Biopics Take Over Toronto!Author: Rex Reed

On the dour anniversary of 9/11, lights flashed. Sirens roared. Cell phones rang. Rented limo doors opened and hottie du jour Penélope Cruz emerged, surrounded by burly security guards with hairy forearms who whisked her down the intensely lit crimson-red carpet into another premiere “gala,” where she talked about doing an on-screen lesbian tango with Charlize Theron while hundreds of people nobody ever heard of fought over little squares of curried chicken on sticks and take-home party favors-breath fresheners called “Embarrass-mints” with George W. Bush’s face on the front of the tin, aimed to “Stop Errorism!” It’s not Ground Zero. It’s the 29th annual Toronto International Film Festival, better known as TIFF. Survival kits are optional.

For 10 days every September, Canada’s most modern city plays host to the world’s most popular cinema circus. News stories about nursing-home scandals and Canadian cabinet members under house arrest are replaced on Toronto’s front pages by obscene amounts of space devoted to rumors of celebrity spottings, maps of where the movie stars shop for cool stuff, and gossip-column compilations of A-list clubs where you can rub elbows with Sandra Bullock. In this glam parade of silicone breasts, Botoxed lips and liposuctioned tummies, some people also go to the movies. This year, 328 films from 60 countries-253 features and 75 shorts adding up to 27,090 minutes of celluloid-are scattered across 21 screens and catalogued in a festival program book that is 415 pages long and weighs almost one pound. No wonder TIFF, now in its 29th year, is called the film event that guarantees something for everyone.

While chief directors Piers Handling and Michele Maheux introduce films from Nepal and South Africa and raise money to build a new $200 million high-tech festival center aimed for the year 2007, TIFF has hired a new staff co-director named Noah Cowan, who proudly proclaims that his favorite movie is The Towering Inferno . So what started out 29 years ago as an ambitious idea in the heads of three movie buffs sitting in a booth at the Windsor Arms Hotel has ballooned into a behemoth of media excess where, for 10 days a year, every actor is Brando, every fledgling director is the next Spielberg, and half a million ticket buyers stand in line for a festival that lives up to its reputation as “all things to all people.” Berlin is a bore. Sundance is amateurish. Cannes has bloated beyond access and collapsed from hysteria. Venice is a fossil. So Toronto is the place to be. It provides plenty of art, plenty of garbage, and plenty of proof that Hollywood entertainment can sometimes be better for the soul than those dreary little Third World obscurities which nobody but the critics will ever see because of one very simple reason-they stink.

With 328 movies to choose from and four new screenings projected simultaneously every hour on the clock from 8:30 a.m. to midnight, frustrations and conflicts naturally ensue. If you are-God forbid!-serious about actually seeing the movies, there’s no time to attend the press conferences, interview the actors, party till dawn with Nick Nolte, or swallow anything but pizzas and frozen lattes. So you catch half of one film, sleep through half of the next one, arm yourself with Tums and eyedrops, and do the best you can.

Next week, a roundup of this year’s eclectic program. For now, some highlights. An incandescent Annette Bening jazzed up the opening-night festivities with Warren Beatty on one arm and co-star Jeremy Irons on the other. Her dazzling star turn in Being Julia is pretty radiant, too. Oscar-winner Ronald ( The Pianist ) Harwood’s witty, sophisticated script adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham’s elegant 1937 novella “Theatre,” directed by the great Hungarian director István Szabó, was dismissed by some grumps as lavish and old-fashioned-two excellent reasons for rushing to see it, if you ask me. Set in the colorful theater world of London’s West End in the fashionable 1930’s, it centers on a fading diva named Julia Lambert, whose career-daunting age and dull marriage to a top producer (Jeremy Irons) have left her badly in need of rejuvenation. Romance arrives in the arms of a brash and sexy young American (newcomer Shaun Evans), who makes her feel giddy and alive again-until the star realizes the motives of an invigorating lover the age of her own son have been anything but sincere and she’s been turned into a fool for love. Julia realizes that her young swain and her husband have both been deceiving her with a moronic ingenue in the cast of her own play, and the clever, bitchy and delicious way she plots her ultimate revenge turns the second half of the film into a comedic triumph of stylish manners that comes together in the very place where all of Julia’s experience and skill can best be used for maximum effect: onstage. On the opening night of a new play, Julia manages to restage it to everyone’s shock in the middle of the last act, to the cheers of the audience and the downfall of all of her adversaries. As the only Yank in a distinguished cast that includes Juliet Stevenson, Rosemary Harris, Rita Tushingham and Michael Gambon, Ms. Bening not only holds her own but steals the show, and she is gorgeous and hilarious while doing it. Imagine a vehicle for Bette Davis created by Oscar Wilde.

Toronto is a place where you see familiar presences in the most unexpected disguises. In Stage Beauty , movie hunk Billy Crudup plays a 17th-century stage star wearing a dress. In Pedro Almodóvar’s dark, contrived, but brilliant and sexually charged melodrama, Bad Education , Mexican heartthrob Gael García Bernal plays both a preppie hunk and a drug-addicted drag queen who looks like Lainie Kazan, one of whom was raped as a teenager by a Catholic priest. In Kinsey, Oscar winner Bill Condon’s first film since the magnificent Gods and Monsters, Peter Sarsgaard goes full frontal in gay love scenes with Liam Neeson, who gives a landmark performance as the noted historian and sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. In The Libertine , Johnny Depp, as decadent John Wilmot, the second Earl of Rochester and England’s answer to the Marquis de Sade, deep-throats Samantha Morton as well as a number of naked male companions before dying of alcohol poisoning and a raging case of syphilis.

