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Toronto 2010: A festival famous for being about fame

September 20, 2010 |  8:00 am

An attractive and talented young woman is on her way to performance stardom — until her demons, exacerbated by the pressures of the spotlight, threaten to bring her down.

It might sound a lot like the Lindsay Lohan story. But it also describes the arc of Nina, Natalie Portman's mentally tenuous ballerina of "Black Swan," one of several movies at the just-wrapped Toronto Film Festival that was keenly interested in the dangers of a life in the public eye.

The most notorious of these exercises, of course, wasn't really a study in fame at all, as Casey Affleck's Joaquin Phoenix-breakdown film "I'm Still Here" was revealed last week to be a hoax. (Although some might say that two well-known actors trying to pull off such a gambit furnishes its own lesson about celebrity life.)

But one doesn't need to wander into the staged downward spiral of an Oscar nominee to see the fame doctrine at work. "Casino Jack," Kevin Spacey's portrayal of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff, shows the irrationally addictive nature of playing a high-stakes game in a high-profile position. "I think Abramoff was on the horse, and he kept the reins going without even being entirely sure of why he was doing it," Spacey said of the character he played.

In both the well-regarded "Easy A" and the sleeper title "It's Kind of a Funny Story," intense public pressure in the most hothouse of environments — high school — leads to unsavory consequences. (In the case of "Easy A," it's deception and a loss of self; with "Funny Story" it's a stint in a psychiatric institution.)

And in one of the biggest awards contenders to emerge from the festival, "The King's Speech," the pressure to perform under the eye of an expectant nation is so intense that it debilitates the stammer-afflicted Duke of York (Colin Firth), forcing him to turn to a royal outsider (Geoffrey Rush) for help.

It's hard to pinpoint why so many of the specialized films being made these days — and if Toronto is a barometer of anything, it's of the independent-film zeitgeist — are preoccupied with the downside of fame. But it's a testament to our ongoing fascination with (and sometimes repulsion for) people who live their lives under a bright hot light that so many of these movies caught on with festival-goers.

A few years ago it was war and politics that seeped into so many Toronto films. Lately, with reality TV and YouTube finding new ways to blur the line between public and private, we're apparently becoming ever-more obsessed with those who live their lives in front of a voyeuristic public.

"Swan" is perhaps the most complex comment on the topic, since it has us rooting for the person wilting under these conditions even as we ask why she's putting herself through them in the first place. It's just a coincidence — but a pointed one nonetheless — that as audiences were transfixed by Nina, many of us were also watching the saga of Lindsay Lohan take another sad turn, feeling torn between sympathy and resentment.

But it was also telling that, amid all these examples of public breakdowns, one of the most warmly received movies at the festival was actually not about the spotlight but its opposite: anonymity. Even as Portman's Nina began to come unglued on a New York stage, James Franco, as stranded canyoneer Aron Ralston in "127 Hours," was finding himself in a dire situation precisely because he lived so far out of sight of any other human being.

Franco's character spends much of the movie silently cursing himself for living so far off the grid that he didn't even tell anyone where he was going before he left. Sometimes, the festival's films seemed to be saying, the only fate worse than being smack in the middle of the limelight is being completely removed from it.

— Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Black Swan. Credit: Fox Searchlight.

[For the Record: An earlier version of this post referred to Portman's character as Lily.]


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