Wild Nights in Movieland

August 28 2000

Wild Nights in Movieland

August 28 2000

“Before I made my living writing about movies, I drove them.” That’s how Maclean's Senior Writer Brian D. Johnson introduces Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever, his irreverent history of the Toronto International Film Festival. As a critic Johnson has covered the festival for 15 of those years,

but in the early 1980s, he literally held the festival in his hands: as a driver he delivered the films to theaters. One night, he also chauffeured a pair of bickering critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert— inkling he would eventually become a critic himself.

Published to coincide with the festival’s silver anniversary (Sept. 7 to 16), Brave Films, Wild Nights chronicles a turbulent rite of passage. The festival was founded in 1976 by Bill Marshall, Henk van der Kolk and Dusty Cohl, high-rolling impresarios who threw Canadian caution to the wind. The event has since become North America’s leading film festival, second in the world only to Cannes. It has launched such hits as Diva, The Big Chill, Roger and Me and American Beauty. It has discovered filmmakers ranging from Pedro Almodovar to John Woo. And it has served as the prime incubator for Canadian cinema, showcasing such talents as David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and Don McKellar—while kick-starting the careers of such industry powers as producer Robert Lantos.

While preparing his book, Johnson encountered much nostalgia for the bacchanalia of the festival's formative years, when it learned the art of playing host to Hollywood stars with extravagant habits. The festival received its baptism of fire in 1982, entertaining Martin Scorsese. Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel. But in 1984, when it honored Warren Beatty, the festival entered a world of obsession and intrigue that would give new meaning to the term “high maintenance.”

Sept. 13, 1982. The day of the festivals tribute to Martin Scorsese. Scorsese was downstairs in the hotel lobby, discussing his wardrobe for the evening with his mother, Catherine, and Roger Ebert. “What should I wear?” he asked. “Well, Gene and I are presenters,” said Ebert, “so we have to wear tuxedos, but you are the guest, so you can wear anything you want.” “Maybe I’ll wear my bluejeans,” said Scorsese, who had not yet entered his Armani phase. “Martin,” his mother chimed in, “you wear your tuxedo.” “And that was the end of that,” recalls Ebert. In the early 1980s, the festival was transformed from a contender to a player. As it became known as a place to discover films, and filmmakers, it was being discovered in its own right by Hollywood. Over the years, the studios would come to dominate the media spotlight with gala premières, leading to complaints that they were taking over the festival. But this was a courtship that the festival initiated and avidly pursued, as it went out of its way to solicit stars by staging a series of gala tributes honoring Martin Scorsese in 1982, Robert Duvall in 1983 and Warren Beatty in 1984— events that would have a dramatic impact on the festivals style and status.

“The festival was at a crossroads,” says Bill House, who produced all three tributes and is now vice-president of Alliance Atlantis Motion Picture Production. “It had to make a quantum leap into the consciousness of the public and the industry.”

It was Dusty Cohl's idea to stage a tribute. He approached his friend Roger Ebert, who agreed to co-host a gala evening with Gene Siskel. They chose to honor Scorsese. “I had met him very early on,” says Ebert, who had favorably reviewed the director’s feature debut, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, at the Chicago Film Festival in 1967. “So he agreed to do it. He was happy to have his work recognized—because it hasn’t been all that easy for him. He’s a great director, but there were times when Hollywood had no interest in him at all. I think he has felt, from time to time, like a guy out there in the darkness.”

In fact, Scorsese was on the ropes. Despite the brilliance of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, Hollywood had written him off. Critics’ polls would proclaim Raging Bull the best movie of the Eighties, but it was knocked out in the early rounds at the box office and defeated at the Oscars by Ordinary People. “When I lost for Raging Bull,” Scorsese told author Peter Biskind in his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, “that’s when I realized what my place in the system would be, if I did survive at all—on the outside looking in.” Along with George Lucas, Francis Coppola and Steven Spielberg, Scorsese was part of the New Hollywood, the wave of fiercely independent directors who changed the face of American moviemaking in the Seventies. And although he’d won critical acclaim, he longed for the commercial success that the others had enjoyed. When Scorsese arrived in Toronto, he was struggling to finish The King of Comedy, a movie that he’d directed as a favor to Robert De Niro and had come to regret. His health had been ravaged by a dangerous mixture of asthma medication and cocaine. His marriage to Isabella Rossellini had just broken up. He was about to turn 40. He was a man in need of a tribute.

