Adam Benzine: TIFF has probably been missing a trick by just focusing on its People’s Choice audience award
TIFF, as we all know, loves to support rising female talent in the film industry.
So it was no surprise Monday night to see the festival give Meryl Streep — a plucky up-and-comer from New Jersey with just a handful of acting credits and a meagre 21 Oscar nominations to her name — its inaugural TIFF Tribute acting award. Because if there’s one thing Meryl Streep needs to give her career a little boost, it’s another award.
All joking aside, the festival’s decision to honour Streep and fellow thespian Joaquin Phoenix at its first Tribute Gala was a savvy fundraising move for the organization. While it’s likely that the fest needs Streep more than Streep needs the fest, the world’s foremost actor was a good sport, delivering a rousing speech that left Toronto’s glitz and glamour crowd glowing.
“Oh, Canada,” she sang, “I already have drunk a case of you!” The Laundromat star added that she was grateful to our fair country for many things: “Chiefly, of course, Joni Mitchell, and second Martin Short. And Glenn Gould, Alice Munro, Justin Trudeau and the great Margaret Atwood. And to the Toronto Film Festival, of course. Because this film festival, sort of uniquely among festivals, is really stepping ahead and making real the charge to include women directors, women’s stories — and I’m so grateful.”
She added that over the past decade, she had become more socially conscious through her film choices, asking herself a key question before signing on for a role. “Does this help or does this hurt? Is this piece of material something that needs to be in the world right now, for whatever reason, or does it on the other hand do damage? Because every artist here has made a choice about the material they’ve done.”
Among the other stars receiving honours at Toronto’s sparkly Fairmont Royal York Hotel were British cinematographer Roger Deakins; French actor-director Mati Diop; Canadian composer David Foster, who entertained the crowd on piano with hit songs written for Celine Dion and Whitney Houston; and New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who somewhat missed the mark with a rather glib speech.
Phoenix, meanwhile, paid an unexpectedly heartfelt tribute to his late brother River, who died from a drug overdose in 1993 at the age of just 23.
The 44-year-old, in line to receive the fourth Oscar nomination of his career for his turn as the titular super-villain in Todd Phillips’s Joker, recalled: “When I was 15 or 16, my brother River came home from work and he had a VHS copy of Raging Bull, and he sat me down and made me watch it. The next day he woke me up and made me watch it again, and he said, ‘You’re going to start acting again.’ He didn’t ask me, he told me. And I am indebted to him for that, because acting has given me such an incredible life.”
Phoenix also joked that he didn’t really know who was giving him this award or why. “My publicist said somebody wants to give you an award, and I said ‘I’m in.’”
The wisecrack hinted at an unspoken truth come festival season: Awards shows such as last night’s are vital for actors seeking a path to the Academy Awards (unless you’re Meryl Streep). As such, TIFF has probably been missing a trick by just focusing on its People’s Choice audience award. This gala event — coupled with the growth of the fest’s still-nascent, jury-picked Platform prize — suggests a move to rectify that oversight.
Last night’s $2,500-a-ticket event was the brainchild of TIFF’s recently appointed executive director and co-head Joana Vincente. And it was undoubtedly a success; a packed ballroom indicating a likely seven-figure windfall for the not-for-profit org. Vincente was formerly head of New York’s IFP, where she helped turn its Gotham Awards into a vital stop on the Oscar campaign trail. Perhaps she can do the same with TIFF’s Tribute Gala.
Mayor John Tory, in attendance despite still having his foot in a cast following Achilles tendon surgery, was among those heaping praise on TIFF’s new co-head. “What amazes me about all the rest of the TIFF parties is that someone else pays and everybody goes for free,” he told the National Post. “In this case, you have people here who are paying to support TIFF and that’s very positive.
“The reality is they have to raise money to support TIFF, and Joana’s arrival has shown that her connections to the producers and studios allows us to put on something which we’ve never put on before. We want TIFF to be financially healthy, bottom line, and this is going to help to do that. It just shows you the benefits of bringing her in.”