Sure, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson, Jeff Bridges, and Carrie-Anne Moss turned up at the gala premieres for their latest movies. But this year, the story of the Toronto Film Festival (which ends Saturday) isn’t the celebrities, or even the city’s reputation as Hollywood North. For the second year in a row, Dreamworks SKG emerged as the studio to beat in the upcoming Oscar race. (A little flick called ”American Beauty” was their 1999 entry.) With the debuts of two major releases — as well as a pair of elegant, star studded midnight parties — Dreamworks’ marketing team is celebrating again. (And hey, it can’t hurt to have already released three $100 million plus movies: ”Gladiator,” ”Chicken Run,” and ”What Lies Beneath.”)
If the audience response at Friday’s gala screening of ”Almost Famous” is any indication, the movie’s opening (Sept. 15) should be a strong one. Dreamworks also pleased critics and industry guests with its mid-October release, ”The Contender,” a political thriller starring Jeff Bridges, Joan Allen, and Gary Oldman. It seems the studio has an enviable Oscar dilemma this year: Which hit should it push hardest for multiple awards?
Here are some of the highlights and lowlights from the opening days of the 25th annual Toronto fest.
BACKSTAGE PASS Dreamworks’ downtown party for ”Almost Famous” wasn’t quite as wild as the movie’s backstage rock & roll scenes, even if one overexcited partygoer made her exit via ambulance. TV cameras and well wishers converged on Hudson, who gives a heartbreaking (and probably starmaking) performance, as a ’70s groupie. But the real rock & roll life obviously agrees with the young actress: She and her boyfriend, Black Crowes singer Chris Robinson, looked like the happiest, coolest couple at the festival.
HITS AND MISSES The party’s most eye catching guests had to be a quartet of scantily clad groupie wannabes who circled, sharklike, all evening. Among their unsuccessful targets: star Crudup, who looked a bit startled, 16 year old ingenu Patrick Fugit (who’s grown about a foot since filming), and the natty Alec Baldwin, who looked diplomatic but distant while talking up his next picture, David Mamet’s ”State and Main.”
ALMOST CLUELESS One dizzy fan asked ”Almost Famous” actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays rock critic Lester Bangs, if he’d ever met the legendary scribe to research his role. ”Uh, no,” Hoffman said gently. ”Lester Bangs is dead. He died in, like, 1982.”
BEST BUZZ ”Memento” is the unsettling thriller about an amnesiac (”L.A. Confidential”’s Guy Pearce) whose quest for revenge leads him to a hard bitten bartender (”The Matrix”’s Moss, who proves she can do a lot more than run up and down walls). The indie will get a U.S. release from Newmarket Group on March 9. Still, the idiosyncratic and versatile Pearce — unlike fellow Australian and ”L.A. Confidential” costar Russell Crowe — is in no hurry to portray Hollywood heroes. Next up, he’ll return to Ireland to play the villain in Disney’s ”The Count of Monte Cristo.” ”If you don’t recognize me in it,” Pearce tells EW.com, ”I’ll take that as a compliment.”
HOT TICKETS, COOL RESPONSE Everybody seemed to want to crowd into ”Pollock,” Ed Harris’ forgiving biopic of the late, hard drinking artist Jackson Pollock, and the bracing ”Baise-Moi,” a French flick about guns ‘n’ sex crazy outlaws. But the overbooked press and industry screenings generated a lot of disgruntled walkouts — and no distribution deals. (The latter film’s early AM press screening could be described as Porno in the Morn-o.)
CAST ADRIFT Kathryn Bigelow, the director who put Keanu Reeves on a surfboard in ”Point Break,” is seeking a distributor for her new film, ”The Weight of Water,” which blends a contemporary tale of marital strife with a real life Victorian murder mystery. Though the movie — which stars Catherine McCormack, Sean Penn, and Elizabeth Hurley — earned a mixed response, audiences seemed to dig Hurley’s femme fatale act, which calls for the ”Austin Powers” actress to suck suggestively on whatever’s handy: straws, ice cubes, lobster dinners, earlobes… Hurley’s may be a one note performance, but DAMN — what a note.
STAR TURNS The media turned out in force to hear a press conferencing Gwyneth Paltrow talk about working with her dad, director Bruce Paltrow, on the karaoke romance ”Duets” (opening in New York and L.A. on Friday). ”He spoiled me and we had a lot of fun,” she said. Less fun was the movie’s unpromising press preview, which reportedly had journos snickering in the aisles.
DISAPPOINTED Anyone looking for the inside scoop on ”The Matrix” sequels is still in the dark: Carrie-Ann Moss attended a public screening of ”Memento,” but she unexpectedly bailed on interviews the next day.
CELEB SIGHTINGS On the city streets, at parties, and on screen, the most visible celebrity in Toronto this week is… McCormack: The ”Braveheart” actress is starring in FIVE festival films. But the star with the biggest smile had to be the omnipresent Willem Dafoe (Is there an interviewer or fan who DIDN’T manage to corral him?) whose haunting and funny performance in ”Shadow of the Vampire” has been attracting Oscar talk since Cannes. Though the Lions Gate movie would be a perfect Halloween flick, fright fans will have to wait until December to see Dafoe go for the jugular.