It was another big day on Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival with two hugely anticipated movies — one a star-laden big-studio remake, the other a small very personal passion project with a largely unknown cast — getting the red carpet premiere treatment. What also draws Warner Bros’ A Star Is Born and Annapurna’s If Beale Street Could Talk together, though, is they are beautifully touching love stories laced with real-life heartbreak, and both will clearly be in the Oscar conversation, as well they should.
Skipping Telluride, where he premiered his Best Picture Oscar-winning Moonlight and was a staff member for years, Barry Jenkins chose Toronto for Sunday’s unveiling at the Princess of Wales for his follow-up If Beale Street Could Talk, and judging by the exceptional reaction and standing ovation he made the right decision. Faithful to the late James Baldwin’s 1974 book, this story of a young pregnant Harlem woman trying to clear her wrongly charged fiancée of a crime is a slow-burning romance that moves you along with the help of a superb smoky jazz-influenced score by Nicolas Britell and gorgeous cinematography from James Laxton. A film deep from the black experience in America, it has universal appeal and truths that sneak up on you, catch you in the heart and leave you moved in ways that linger after the lights go up. In that way it is the perfect bookend for Moonlight as Jenkins proves himself again to be a great humanist writer-director with a unique ability to take literary work and make it singularly and poetically cinematic. Baldwin would be proud — especially since, as Jenkins pointed out in the post-screening Q&A, that he wrote this adaptation in 2013 without having an idea that the rights were even available.
Sometimes rolling the dice can pay off, and it has in this instance. Remarkably he said he took off for Europe and in that six-week period wrote both this and Moonlight, the latter bringing him the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar just two years ago. I have a feeling he will be back in that category about five months from now. I also wouldn’t bet against a supporting actress nomination for the wonderful Regina King who plays lead character Tish’s mother and says more with her eyes than many actors with 20 pages of dialogue. In fact the entire cast was excellent including newcomer Kiki Layne as Tish, Stephan James (who is also in Amazon Prime’s Homecoming with Julia Roberts that premiered here as well this weekend), Colman Domingo, and many others making a strong impression.
I was able to catch up with King at the Terroni’s afterparty, and she told me she had just seen the film for the first time and was so emotionally moved she was still trying to process it all. The actress mentioned that she has been to Toronto’s fest before with other films including Ray, but this experience was unique. King has won two Emmys in recent years for American Crime and is a nominee again next week for Seven Seconds, but we also will be seeing her at the Oscars if there’s any justice. Jenkins was beaming, taking in all the congratulations for the film as were producers Jeremy Kleiner and DeDe Gardner who were also here the night before for Plan B’s other TIFF premiere, Beautiful Boy, and already have two Best Picture Oscars for 12 Years a Slave and Moonlight.
As for A Star Is Born, the reception was rapturous with three standing ovations following its Elgin premiere (and earlier at the RT Hall). I posted my review earlier yesterday (having caught it in Burbank last week), so it is clear where I stand on this, but still it is pretty remarkable that a story that has been around since 1937 and now made four times as a movie can still have this kind of impact on audiences of so many generations over the past 80 years. It just takes a vision, and there is no question Bradley Cooper — who also makes his directing debut — had it.
At the packed Masonic Concert Hall afterparty Sunday, he told me that his American Sniper helmer Clint Eastwood was going to direct at one point, and wanted him to play the lead, but Cooper thought he wasn’t old enough at that point. Much later he decided the time could be right, called Eastwood and said maybe it could work, but at that point Eastwood had moved on to other projects. Seizing the moment, the next day Cooper said he called then-Warners exec Greg Silverman and pitched his own take on the story. It was a done deal, and this is all he has been working on since appearing in The Elephant Man on Broadway. It has consumed him, but the results are definitely all up there on the screen. Cooper even co-wrote three of the many songs in the film.
As we were talking, co-star Lady Gaga walked up. She told me she can’t watch herself in the film because it genuinely brings up too many strong emotions from playing Ally, the character for her first leading movie role that apparently still lives inside her. She was visibly emotional even just describing it to me. She said the experience with Cooper as remarkable. Their chemistry just pops on the screen. Co-star Sam Elliott told me working with Cooper was a dream. “He’s an actor and so he understands what we need,” adding that this was the first time he had ever worked with a director who was also an actor (and in this case the star). Playing his younger brother, Cooper even adopted Elliott’s vocal mannerisms, which really impressed the veteran star who — believe it or not — never has been nominated for an Oscar. That’ll change with this one. Another co-star, Dave Chappelle, led the entertainment at the party by congratulating himself for winning an Emmy on Sunday night for Best Variety Special. Congrats indeed, Dave.
The Warner Bros contingent (led by Chairman Kevin Tsujihara) was understandably ecstatic at the reception for what is obviously their big Oscar contender this year, with several nominations a distinct possibility. By the way among those also there was ex-Warners executive Sue Kroll who was an early champion of the film and has an Executive Producer credit on the film. The studio’s end-of-summer run of hits (The Meg, Crazy Rich Asians, The Nun) is about to continue when this one opens October 5. If Beale Street Could Talk hits theatres November 30. Suddenly the season is looking very promising. Stay tuned.