the room. Egoyan’s father had collapsed. He had toppled straight backwards, his fall broken by Elvis Mitchell, former film critic for the New York Times, who caught him in his arms. As he lay unconscious on a couch in the VVIP tent, I saw that my 26-year-old son, who has first aid training, had rushed to his aid. Then Egoyan ran in and took over as my son dialled 911. In a few minutes, the director’s dad had revived, but he was taken to hospital for tests (and released the next morning in good condition). It’s not the first time an elderly guest has collapsed in the excitement of a TIFF party. Simone Urdl, one of Chloe’s producers, remembers that three years earlier Gordon Pinsent was rushed to hospital after passing out at the party for her film Away From Her.
At the Chloe party, after Egoyan’s father was whisked away, my son—who was underdressed in jeans and a T-shirt—was ordered by security to leave the VVIP tent. By then, there was virtually no one left inside, important or otherwise. Even though he’d just tried to save the director’s father, he was wearing the wrong coloured wristband. Crazy.