The event was staged as an upscale This Is Your Life, with De Niro and Harvey Keitel headlining the list of surprise guests. It was a logistical nightmare trying to keep their presence a secret, and they were hustled up the service elevator to a hotel suite, where they were to remain hidden. The tribute itself was a success, although it stretched into a three hour marathon. With 1,500 people packed into the University Theater, the show unfolded as a series of film clips interwoven with onstage interviews by Siskel and Ebert. One by one, the surprise guests arrived to pay homage, from Scorsese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker to his mentor, director Michael Powell. Finally, Harvey Keitel stepped into the lights and brought the crowd cheering to its feet. Everyone was wondering the same thing. There was only one person missing. “Then Robert De Niro came down the aisle and the roof went off,” reported film critic Jay Scott. “Mutt had been restored to Jeff, Laurel had been restored to Hardy, yin had been restored to yang. The evening was complete.”

After the tribute, Scorsese, De Niro and Keitel partied late into the night. With the bars closing at 1 a.m., and the hospitality suite unable to keep up with the demand, friends of the festival had discreetly arranged for an illegal after-hours bar to be set up in a modern-dance studio on Yonge Street. With live music every night, it was run by Toronto actor Michael Copeman, who charged $20 at the door. The night of the tribute, he says, “Catherine O’Hara walked in and said, ‘Do you mind if a few friends of mine come in, and would you not charge me?’ I said OK. And in walked Jeremy Irons, Harvey Keitel, Martin Scorsese and Bobby De Niro. Of the bunch, Jeremy was definitely the tallest.”

John Allen, the festival’s theater manager at the University, had spent the night handling the overflow crowd at the tribute. He showed up at about 3:30 a.m. “I go in and see De Niro and Keitel stoned out of their minds with these two bimbos,” he says. “Just two days earlier, as part of my job, I’d pulled one of them off some guy in the hospitality suite.” Copeman recalls that he guarded the washroom for De Niro and one of the girls for about 10 minutes. But after a while, Copeman and Allen realized that they had to get the stars out of the club. “They were so wrecked it was unbelievable,” says Allen. “It wouldn’t be too great for an illegal booze can to have to call an ambulance for Harvey Keitel or Robert De Niro.”

Allen approached them and suggested it was time to go. “It was like talking to a deaf person,” he says. “ ‘We ... have ... to . .. leave. ... You . . . can’t. . . stay. . . here.’ Finally, I get them into the limousine. I’m about to close the door and De Niro puts his arm out so I can’t close it. And he says, ‘Get me those girls! Get me those girls!’ So I had to go up and get the girls and bring them down to the car. I went from theater usher to pimp in one night.”

Scorsese was still upstairs. “So I go back up,” says Allen, “and Marty is whacking back his inhaler by the gallon and gabbing to everybody. He’s crammed with coke, and he offers me a hit. It’s four o’clock in the morning and I’m afraid we’re going to get busted. He’s talking a g mile a minute—‘I-don’t-wanna-get-out. I-like-it-here. This-is-fine. I’m-talking-film. This-is-a-French-director.’ He wouldn’t leave. He was there till 6:30 in the morning.” The week of the Scorsese tribute, the festival also honored another great American director, John Cassavetes, with a far less glamorous retrospective. No slight was intended, and Cassavetes gamely attended Scorsese’s night, but the disparity between the two events was embarrassing. “It was shoddy on our part,” admits Anne Mackenzie, then the festival’s managing director. “The Cassavetes tribute was at the tacky little Backstage theater. And Cassavetes did notice Scorsese was swanning around next door in limos. Naturally he felt he had been honored, and then to see that just down the block there was this much bigger tribute to another director—it was a hideous mistake, and Wayne [Clarkson, then-festival director] and I were just sick about it. Because we really meant it for Cassavetes.” Mackenzie laughs at the memory. “We had such crushes on him and Gena Rowlands that they could hardly get us out of their hotel suite. Gena was so beautiful, and Wayne was so in love with her—we’re talking a high, high cinema crush.”

