Sony Pictures Classics literally has taken the 40th Toronto International Film Festival by storm in the past 24 hours. Not even a steady downpour could dampen the spirits of SPC as they threw their annual Saturday night dinner at Creme Brasserie here to celebrate no less than three major world premiere Oscar contenders unveiled in less than a day. Co-Presidents Michael Barker and Tom Bernard have been busy to say the least. On top of that their Cannes Grand Prize winner, Son Of Saul , continues its festival march to the Dolby as one of the favorites to land a Best Foreign Language Movie Oscar. But it was the triple header I saw yesterday that grabbed my attention at this Canadian feast of cinema that is almost impossible to navigate with so many movies competing for attention. In consecutive order I saw first-ever public screenings of director Marc Abraham’s Hank Williams biopic I Saw The Light, then a transcendent performance by the great Dame Maggie Smith in director Nicholas Hytner’s The Lady In The Van, and capped off by the terrific directorial debut of James Vanderbilt with Truth.
The latter tells the story of the CBS 60 Minutes 2004 scandal about the investigation of President George W. Bush’s National Guard record that almost took CBS News down with it, ended Dan Rather’s career with the network, and forced the firing of star news producer Mary Mapes who sadly hasn’t worked in television news since. Writer/Director Vanderbilt has crafted a true eye-opener and a hell of a journalistic thriller that will be a must-see for serious moviegoers when it opens October 16. I am told that getting it finished in time for Saturday’s 5 pm premiere was nearly as nail-biting as what’s on screen, but Vanderbilt has really pulled it off. Although neither star, Cate Blanchett, who brilliantly plays Mapes, and Robert Redford who is terrific as Rather, made the trip to TIFF, there is no question that their performances have thrust them into the awards conversation with Blanchett turning in another remarkable lead performance this year, and Redford, who despite directing and Honorary Oscars has only been nominated once for acting (1973’s The Sting, which was the same year Bush joined up with the Guard possibly in order to avoid Vietnam). He should definitely be a contender for Best Supporting Actor. He’s that good. Even Dan Rather himself, who was in attendance for the screening and party, told me he was impressed. “It wasn’t an impersonation, but a real attempt to get at the essence,” he told me about the performance. Rather gave a ringing endorsement of the film itself. You can’t do better than that, and now over a decade later this film (based on Mapes’ book) aims to get at the “truth” whatever that might be.
Redford still looks like Redford but you really feel like you are watching Rather. Not an easy trick for someone so famous playing another person equally famous. The entire cast is excellent and two of them were at TIFF, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss, who play members of the 60 Minutes investigative unit. Grace compares the movie to 70’s classics like All The Presidents Men and The Parallax View and said working with Redford was a highlight in his career so far. He also mentioned that it really has something to say about the declining state of TV news pointing to inane questions he was asked just while doing the TIFF red carpet for the film. He’s excited about working now on Brad Pitt’s Netflix project War Machine, which he describes as in the spirit of Dr. Strangelove. Emmy nominee Moss spent much of the evening deep in conversation with her tablemate – Rather – who seemed to be enjoying this foray into the world of film festivals.
As for Blanchett who already has the highly praised Cannes entry Carol (The Weinstein Company, November 20) firmly planting her in the running for Best Actress, this riveting turn as Mapes could thicken the plot. There is no way either role could be shoehorned into supporting nods which is often the case when an actor has two competing leading roles in the same year, so what happens? “I thought she was great in both so that’s up for all of you to decide, ” Barker diplomatically answered when I asked about the campaign tactics that might be employed here. My personal opinion is that the Mapes role is just so overwhelmingly powerful that it would be hard to deny her a nod. This is going to be a real Solomon’s choice for the actors branch. Of course there is also the factor that Blanchett won two years ago for another Sony Classics film Blue Jasmine, so voters may not want to go back to this well so quickly, but hey when a star is on this kind of roll just go with it.
And speaking of the Best Actress race, whatever happens in the case of Blanchett, I do not see how the legendary 80 year old Dame Maggie Smith can be denied yet another nomination for her hilarious, heartbreaking, cranky, wry and winning performance as a homeless woman who parked her van in a tony British neighborhood and ended up living in the driveway of playwright Alan Bennetts for 15 years. She’s magnificent in a full-blooded leading role in Hytner’s very fine adaptation of Bennett’s 1999 stage play in which Smith starred. Like Blanchett, Smith already has a leading and a supporting Oscar on her mantle but hasn’t won since 1976’s California Suite (her first came in 1969 for Best Actress in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie), so they both may be going head to head for a third. This film was not developed by SPC, but rather Sony’s Tri Star label shortly after new Sony chief Tom Rothman took over that division. He was at last night’s SPC party and told me he decided to turn it over to Barker and Bernard. “They are the experts at releasing this kind of movie,” he said. “We made it because I really believe in the international aspect of the business. That’s where everything is headed now and I think it’s important to make movies for the international market.” He added this film will be very big in the UK and those territories when it opens in November. It hits the U.S. in December in time to qualify for the Oscars. If Dame Maggie isn’t one of the five there should be a 60 Minutes-style investigation. Although only Hytner made the trip to Canada I am told Smith is understandably very proud of this film. The Best Actress race is really heating up this year.
Of course the Best Actor contest is always competitive and it looks like that again. British star, Tom Hiddleston could well be a contender there for his powerful interpretation of country singing legend Hank Williams who died at age 29 and had a troubled, dark life in the limelight that is depicted in a no holds-barred way in SPC’s other TIFF World Premiere I Saw The Light. Hiddleston, who does all his own singing, really inhabits this man who had an everlasting impact on country music. Elizabeth Olsen plays his first wife and delivers her finest work to date. Although it will inevitably be compared to the Johnny Cash biopic, Walk The Line, this one dares to go into much darker places, enriched by that unforgettable music. George Hamilton made a corny Hollywood style biopic Your Cheatin’ Heart in 1964, but this one should stand the test of time.
Quite a day in Toronto for Sony Pictures Classics, as always a real player in awards season.