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TIFF 2019: Festival Honors Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix, Taika Waititi

Monday night at the Toronto International Film Festival felt more like an awards season event than any other, as donors, industry leaders, and artists gathered at the Fairmont Hotel to honor some of the best in the business, including a few living legends. The inaugural event was a joyous affair, highlighted by emotional acceptance speeches and professional presentations. One would never know it was the first year TIFF attempted this kind of affair, and it seems clear that it’s one they will repeat in the future. A few highlights:

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One of the most interesting things about the Gala was the unusual order of the event, which was likely dictated by getting honorees back in time to do introductions and Q&As for their films playing across town. After Roger Deakins accepted the Variety Artisan Award, Antonio Banderas and Gary Oldman took to the stage to honor their co-star in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Laundromat,” presenting Meryl Streep with the TIFF Tribute Actor Award. They read through her incredible stats as an award nominee and introduced a clip reel that reminded the room of her stunning resume. The video highlighted her breathtaking range and the scope of her career, including scenes from dozens of films.

When Streep took the stage, she made sure to thank the Canadian audience, name-checking artists from the country as diverse as Martin Short, Glenn Gould, and Neil Young. She then pivoted to serious subject matter, commenting on something very important to her at this stage of her career, highlighting stories of and by women. And she noted how for the last decade she’s careful to consider what her choices add to the world, noting that she asks herself if what she’s appearing in adds to the “toxicity” of the world. “We should all do the things that count,” she said, leading one to marvel at the great performances she may still have ahead of her.

The event turned musical with a special tribute for a legendary Canadian in David Foster, who was in town to support a documentary about his life in Barry Avrish’s “TK.” Foster was joyous and very funny, telling a story about how “Take My Breath Away” beat “The Glory of Love” at the Oscars, and even presenting an edited clip of his song from “The Karate Kid, Part II” over “Top Gun” to argue that his would have won were it in a different movie. One of the highlights of the night was two singing presentations in which Foster played the piano, accompanied by Pia Toscano and Shelea Frazier on the classics from “The Bodyguard,” “I Have Nothing” and “I Will Always Love You.”

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Another TIFF Tribute Actor Award followed, this one presented by Willem Dafoe to the incredible Joaquin Phoenix, earning raves for his work in “Joker.” Phoenix, as he often does, seemed uncomfortable at first, coming up on stage before Dafoe was anywhere near done with his introduction and reading it beside him. He then jokingly said “Thanks” and turned to leave, muttering “I so want to.” He’s a guy who has never been that comfortable in the spotlight, but it was fascinating to see him give into the moment, and start to talk about his family’s impact on his career. He even told the story of River Phoenix coming to his house when he was young and considering giving up, showing him “Raging Bull” two days in a row and encouraging him to find his art again. Joaquin was clearly emotional, and it felt like what could be the first of many acceptance speeches this awards season.

The elegant Isabelle Huppert took the stage next to present the Mary Pickford Award to the director “Atlantics,” Mati Diop. The actress/director was graceful and gracious, commenting more on the legacy of Mary Pickford than herself really. It was nice to see the legacy of female directors handed down over the generations.

Finally, the event of the night was the presentation of the Ebert Director Award to Taika Waititi. Chaz Ebert took the stage, even singing a bit with David Foster back at the piano, before introducing the surprise guest of Guillermo del Toro, who presented his friend Waititi with the Golden Thumb. Waititi’s energy and joy were boundless, clearly a bit uncomfortable in the spotlight but also practically bursting at the seams with happiness over how much the world seems to be honoring him right now. He spoke a bit about his upbringing – “Film was not on any list of job opportunities” – and gave a speech that arguably rambled at times, but it also stood out against so many dry awards season speeches. It was a great cap to an unforgettable event.

Watch some of the speeches below:

 

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