The faux pas seemed especially resonant because, as a pioneer of raw American realism, Cassavetes had a profound influence on Scorsese. Among the New Hollywood directors, he was the first to offer an American answer to the vérité drama of the French New Wave. And it was seeing Cassavetes’ Shadows as a teenager in I960 that “made me realize that I could make a movie,” Scorsese told Biskind in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls. When Cassavetes saw Scorsese’s first student feature, Who’s That Knocking at My Door, he actually told him it was better than Citizen Kane, according to screenwriter Jay Cocks. “John meant it,” says Cocks, “and from that day on, he loved Marty like a son.” In fact, when Scorsese was snorkeling through life in a blizzard of cocaine during the late Seventies, Cassavetes angrily berated him for ruining his talent, although he himself was a notorious drunk who would die from cirrhosis of the liver.

Oh, well, at least he didn’t wear his jeans.

In Warren Beatty, the festival met its match. After the tributes to Scorsese and Duvall, honoring Beatty in a manner that would make him feel comfortable required an entirely different order of diplomacy. Scorsese was a great director, Duvall was a great actor and Beatty was a bit of both. But he had something that was beyond their reach: the glamour and power of Hollywood royalty. Beatty was a movie star who had carved his own niche squarely between Old and New Hollywood. Although he’d been discovered under the studio system, with Splendor in the Grass, he was a child of the Sixties, intent on translating the freedoms of the counterculture into a new kind of cinema. He made his breakthrough with Arthur Penn’s 1967 landmark,

Bonnie and Clyde, worked up a promiscuous lather of sex and politics in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, chased Julie Christie through the mud and murk of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller and won an Oscar for directing Reds, Hollywood’s first socialist epic. Beatty was the ultimate insider, the cautious Hollywood liberal who had struck his own canny compromise between the studio system and artistic autonomy. He was a producer. He was also a control freak, a political animal with an acutely developed sense of his power and influence. And he was not about to take a passive approach to his own tribute. Warren wanted no surprises.

“The Beatty thing was strange,” says Ebert, “because Warren was very conflicted and ambiguous about being there. He’s a person that likes to be in control of things and a tribute, by its very nature, is something that he wouldn’t be in control of” Ebert was on good terms with Beatty. He had met the actor around the time of Bonnie and Clyde, and championed the film when many critics had dismissed it. “I thought it was a great, great film,” says Ebert, “the best American film of the year, and it got off to a rocky start. So he was kind of grateful for friends at that point.”

Beatty exerted meticulous control over the tribute through David MacLeod, his Toronto-born cousin, who had also served as Bill Marshall’s Hollywood wrangler in the festival’s first, abortive attempt to recruit stars in 1976—and who would be found dead 14 years later in Montreal as a convicted pedophile on the lam. Back then, MacLeod had some friends around the festival, notably David Gilmour. “We got high together,” says Gilmour, meaning “high” in every sense of the word. “We did Mandrax and went skydiving—he and one of his little Indian boys, Ronnie, a real pretty-boy Indian. We did a whole lot of Mandrax because I’m afraid of heights. It’s a major tranquilizer with a kick to it. David was a serious pill boy, and I was too in those days. I used to get it for him because I had a scrip with a very disreputable doctor who would sell his name. We did a lot of pills together.

“David MacLeod was a consummate backroom boy. He manipulated people by the promise of contact with the higher powers. I remember MacLeod turning up once and saying, ‘Come on up to my house if you want to meet Julie Christie,’ and sure enough there was Julie Christie sitting in his mothers living room. Once he phoned up and said, ‘I’m having dinner with Diane Keaton tonight. Do you want to come?’ ”

MacLeod’s fall from grace came as a shock to those close to him. James Toback, who wrote and directed MacLeod’s production of The PickUp Artist (1987), was one of his best friends. The last time they saw each other was in Toronto in 1991. MacLeod, who was on the lam, suddenly materialized in the lobby of the director’s hotel. “Later that night, we went walking around the streets, looking left and right in a state of serious paranoia,” Toback recalled in a conversation with Toronto Star film critic Geoff Pevere, a former festival programmer. “We finally ended up in some little restaurant at midnight that was about to close. Somebody came in and he said, ‘We got to get out of here right away.’ We said goodbye around two in the morning,”' Toback dismisses the police account of MacLeod’s death. “Who’s going to choose suicide by swallowing lighter fluid? What is far more likely is that he was lulled.” The whole business left Toback angry and haunted, but he decided there was no point in pushing for an investigation. “It’s too bad,” he says. “MacLeod was bright and smart and charming and people liked him. He didn’t get away with something that a lot of guys in Hollywood get away with. A lot of famous and powerful people are addicted to exactly that or more but they didn’t get caught. Or they bought their way out.”

