Pete Hammond

I ran into Jennifer Garner Saturday afternoon at the candy counter of Telluride’s tiny Nugget Theatre and told her I was looking forward to seeing the new film she produced and stars in, Butter, which was having an official sneak preview at the festival later that night. “Thanks, but I hate it when people tell me that. It makes me too nervous,”  she said. She shouldn’t have worried. The edgy smart comedy played liked gangbusters at its first packed screening at the Galaxy Theatre. There were big laughs for the small-town butter-carving satire, which might get a year-end release from The Weinstein Company to qualify for awards, especially for the Golden Globes and its comedy category. Garner nails the Michele Bachmann-like character in a way that’s smooth-as-buttah. The film itself is reminiscent of Michael Ritchie’s Smile and Alexander Payne’s Election, with both comparisons meant to be a compliment. In fact, shortly afterward, Payne told me he is anxious to see the film himself. Before it rolled, director Jim Field Smith told the crowd what pressure he was under to finish the film in time for next week’s Toronto Film Festival — and then was told it would be needed even earlier for Telluride. “Come on, you can do it,”  Harvey Weinstein told him. Then there were the unexpected earthquakes, hurricanes, and a scary landing at the Tellruride airport that all contributed to his feeling he wasn’t going to make the deadline, but he did. “This is the first audience anywhere to see the film, so we could just die,” Garner added before forgetting to introduce co-star Ty Burrell (Modern Family).

Film intros seemed to cause a lot of consternation this weekend at this most laid-back of festivals. In welcoming the crowd to the very early 8:30 AM screening of her labor of love Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close explained what her director Rodrigo Garcia advised on how they were to present the film for its first screening that took place Friday night. “Rodrigo calmly said to me, ‘First, I will go up and make some remarks. Then you will go up and make some remarks. And then we will both go outside and puke’. I guess it’s the altitude,” she told the overflow audience. (Yes, they came even at 8:30 AM! That’s the Telluride cinefreaks on overdrive.) Actually, that screening and tonight’s Butter unveiling were both plagued by broken air conditioning at the otherwise state-of-the-art Galaxy Theatre (actually a makeshift movie palace in a school auditorium).

I saw Albert Nobbs at the crack of dawn Saturday, the film that Glenn Close co-produced, co-wrote, and also co-wrote the end credit song sung by Sinead O’Connor. It has won lots of advance Oscar buzz for Close sight unseen. Fortunately, her work lives up to the hype, even though she plays a very repressed character that doesn’t give her a lot of big scenes. But she performs them all flawlessly. Close’s 30-year journey with this character (she first played it off-Broadway and won an Obie) and the 15 years she personally invested to bring it to the screen will be more than enough to guarantee a 6th Best Actress nomination for the star. Actors branch members love that stuff, as well as the fact she’s playing a gender-switching role. But unanimous praise also heard around Telluride after the film’s initial two screenings was for co-star Janet McTeer, who does the gender switch in such an astonishing manner that she’s an instant heavyweight contender for Best Supporting Actress. One producing branch Academy member actually flagged me down in town to say she hasn’t been so impressed by any performance in a very long time. “Did you see it? She’s got my vote, that’s for sure, and I don’t care who else comes along,” she told me. Close said she personally lobbied McTeer by visiting her backstage after a performance of her play, Mary Stuart. “I didn’t bring the script along. That would have been presumptious. But I asked her if she would read it and she did and accepted the part.” Originally, Orlando Bloom was on board to play a key part but, as Close remembers, the Lord of the Rings films as well as the imminent birth of his baby prevented that. Still, just having his name attached got the ball rolling for financing. As she told me in my exclusive interview with her when Roadside Attractions announced its aquisition of the film on July 5th, this was a passion project for so many years that she began to doubt it would ever come off. It did, and Telluride audiences seem to be responding. Roadside plans to release around Christmas with a hefty awards campaign that now will not only include Close but, after this reaction, McTeer for sure.

I sat next to War Horse producer Kathleen Kennedy at the early morning screening. She had missed the party at her ranch the night before due to a cold. Her movie, which of course is directed by Steven Spielberg, is going to be finished next week with only the completion of the D.I. left to go. She said the movie stands on its own, just as the original book and Tony-winning play do. “It really is the perfect example of three versions of the same story all working in their own way. It would actually be a great subject for a master class in filmmaking,” she told me. The film opens in late December and already is near the top of most pundits’ list of likely Oscar contenders.

Meanwhile, today was a busy day at Telluride for George Clooney spottings. He was the subject of a Silver Medallion tribute Saturday night at the Palm, and before that the center of attention at Fox Searchlight’s small private dinner at Sheridan Opera House for some select press and key creative people, including his new film The Descendants director Alexander Payne. At that dinner Clooney also spoke enthusiastically to me about his other film that just debuted in Venice, The Ides of March, which he directed and co-stars in. “Sony has really gotten behind it, bumping the release budget from about $9 million to $40 million. The reviews have been great, only one bad one.” He said he didn’t like the unique one-sheet poster art work originally – but since everyone else told him he was wrong, he has now come around. Clooney may be the most accessible star of his magnitude I have ever run into, no entourage at all. At the post-tribute party he stayed for more than two hours. This is clearly his Telluride. The Searchlight crew told me he has gone above and beyond so far on Descendants. Searchlight’s co-topper Nancy Utley told me she feels the launch of the film “could not have gone better in Telluride. We are so excited about it.”

When I asked another staffer about the long five-year delay of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, now finally getting a limited release on September 30th, I just got a look of pure frustration. Contractually the film, which once ran more than 3 hours, must come in under 2 1/2 hours. Official time I am told is now 2 hours, 29 minutes, and 40 seconds. “There’s a good movie in there somewhere,” the staffer said. Not everything can be a winner.

As for the buzz that the festival was going to offer a sneak preview Sunday of The Rum Diary with star Johnny Depp attending (people swear they have seen him hanging out around town), it turned out to be exactly that, a rumor that spread quickly. “No way,” I am told by a source close to the film. In fact, that Sneak Preview now turns out to be a Frederic Wiseman documentary called Crazy Horse.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

Get Deadline news and alerts sent to your inbox.