It is never too early for another awards ceremony, especially just as Oscar season kicks in. Thus the Toronto Film Festival launched the very first TIFF Tribute Gala on Monday night. It makes sense for this massive fest, even if TIFF already has an award, the People’s Choice Award, that gets a lot of attention at the end of the 11-day event because it has become quite prescient in predicting eventual Oscar-winning Best Pictures and nominees over the years (Green Book was the surprise audience winner last year). It often is pointed to by pundits as perhaps the first real sign of an Oscar contender, and prognosticators even write pieces trying to predict who will win it.
But as described by TIFF co-head Cameron Bailey, this new idea came about to essentially morph the festival’s traditional fundraising tribute dinner into one that specifically will “highlight the year’s best films, as well as longtime contributors to the industry.” The Gotham Awards, which along with the Hollywood Film Awards are usually the earliest of this type of banquet, was an inspiration, and TIFF beat that to the punch by nearly three months. Bailey told me afterwards it is essentially his job, along with new co-head Joana Vicente, to pick the honorees, and certainly it is well-timed for a starry evening since tributees like Meryl Streep and Joaquin Phoenix are already at the fest premiering their new movies, making appearances in connection with them and doing press, so getting two stars who normally don’t do this kind of thing to accept is easier than it might normally be.
From an Oscar strategist POV, this is a dream even if the studios and distributors do have to shell out money to buy tables, as is the case for most of these kinds of shows that are so prevalent during the season. After all, even for an often press-shy actor like Phoenix, it was a simple proposition. “I don’t know who’s really giving me this award or why. In fact, I don’t care. My publicist said somebody wants to give me an award and I said, ‘I’m in, let’s do it.’ ” Streep rarely appears on the “circuit” at events where getting an arranged prize is usually part of a larger campaign, but she seemed to be delighted to accept this one.
Other honorees in the well-produced, breezy and fun evening included TIFF Ebert Director Award winner Taika Waititi, whose Jojo Rabbit premiered the night before. The TIFF Mary Pickford Award, supported by an enthusiastic contingent from MGM (Pickford was a founder of UA), went to Atlantics director Mati Diop; the Impact award, won by Participant Media (Green Book, Roma), was accepted by David Linde; and the Variety Artisan Award winner was cinematographer Roger Deakins, in town for the world premiere of The Goldfinch (the award was presented to him by its director John Crowley).
There was also a “Special Tribute” honor for musician David Foster, who repaid the fest for the award by devoting his time to providing the evening’s entertainment with a killer set of songs from his movies including “The Glory of Love” from The Karate Kid Part II. He lamented that the song from Top Gun, “Take My Breath Away” beating that for the Oscar, even though he says it is so lazy they never even bothered to finish the lyrics. Foster is at TIFF for the premiere of a new documentary about him.
It is not inconceivable at all to imagine many of these names will turn up at the Oscars, some laden with trophies handed out across the long season. But there is something about being first, and I can easily imagine that Bailey and Vicente will find themselves besieged by eager awards consultants angling for one of these honors in the coming seasons. At any rate, the inaugural group was pretty damn impressive.
Phoenix charmed the ballroom with a heartfelt, at times funny, acceptance of the Actor Award( in fact he jumped the gun and joined presenter Willem Dafoe in the presentation as well) that is the kind of thing that could take him far this season for his stunning performance in Joker. At this early point he has to be considered a front-runner even if the big winner of the Venice Film Festival doesn’t even open until October. His tributes to his late brother River, his sisters, and the people who got him started in the business were touching. Joker had its North American premiere at TIFF on Monday night followed by a party that just got rolling around midnight. Phoenix hit them all.
Streep, with so many awards on her shelf you would need to start an Excel spreadsheet just to keep track, is a pro at making memorable speeches, and she didn’t disappoint in accepting the other Actor Award. I had just come — as did she and co-stars Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas (who presented) — from the North American premiere of Steven Soderbergh’s funny and politically pointed The Laundromat, and she is great as always, hilarious then heartwrenching in a role that could bring her a 22nd Oscar nomination, this one for Best Supporting Actress.
Referring to Oldman and Banderas who act as kind of a greek chorus throughout the film, she said, “Look at me, I am 70 and I’ve got these guys!” She then launched into singing the beginning of “O Canada” to the delight of the crowd.
“I am so grateful to Canada for so many things, chiefly of course Joni Mitchell, and second Martin Short, and Glenn Gould and Neil Young and Alice Munro, and Justin Trudeau, and Margaret Atwood, and to the Toronto Film Festival of course,” she said in congratulating the fest for celebrating women in front of and behind the scenes, as well as talking about an artist’s responsibility to pick projects that can make a difference. “We didn’t create this moment we find ourselves in, we can’t cure it, we can’t control it, but we sure can contribute to its toxicity,” she said to big applause.
Linde, at TIFF with premieres of Warner Bros’ powerful death row drama Just Mercy as well as the inspiring documentary Sing Me a Song, talked about his company’s mantra to have social impact, or as founder Jeff Skoll says, “impact is a team sport.” Participant’s award was presented in Spanish by the Oscar-nominated star of last year’s Roma, Yalitza Aparacio.
Roger Ebert’s widow, Chazz, presented the Ebert Directors Award to Waititi, giving him not only the handsome and very heavy new trophy but also the annual Gold Thumbs Up award given out at TIFF in past years. Guillermo del Toro introduced him.
All in all on another busy night in Toronto, this event held at the Fairmont Royal York looks to be a keeper if they can find these kinds of quality recipients to honor each year.