The whole episode left Beatty with “a sense of tremendous frustration,” says Toback, who co-wrote Bugsy for the actor in 1992. “Beatty does not like failure. Not that it’s his failure. It’s just that the whole thing was a disaster. MacLeod was like a brother for him. I mean, MacLeod basically ran his life for 20 years. The only person who knew exactly what was going on with Beatty was MacLeod.”

MacLeod hovered over every detail of the Beatty tribute. He had attended the Duvall event, which had dragged on far too long, “and was very concerned about Siskel and Ebert going on and on,” says Bill House. “He wasn’t wrong about that.” Once again, Robert Boyd cut an opening montage of clips, but through MacLeod, revision after revision was sent to Beatty in Hollywood. “They wanted to control the images,” says House. “They made us cut a scene from Splendor in the Grass, the scene near the end of the movie with Natalie Wood against the lockers, the prelude to a kiss. They didn’t want that because of whatever notions there were about Beatty and women. And it was important for them to have the politics, the liberal politics, front and center in all of this, which we also wanted to accommodate.”

Just how much was required to accommodate Beatty became apparent when he showed up for a run-through at the University Theater on the afternoon of the tribute. John Allen remembers standing onstage with him, dealing with exhaustive questions about how to get out of the theater after the show. “We’ll take you down these stairs, and then we can go down the alley to your limousine in the back,” said Allen.

“How far is it?” Beatty asked.

“I don’t know. About 30 or 40 feet.”

“Let’s find out.”

At this point, as Allen recalls, “Beatty jumps down off the stage and starts counting the number of feet, putting one foot in front of the other toe-to-heel, doing this kind of tightrope walk all the way back to the car. He comes back and says, ‘It’s 47 of my feet. But I think my foot is not quite a foot. Let’s call it 40 feet. How long do you think that will take me?’ I said, ‘Will you be with other people?’ He said, ‘Let’s do it two ways, one with me walking by myself, and one with other people.’ So he walked all the way back by himself and we timed it. And then we had to get everyone else to do it. We all traipsed along with him and we timed it again. It was a little longer. He said, ‘You’re right, it slows down with other people.’”

With the Beatty tribute, the strange paranoia of Hollywood protocol began to rub off on festival organizers. “There was a feeling that we were doing God’s work here,” said Allen. “There was the Normandy invasion, and then there was putting on the tribute. It was like the world was sitting on the head of a pin. For some reason, we had RCMP at the tribute.” “There was this aura around him,” House says, “a fear of the public. There was an enormous security arrangement that had to be made around Beatty. We had plainclothes cops all through the venue. I couldn’t quite figure out why that had to be. I was thinking, this is Toronto, what are you guys talking about? Then when I met him, there was this sense of fear, as if there were people who hated him because he slept with a lot of women, because his politics were left, because he was so good-looking—whatever. It was like you were guarding against some kind of attack, or assassination. And I don’t think I’m being dramatic.”

The tribute itself followed a different format than the others. There were no surprise guests. Instead of sitting onstage for hours while others talked about him, Beatty would remain in the audience, and Ebert had been given no indication whether or not he would even go onstage. Looking dapper in horn-rimmed glasses and a tan suit, the 47-year-old actor sat with Diane Keaton and MacLeod while one by one the guests arrived to pay homage: Bonnie and Clyde director Arthur Penn, Shampoo screenwriter Robert Towne, novelist Jerzy Kosinski and then the night’s biggest star, Jack Nicholson. “I don’t usually tell stories about Warren Beatty because you get trained not to,” said Jack, who played to the crowd, ducking the earnest line of questioning from Siskel and Ebert. When the critics asked about The Fortune, an expensive flop in which he co-starred with Beatty, Nicholson joked that the character in the movie was based on Beatty himself—“a mean guy who’d murder his wife for a nickel.”

As the critics persisted with questions about The Fortune, Jack reached into his pocket and put on a pair of lime-green sunglasses. “I got them in Los Angeles, where everything this color grows,” he drawled, eating up the crowd with his crocodile grin. The audience went wild. I was there that night, having spent the day delivering films. Seeing that one simple gesture—Jack putting on those shades—I understood what it meant to be a movie star. You had to act like one. And in that one moment it became clear: this must be the Big Time. Finally, the festival had made it. We could all relax, because this was as good as it gets. Warren and Jack—Hollywood’s Mick and Keith— made the dream come true eight years after Bill Marshall had played tennis with David MacLeod, the festival’s first Hollywood contact, at Beatty’s house on Mulholland Drive.

