Just call it Weinstein Premiere-O-Rama. The company launched four movies with splashy galas at the Toronto International Film Festival in the span of 48 hours (is this some sort of weird record?). That included Saturday night’s Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom World Premiere, Sunday’s North American launch of Philomena and last night’s World Premieres of August: Osage County and One Chance directly against each other. When I saw Harvey Weinstein at the combined Soho House after-party for the Monday films I told him he obviously loves Toronto. He was moving fast between his movies showing up everywhere, including on stage for August before it began. “Everything came together and we just thought this would be the perfect way to get these films out there,” he said clearly beaming at the reaction.
All the films won standing ovations, not uncommon in movie-friendly Toronto (people like getting up on their feet here) but even by those standards the raucous, prolonged standing O for August: Osage County was definitely the most enthusiastic I have encountered at this year’s fest. And the John Wells-directed movie adaptation of actor/writer Tracy Letts’ Tony-winning Midwestern-set Broadway play about a dysfunctional family to end all dysfunctional families played like gangbusters with much audible reaction throughout. Star Meryl Streep was a last-minute cancellation due to illness and co-producer George Clooney (with Grant Heslov) didn’t make the trek to Canada for this film or Gravity in which he co-stars with Sandra Bullock since he was back in L.A. still working on posting his latest directorial gig, Monuments Men as well as shooting Disney’s Tomorrowland. But most of the cast was there including Ewan McGregor, Juliette Lewis, Chris Cooper, Julianne Nicholson, Abigail Breslin, Dermot Mulroney and Julia Roberts, clearly the belle of this ball. When I spoke with her afterwards she was definitely on cloud nine over the reaction the film received and obviously excited to be working with this cast and opposite Streep who manages to do the impossible and tops Streep as the bitterly funny, bitingly caustic mother who lets it rip, particularly in the film’s (and the play’s ) signature dinner scene. Roberts is also at her best and both should be major Oscar contenders in the impossibly crowded lead actress category. This would make nomination #18 for Streep. Could anyone ever top her own record?
Some were saying Roberts could be shoehorned into supporting so as not to compete against Streep but I see this as the same kind of situation as 1983′s Terms Of Endearment where Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger, also playing a mother/daughter combo like this one, squared off, with MacLaine triumphing in the end. Consideration in the supporting categories should also go to a wonderful Margo Martindale and Juliette Lewis, and for Supporting Actor Chris Cooper whose performance as the “new family patriarch” brought spontaneous applause from the crowd twice during the film. A SAG ensemble nomination is a no-brainer. If ever there was an actors film this is the one. And with the actors branch dominating the Academy membership Best Picture prospects are sweet. Of course this is the kind of film where you bring your own life experience, and reactions (especially from some bloggers afterwards) will probably depend on how closely you can relate to this crazy family. Not everyone I spoke with shared my level of enthusiasm, so it will be interesting to see how it plays out. I think the Academy will eat it up but who knows? The film’s Christmas release time is perfectly primed. I recall in 1966 some critics doubted another dysfunctional Broadway play could score with an Academy that had just rewarded musicals like My Fair Lady and The Sound Of Music with back-to-back Best Pictures. But Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf took a near-record 13 nominations and won 5 Oscars including Best Actress for Elizabeth Taylor in the same kind of all-out bravura turn Streep delivers here. Ironically Letts just won the Best Actor Tony in June for the latest revival of that play. You don’t necessarily need to “relate” to know it is firing on all burners. This is already turning out to be one hell of an awards season and we’re just at the starting gate. Six months to go.
Before the film began Wells spoke and introduced the producers on hand (including Jean Doumanian who also produced the play), Letts and the cast. “This is a wonderful piece of writing that we had the opportunity to do. We laughed and cried and told our own stories. We laughed a lot. As sons and daughters, mothers and fathers I think this is a story that resonates with us all,” he said before letting his movie do the rest of the talking. Wells’ last outing as a director, The Company Men showed great directorial chops and I think he’s really progressed with his work here. This adaptation could have been stagey but he takes one of the great plays of these times and makes it thoroughly cinematic, not an easy trick.
As for the other premieres Weinstein unleashed, both Philomena, which first landed in Venice last week and One Chance are certifiable crowd-pleasers. Of the latter, the true story of Opera singer Paul Potts who won Britain’s Got Talent and launched a major career against all odds, Weinstein told me they plan a December qualifying run, with a wider opening in early 2014. He said he sees it as a commercial play rather than one aiming for Oscar. It’s a highly entertaining movie I think could have Musical or Comedy Golden Globe potential. Tony winner James Corden (Two Guvnors) is perfect casting as Potts. Wowing the crowd last night Potts got up and sang “Nessun Dorma”, the key aria that he sang on Britain’s Got Talent. By the way that show’s Simon Cowell is one of the producers of the film. Potts told me the movie version does take some liberties, particularly a scene where he sang in front of Luciano Pavarotti, but mostly he says it gets it right and he’s very happy with it. He should be.
As for Philomena, it’s another remarkable true story. This is also another crowd-pleaser judging by the reaction at the Monday morning public screening at the Elgin I caught. Judi Dench in a surefire Oscar-contending performance opposite Steve Coogan (who also co-wrote and co-produced) who plays a journalist helping Dench search for the son she was forced to give up for adoption 50 years earlier. Reaction in Toronto was through the roof just as my colleague Nancy Tartaglione reported when it launched to similar plaudits in Venice. It’s a moving and very funny tale that also should figure big at the Globes, but has genuine Oscar potential in a year full of dark heavy movies, a feel-great kind of film that is perfect holiday programming. Like the other three Weinstein films, Mandela, One Chance and August: Osage County all will open in December. Should be a busy month for the awards-hungry distributor, just as this was a very busy 48 hours for Harvey in Toronto. And with Lee Daniels’ The Butler headed toward the $100 million dollar mark and their $7 million dollar acquisition of festival favorite, Can A Love Song Save Your Life I can see why he was smiling last night.