It was Julianne Moore day at the Toronto International Film Festival. For me, at least.
I saw two new Moore films back-to-back Sunday. First up was a very funny new romantic comedy, Maggie’s Plan, in which she stars with Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Bill Hader, playing Hawke’s wife with a very deep Danish accent and hairstyle with a bun pointed to the heavens. She’s genuinely hilarious in this role. On the opposite end of that scale she plays Laurel Hester, a fourth stage cancer patient looking to leave her police pension to her life partner, but fighting a commission that won’t recognize her right to do just that in Sunday night’s World Premiere Gala, Freeheld. Ellen Page is excellent as her significant other Stacie Andree and the small, underdog film is heartbreaking to watch. It’s all a true story and many of the real life people, including Andree, were in an opening night audience that really seemed to respond to this movie which Lionsgate releases on October 2. Considering the recent Supreme Court ruling making gay marriage legal in all 50 states, and a Kentucky clerk’s highly publicized refusal last week to comply, this film may have hit the zeitgeist in terms of subject matter. Page’s longtime manager and head of ID PR, Kelly Bush Novak was one of the producers and told me at Lionsgate’s pre-screening party at Montecito that they have been developing this project for seven years. It is based on an Oscar-winning documentary short and certainly a labor of love for all involved. It came about in 2008 because Bush Novak’s kids and Academy Award-nominated producer Stacey Sher’s kids both went to the same school. One day Sher said she and her partner Michael Shamberg were going to turn the doc short into a feature film and gave it to Bush Novak and Page to look at. Page got attached, and in the process, Bush Novak became a producer on it. In the end they showed 20 minutes of footage in Berlin and there were seven offers, with Lionsgate/Summit taking the prize.
As she came into the party, Moore told me she is very proud of this film which was directed by Peter Sollett and written by Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia). “It’s just such a beautiful story and film. So moving,” she said. I pointed out that Monday would be one year since Toronto Film Festival debuted the then-unseen and unsold movie, Still Alice. I was at that first screening where Moore received a rip roaring standing ovation. What a difference a year makes. “We came into this festival and I kept wondering if we would even be able to get a distributor, much less released that same year, ” she said about the movie Sony Pictures Classics quickly snapped up and for which she won the Best Actress Oscar as a woman afflicted with early-onset Alzheimers. Freeheld is also a devastatingly sad film, so it is probably good Moore has Maggie’s Plan for sale here. She needs a few laughs. She seemed relieved when I told her she got LOTS of them at my screening. This has turned out to be a good luck festival for the star and she is superb – and perhaps awards bound again – in Freeheld, which also boasts terrific performances from Michael Shannon as Moore’s police partner, and Steve Carell, providing some much needed comic energy as an over-the-top activist who is determined to get the “Freeholders” commission to reverse their ruling.
“We have marriage equality now across the United States, but we do not have anti-discrimination laws. You can get married in the morning, fired from your job at lunch,
Shannon was on the fest circuit last year with the riveting 99 Homes where he plays a shady real estate dealer who forecloses on homes. It was eventually picked up at last year’s TIFF by newbie distributor Broad Green Pictures. At Broad Green’s TIFF reception early Sunday evening I caught up with Shannon just before he had to head for Freeheld duties. He’s glad 99 Homes is finally getting released (Sept 25) and it just won a big prize at the Deauville Film Festival and has been getting strong reaction at various guild Q&As. “I hoped the film would be released last Fall, but Broad Green is very passionate about the movie so that counts a lot,” he said. He is also very happy with Freeheld, as is Page, who is very excited and proud to be involved. “It’s an utter privilege. Stacie and Laurel were incredible people who did something so important and so crucial, and so brave in a time of unimaginable difficulty and sadness,” she told me. “So I honestly just feel so grateful to be part of telling their story. It’s hard to say you want (the subjects of the film) to be happy with it, because needless to say it is an emotional experience, but I just hope they feel we have made something authentic and true. That was the goal.”
This is Page’s fifth film at the Toronto Film Festival. She was first here at age 17 in 2004 with Wilby Wonderful, then her eventual Oscar nominated film Juno, Whip It and Super. “It’s all been an incredible experience and needless to say to finally be here tonight in a city that I love and at a festival that I love with my family and friends is so great,” she said.
As I was watching this touching film, and seeing the audience around me responding so well to it, I kept thinking this is the kind of social issue film that the late great Stanley Kramer specialized in and regularly put a human face on. And I was thinking Freeheld is exactly the kind of movie the Producers Guild should honor with its annual Stanley Kramer Award. These types of films that can help make a difference in the world are becoming more rare indeed.