Like Coppola at the Duvall event, Jack upstaged the guest of honor. Beatty, the master of noblesse oblige, seemed an anti-climactic presence at his own tribute. But eventually he did rise from his seat and make his way to the stage.

Beatty said he had written an eight-page speech on the plane comparing the crisis in American liberalism with the plight of the progressive filmmaker. Although he didn’t read it, he delivered the gist. “Films in their pursuit of demographics,” he declared, “have come to the same point as American liberals. If a political leader now wanted to pay attention to the concerns of the Third World, he’d need a combination of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to get elected.” Beatty said he had screened Reds at the White House for Ronald Reagan. “I don’t want to take a cheap shot,” he told the crowd. “He was very nice about it and said he had hoped it would have a happy ending. He’s a likable and an amiable man and I happen to detest his politics.” Fifteen years later, Warren Beatty would flirt with the idea of running for president. But even back then, he acted as much the statesman as the star, fastidious about controlling his image. He allowed only one festival photographer into the tribute and insisted on approving the pictures, which had to be developed and then rushed to him at the party afterwards to meet newspaper deadlines. He also prohibited any cameras from the party, a bash for 1,500 at Yorkville’s Copa nightclub, where he was sequestered in a roped-off VIP area—a concept that was anathema to festival veterans, but would become standard practice with visiting stars. At one point, Globe and Mail reporter Susan Ferrier MacKay, unable to get around a table to talk to Nicholson, held up a note pad on which she’d written, “Want to dance?” Jack leaned across the table to read it, mouthed “No thank you.” Then, turning to Toronto financier David Perlmutter, he said, “Pity she used the wrong verb.”— for links

Later that night, Nicholson moved on to an all-night coach-house party hosted by Michael Budman, the co-owner of Roots. Pioneering the synergy between celebrity and merchandise that has since become the engine of pop culture, Budman went out of his way to cultivate celebrity friends, and worked his connections to make the Roots brand fashionable. “We were always interested in having music, sports and entertainment figures exposed to Roots,” he says, “but the festival really helped.” Budman, who sat on the festival board, hung out with a high-flying elite of guests and patrons. And his coach-house parties, white nights in which no one had trouble staying awake, were legendary. “The hippest party I ever hosted,” he says, “was after the Warren Beatty tribute.” Beatty didn’t show up, “but every other celebrity in town did. And Jack was there all night, until six or seven in the morning.” Lorraine Segato, who had played the Copa party with The Parachute Club— a band she had formed in 1982 to play an opening-night party at the festival—was among the guests. “It was odd,” she recalls. “I met Jack for a brief second. But he was upstairs most of the time. There was always kind of a going off into a corner, into a room. Even though you were at an exclusive party, there was still that sense of untouchableness.”

The Beatty event would be the last of the tributes. They had accomplished what they were designed for—to raise the profile of the festival. They had become prohibitively expensive. And the whole idea of importing a couple of American critics to play host to Hollywood stars rubbed some people the wrong way. Siskel and Ebert received a rough ride in the local press after all three tributes. Jay Scott wrote that Beatty acted “as if he were graciously making an appearance on The Tweedledum and Tweedledumber Show.” Ebert, however, now says he understands the sentiment behind some of the criticism. “There was a feeling,” he says, “that maybe Canada had some movie critics who could be doing this, that it wasn’t necessary to bring in two people from Chicago, as if Canada didn’t have enough critics of its own. And there’s a lot to be said for that point of view.”

Although some saw the Beatty tribute as a kind of Faustian pact with Hollywood, for one of the festival’s most rigorous cinéphiles, future director Piers Handling, it was a means to an end. That year he co-ordinated Northern Lights, a massive Canadian retrospective. “We were all concerned with creating a profile for an event that would have a trickle-down effect,” he says. “The tributes allowed you to do a bunch of other things at the same time. Having that excitement allowed me to do the Canadian retrospective. It allowed Wayne to take the risk. He could deliver Beatty and Nicholson to his board, and to the corporate sponsors, so they could ignore the fact that there were 150 Canadian films off to one side.”