TORONTO -- Hooray, hooray, the first of September! Back at last to films to remember!
We have come finally to the end of the long hot summer of explosions and chases, fireballs and terrorists, and crashes involving ships, planes, trains and automobiles. The autumn movie slate kicks off the Academy Awards season, and here at the Toronto Film Festival, some 300 films will unspool - many of them pretty good, and most of them at least sincere in trying to do something original or memorable.
Even the thrillers step up a notch in quality when summer is over. Consider "The Edge" (opening Sept. 26 in Chicago). It's mostly about men in the northern wilderness, pursued by a man-eating bear. Because this is September and we are at Toronto, however, the screenplay is by the playwright David Mamet, the bear's potential suppers are portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, and the macho dialogue is enlivened by lawyer jokes and discussions of the meaning of life.
The autumn cop pictures are more thoughtful, too. One of the premieres opening the festival was Curtis Harrington's "L.A. Confidential" (opening Sept. 19), a period piece set in 1952, about the early days of TV and scandal magazines, and a vice-ridden LAPD. This is the kind of movie, like "Chinatown," that pulls back the surface depravity to peer at the true corruption beneath. Kevin Spacey plays a cop who's also the "technical adviser" to a "Dragnet"-style show, Danny DeVito edits a sleaze mag, Kim Basinger is the hooker with the bruised heart of gold, and Australian actors Russell Crowe and Guy Pearce have star-making roles as two younger cops who have to choose between their duty and the usual ways of doing business.
You have to hit the ground running here. "This is the most important festival in North America," said Warner Bros. publicity honcho Stu Gottesman. "It's even become more important than New York."
That's because it lasts longer, shows five times as many films, and attracts more journalists - some 300 at last count, ranging all the way from the hot-shot hosts of the TV entertainment magazines to New Jersey's James Bernardinelli, considered the best of the Internet-based critics. He was not having much luck landing the interview he wanted with "Drive, She Said" star Moira Kelly. ("I understand she talked to her priest before doing nude scenes," said Bernardinelli, who may be the only critic here who has a philosophical motive for discussing nude scenes.)
Spike Lee is here with his new documentary "Four Little Girls," about the Birmingham, Ala., church bombings of the '60s. Robin Wright -Penn, William Hurt and Amy Madigan are here for the premiere of "Loved," a thoughtful and painful film that approaches spousal abuse from the point of view of a spouse so psychologically wounded that she feels better after her husband hits her. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Samuel L. Jackson, Elle MacPherson, Robert Duvall and Helena Bonham-Carter are here or on their way, and so is Mamet (who directed "The Spanish Prisoner" in addition to writing "The Edge").
The opening weekend was overshadowed by the funeral of Princess Diana, and the TV sets in the press suites, usually devoted to playing the same promotional clips over and over again, were tuned to the coverage. Earl Spencer's remarks about his sister probably received more comment than the films, and the stars themselves were in a thoughtful mood, none more so than Alec Baldwin, who with his wife Kim Basinger has received his share of attention from the tabloid press.
"I am here meeting the press to represent a film produced by 20th Century-Fox," he said. "The studio is part of the News Corp., which is owned by Murdoch, and the News Corp. is in the tabloid business. They own the New York Post, for example. So Murdoch's film company wants me to be of service to them as a movie actor, while another arm of the Murdoch empire is burying me in its tabloids. And they run those gossip TV shows: I ran into George Clooney on the Fox lot, and he told me he was working for them on Stage 17 while they were ripping him to shreds on Stage 19."
Anthony Hopkins was calmer, even though the tabloids ripped him for a brief marital infidelity a few years ago.
"If someone becomes a celebrity, it's part of the territory, I guess," he said. "Diana was wonderful with publicity, and yet it must sometimes have been very painful for her. I'm trying to be objective. The press has a job to do as well. People buy the papers; they want to see the pictures. The public picks up the National Enquirer, the Globe . . . are they guilty? I don't know. Aren't we all responsible? Everyone wants to be famous, I guess."