Making history with Oprah and Atom

Oprah kick-stars an Oscar campaign and Egoyan jolts the audience, and his dad, with a commercial movie

What a wild and crazy Sunday we had yesterday. It started at 9:30 a.m. with a royal visit from Oprah Winfrey, holding court at a press conference for Precious with a remarkable phalanx of African-American talent—including Mariah Carrey, Tyler Perry, the novelist Sapphire, singer Mary J. Blige, directror Lee Daniels, and super-sized ingenue Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, who’s living out a Star is Born fantasy making her film debut in the title role. Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s dashing African-Canadian co-director—who looked as much like a movie star as anyone on the podium—called it a historic event. And he was right. Black stars and black directors have made their individual marks in Hollywood. But I can’t recall another film that has united such an inspired, and inspiring, powerhouse of black talent. At the press conference, Oprah set the tone for an outpouring of emotion that turned the session into a media love-in. The movie, she said, “is so raw that it will suck the air out of the room. When I finished watching this film the first thing I did was call Tyler so I could get Lee’s number and tell him how I was gasping for air.” Precious—the story of an abused woman pregnant with a second child by own father—premiered at Sundance last winter, but could have languished in indie obscurity without the support of Oprah. It’s not an easy film to watch or sell. But she hopped on board as executive producer and at TIFF she’s launching a juggernaut campaign that seems destined to end in Oscar glory. One voice after another made the case that for such a sad and harrowing story, Precious is not a downer. And some did it by drawing on their own experience of childhood abuse, including Blige and Perry. “For anyone who has endured that kind of situation,” said Perry, “me being one of those people, it left me with hope. I don’t think it’s dark. I think it leaves you with hope. . . No matter what your situation, you can walk away from it feeling hope.”

The other piece of history that I witnessed yesterday was the world premiere of an Atom Egoyan movie that is exciting, accessible, and has the capacity to be a commercial hit. Chloe, which stars Julianne Moore as a gynecologist who suspects her husband (Liam Neeson) is having an affair, and hires a young prostitute name Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) to test his fidelity. This twisty erotic intrigue is a remake of a French movie called Natalie, which I’d seen, so I thought I knew what was coming. But screenwriter Erin Cressida (Secretary) pushes the story farther, much farther, into some wildly kinky terrain. It’s impossible to really talk about this movie without spoiling the plot. So I won’t. I’ll just say it shows off Toronto as we’ve never seen it onscreen; it looks unbelievably sexy. This is Egoyan’s first feature that he didn’t script himself. But screenwriter Erin Cressida seems to have read his mind. She’s created an utterly Atomic cocktail of erotic taboo and family subterfuge. There are moments that sent chills down my spine. The movie’s revelation is Amanda Seyfried, who not only has huge eyes and pillowy lips, but turns out to be a sensational actress.

Introducing the film on stage at Roy Thompson Hall, Egoyan noted that, although he’s shown 11 features at TIFF, this is his first world premiere since his debut feature, Next of Kin, showed here two decades ago. And speaking of kin, Egoyan’s father collapsed at the Chloe after-party atop a parking garage in Yorkville and was taken to Mt. Sinai hospital. I was on hand to witness that, not long after I’d been chatting to the elder Egoyan about his son’s film. Egoyan later told a reporter his dad “likes to party, but apparently a bit too much,” and was suffering from fatigue and jet lag. He was released from hospital early this morning.

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