A TIFF table read focuses on an old favourite, and demonstrates how much has changed for North America's pre-eminent festival.
10 Sep 2012 - 4:10 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:06 PM

Though it took nowhere near as long to get out of the TIFF opening night table read of American Beauty organised by Jason Reitman as it took to get in, the scene outside of the 1250-capacity Ryerson Theatre this past Thursday night captured the festival's contrast of extremes. As the crowd for the low-key reading mooed and baaahed our way out of the theatre, just out front a red carpet for the night's second event, the premiere of Kristen's Stewart's On the Road, was in full, seizure-inducing swing.

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A logjam formed in the atrium as outgoing audience members stopped to crane their necks; by turns we all joined the gawping masses, whether we wanted to or not. While Stewart and co-star Kirsten Dunst spoke to reporters under a blitzkrieg canopy of camera flashes, around the corner and out the back exit Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Mae Whitman, Nick Kroll, Adam Driver, and others were slipping out after finishing their two-hour, no-cameras-allowed reading of Alan Ball's script of American Beauty.

The event was part of Reitman's “Live Read” series, in which actors gather to perform a well-known script for an audience of film and theatre geeks (other events include Steve Carell and Natalie Portman playing the Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine roles in The Apartment, and Seth Rogen playing Jeff Bridges's role in The Big Lebowski). The son of Ivan Reitman, Jason is a Toronto native whose family helped turned TIFF into the mega-festival it is today, contributing to the construction of the Lightbox Theatre, the new festival centerpiece, which opened in 2010 and sits in “Reitman Square.”

In recent years TIFF has become a year-round concern, offering master classes and a repertory cinema of the Lightbox. Billing itself as a “charitable cultural organisation,” last year TIFF generated $170 million CAD in economic revenue. This year's TIFF feels like the biggest yet, and throughout its opening day there was a sense of a festival unprepared for its own success.

Reitman had announced his “Live Read” event just days earlier; the choice of American Beauty was a nod to that film's success here in 1999, and the beginning of Toronto's reputation as an Oscar-maker. Tickets went quickly, but their distribution was poorly organised and the box office overwhelmed, so that patrons lined a full square block as the 6 pm start time came and went. As a thousand-plus ticket-holders lost sensation in their legs, a TIFF-sponsored survey monkey made her way down the line. The festival was gathering intel on how much money they were pulling in for the city; we all wanted to know where to log complaints about the train wreck currently still in progress.

Once it began and some wonky sound issues were resolved, the reading proved absorbing and, at moments, magical. Table reads are often the first step of the production process, a raw engagement with the script that helps a director get a sense of how the movie's rhythms and performances might work. Performed in this fashion—with the actors seated facing the audience and reading from sheet music stands—they provide a new and invigorating angle on a well-known film. As Cranston sometimes echoed and more often enhanced Kevin Spacey's Academy Award-winning performance as depressed suburban dad Lester Burnham, for instance, I was caught between my strangely vivid memories of the film and the immediacy of what was happening on stage.

Along with the novelty of watching Cranston perform live just a couple of hours after I seeing him smash it up as a craggy CIA suit in Ben Affleck's Argo and having Hendricks pierce my eardrum as she channeled her character's frustration with a scream (“that's the price of admission,” Reitman cracked a few minutes earlier, after the actress feigned Carolyn Burnham's enthusiastic orgasm), some nice moments in Ball's screenplay were revealed. Reitman read all of the script direction, including a line describing Carolyn, who “even in sleep…looks determined.”

It was a fitting kick-off to a full weekend, where along with Argo films including The Master (which would have swept last week's Venice Film Festival if not for a rule precluding award sweeps), Cloud Atlas, Silver Linings Playbook, and Looper premiered to many block-lengths of queued festival-goers. After premiering to mixed response Friday night (you can read my review here), Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines, one of the more anticipated festival films seeking distribution, was picked up by Focus Features over the weekend.

Much TIFF chatter arcs somewhat inevitably toward the Oscars, something the festival encourages (“help us pick the next American Beauty, one pre-screening bumper touting the fest's people's choice award asks). My hope is that TIFF scales back all the VIP fawning and continues to seek its own standard for what's good. This year I've spent more time talking to the film lovers who have travelled thousands of kilometres to stand in rush lines than I have to the critics and producers who sweep by them. And yeah, they like to see the stars, but what stands out is how little these moviegoers care about handicapping awards or predicting box office success. It's quite beautiful, actually: all across the city they stand and wait with the hope that someone will show them their own heart.