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Moved to Tears

Several memorable performances stuck out at this year’s Toronto film fest

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I cried three times during the 2005 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. It happened first during Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic that puts Joaquin Phoenix in Cash’s black suit and Reese Witherspoon by his side as June Carter. By and large, director James Mangold botches a great story about a great man, reverting to the standard life-of-an-entertainer movie style: rambling, episodic and obsessed with public embarrassment. So why did I cry? Because Witherspoon’s performance as June captures the country legend’s earthy, bright-eyed glory, without losing the Witherspoon within. When she gets onstage and starts whoopin’ it up, it’s spine-tingling—like a visitation from another world. One of cinema’s great powers is its ability to revive people and moments. Never met Truman Capote? Meet Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, playing the meticulous, self-absorbed writer with all his creative fire and shady behavior intact. Never been backstage with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis? Watch Where the Truth Lies, with Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon playing fictionalized versions of the variety team embroiled in a sex-and-murder scandal. Both those films have their problems, too, but there’s nothing wrong with their sense of what people want to see. They give glimpses of famous men in pre-dawn hours and show exactly how, for all their human frailty, they are not like us. Movies can also preserve the original article for generations to come. The second time I cried at TIFF ’05 happened on my second day there, when I caught a rare screening of the award-winning, Bob Fosse-directed 1972 TV special Liza With a ‘Z’. When Minnelli walked onstage to introduce the show, over a thousand people in the historic Elgin Theater rose and cheered. It happened again when she returned for the Q&A at the end, and this time Minnelli briefly broke down. Myself, I sobbed both times, swept up in adulation for a woman whose work had never impressed me. I cried for the moment. Then again, I also cried during the film itself, which presents the triple-threat dynamo at the peak of her powers. She looks fantastic, Fosse’s lighting and staging are strikingly original, and Kander & Ebb’s songs are one big finish after another. The whole thing is an hour-long goose-bump machine. Were there any modern-day performances at TIFF that will be as revered 30 years from now? Maybe comedian Sarah Silverman’s dirty-mouthed coquette act in her concert film Jesus Is Magic. Maybe the electrifying rhymes of Dead Prez and Kanye West in Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Maybe Steve Coogan playing “himself” in the half-adaptation/half-Adaptation history play Tristram Shandy: A Cock & Bull Story. Or maybe Stephen Mangan playing a Coogan-esque prick in the thespian-hating comedy Festival. Or maybe it won’t be an actor, but a director whose work will resonate decades from now. A lot of people I know are down on Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown, which is undeniably an overlong, unfocused mess, with moments that rank among the cinema year’s worst. But the movie’s also bighearted and fundamentally true. Crowe earns his self-congratulatory tone during nobody-but-Crowe scenes, like the one that has Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst falling in love during an all-night phone conversation. Elizabethtown ends with a half-hour mixtape, played during a climactic road trip; Crowe picks a lot of obvious songs, like “Pride (In the Name of Love)” during a trip to the Martin Luther King assassination site, and “Free Bird” during a chaotic memorial dinner. Still, the choices work because they express the director’s faith in pop. He’s in love with the big gesture, the movie-ish dialogue, the implausible action and the hit song. When he cranks up “Free Bird,” he claims it as part of our common brotherhood and reaffirms that pop matters. It was the third time I cried.

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