Biography is big this year. Among the big draws with the longest queues are movies about Modigliani, Che Guevara, Rwandan general Roméo Dallaire, cinematographer Haskell Wexler and Democratic Presidential hopeful John Kerry. Two musical biopics, about pop icons Ray Charles and Bobby Darin, shown back to back, have divided critics sharply. Ray, Taylor Hackford’s sweeping, warts-and-all tribute to the legendary Ray Charles (1930-2004), runs two and a half hours. The film has an almost documentary authenticity in the way it illustrates both the musical rise and fall of a tragically flawed yet overpoweringly influential figure in American culture and the changing society that nurtured him, augmented by the real chart-topping Ray Charles hits that still sell today, as well as a career-defining performance by Jamie Foxx that should catapult him to the front ranks of movie stardom. The massive screenplay by James L. White, based on Mr. Hackford’s original story outline, debunks myths, reveals unknown truths and illuminates the shadows of a troubled man’s complex life and art, cementing his position as one of the great musicians of the 20th century while desanctifying the saint.

Born illegitimate as Ray Charles Robinson, blinded at age 7 after witnessing his baby brother’s drowning, raised by a dirt-poor mother in a sharecropper’s shack in Florida, on the road playing stride piano as a teenager, “managed” by a black woman who took his money and his sex, and ripped off by fellow musicians who knew he couldn’t see the difference between a dollar bill and a ten spot, Ray was green as grass until 1952 in Harlem, when Ahmet Ertegun signed him at Atlantic Records and launched his career. At first he sounded like Nat Cole, but when he found his own style in a combination of rhythm-and-blues and gospel that became his trademark, the gold records started piling up.

There were obstacles: the rile of the black church communities that thought the beat he added to their traditional hymns was sacrilegious, the racism that threatened to close down his best venues, the scandal he caused when he refused to play segregated nightclubs. And then there were the years of heroin addiction, the women on the road that jeopardized his marriage, the desperate struggles in withdrawal and rehab, doubly harrowing for a blind man. His life was a mess. Mr. Hackford gets it all down with a riveting cinematic tempo, one highlight blending into the next, and Mr. Foxx is amazing in his diversity and appeal. Nobody would be foolish enough to mimic Ray Charles’ unique style or what his fingers did to the 88’s, so you get the actual Ray Charles recordings, but everything about the actor’s performance is so inspired that you never even think you’re watching an impersonation. He’s got the big picket-fence smile, the gimpy shuffle, the gravel voice, and the head bobbing from right to left like a metronome. He doesn’t play Ray Charles; he is the king of R&B, and you’re not going to forget it. Ray is a rousing, pulsating tour de force.

By comparison, Kevin Spacey has taken an even bigger risk producing, directing, writing and starring in Beyond the Sea, the conflicted world of Copacabana glitz and Vegas corn that devoured finger-snapping “Cool Fool” Bobby Darin in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Nearly forgotten now, Darin was a teen idol in the days of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and spent his life suffering from recurring bouts of rheumatic fever and Frank Sinatra envy. Born Walden (Bobby) Cassoto, he took the name Darin from the last five electric letters in a broken sign over a Mandarin restaurant, graduated from silly sock-hop hits like “Dream Lover” and “Splish Splash” to crooning “Beyond the Sea” in a bright yellow suit on the set of a Universal movie with starlet Sandra Dee, who became his loyal and long-suffering wife. But as they say in the flicks, it was lonely at the top. He hated the loss of his hair and his belly-up movie career. And the cliché-riddled domestic frustration of life as the husband of a Hollywood star is so old it’s hairy. (As he says to Sandra Dee in one of the film’s more unintentionally hilarious scenes, “You should have married Rock Hudson.”) By the time he discovers that his loud-mouthed sister Nina-who drives him crazy for years demanding the best ringside tables at the Coconut Grove-is really his mother, it’s a blow from which he never recovers; neither does the film. He died of a heart attack at age 37, another unhappy showbiz casualty, today remembered primarily for his hip, jazzed-up recording of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife”-which Weill’s widow, the legendary Lotte Lenya, detested almost as much as the Nazis of the Weimar Republic.

It’s a familiar story of an unremarkable entertainer, and Beyond the Sea fails to find a fresh or engaging way to tell it all over again. Filming it in London doesn’t help in the credibility department. The cast, which includes such British pros as Brenda Blethyn and Bob Hoskins, is loud and phony, and co-star Kate Bosworth alarmingly resembles Loni Anderson more than Sandra Dee. Staged like an episodic lounge act as Darin makes a movie of his life, the awkward songs and dances in all the wrong places look like the dinner show on a second-rate cruise ship. But here’s the big surprise: What Beyond the Sea does do is reveal an unknown facet of the gifted Kevin Spacey’s versatility that will force you to rub your eyes and ears with disbelief. He does all of the vocals himself-no synchronization to Bobby Darin records, although Mr. Spacey sounds exactly like Darin and sometimes even better. Many of Darin’s original big-band arrangements were provided by his son Dodd, who was 12 when his father died, and by his former manager, Steve (Boom Boom) Blauner (played onscreen by John Goodman). In Toronto, Mr. Spacey announced plans for a forthcoming tour with the 72-piece orchestra on the soundtrack that really swings the Golden Oldies with digitally mastered thrills Bobby Darin never got at Capitol Records. If all else fails, Mr. Spacey can count on a whole new career in Atlantic City.