Pete Hammond

Fox Seachlight’s annual party at the Thompson Hotel for the Toronto International Film Festival seemed especially ebullient Saturday after its growing Oscar contender, The Descendants, premiered to a standing ovation. Exactly a week earlier, the film received a similar enthusiastic response in Telluride. On top of that, Searchlight’s co-presidents Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula had just won rights over The Weinstein Company and Sony Pictures Classics to the controversial Steve McQueen-directed Shame, which missed out Saturday on the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival but did nab star Michael Fassbender the Best Actor prize for his raw, let-it-all-hang-out performance as a sexually addicted man in freefall.

Shame Michael Fassbender Carey MulliganUtley confirmed that Searchlight will release Shame this year in time for the Oscar race, possibly December. Although they have not dated it, they do want enough time to put a campaign together. She was thrilled that Fassbender got the Venice prize for the film, which premieres in Toronto tomorrow night, after playing to raves in Venice and mixed response in Telluride (where I caught it last week). Utley and Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos, also at the party, confirmed that the film will not be cut and is expected to receive an NC-17. Gianopulos told me this isn’t a film that you can cut here and there to bring it down into R territory. It’s not a “snippable” film, he said, but he seems happy that Searchlight stepped up to get it. It wouldn’t be the company’s first NC-17; Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers carried that rating in 2003. By bringing in the film for this year, they are creating Best Actor competition for their other major contender, The Descendants’ George Clooney as well as Shailene Woodley for Supporting Actress — they also plan to support Fassbender’s co-star Carey Mulligan in that category for her complete change-of-pace role in which she goes full frontal and sings New York, New York (not at the same time). They have a third Supporting Actress possibility in Jessica Chastain from Terrence Malick’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Tree of Life. They will also run Brad Pitt for Supporting Actor for that film, despite his lead billing (Sony is going to campaign him for Best Actor for his terrific Moneyball performance). What the conservative faction of the Academy will think about Shame remains to be seen, but I would love to be a fly on the wall at the official Academy screening. Utley said she liked the film from the moment they saw it in Telluride. “It was the kind of movie you just keep thinking about,” she told me.

Gianopulos was practically jumping up and down with glee over the Toronto reception to Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. “The reaction and standing ovation were just tremendous here. Did you see it?” he asked me about the 6 PM “official” world premiere tonight. I could tell he’s smelling Oscar again with this one. Instead of baby pictures, a Searchlight publicist pulled out her iPhone to show journalists photos of the standing ovation.

And yet another Searchlight movie contingent was really in a party mood at the Thompson, the big group behind Sundance sensation Martha Marcy May Marlene, with writer/director Sean Durkin telling me he’s happy it’s finally hitting theaters on October 21. He has traveled with the film from Sundance to Cannes to Toronto. Star Elizabeth Olsen, who has won raves for her work, recalled how she used to go to school with “Jim G’s” (Gianopolus’) daughter. Co-star Sarah Paulson was just happy to be in a film people seem to be excited about, after 15 years in the business. “I have never been in a good movie before, I mean one that everyone likes. This is the first time,” she told me. Their movie gets its premiere here tomorrow, too.

I don’t think I have ever been to a film festival that has more parties, dinners and daily gala premieres. It’s amazing anyone has time to see films. Today alone there were red carpet calls for A Dangerous Method, Take This Waltz, The Descendants, Breakaway, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Rampart, The Oranges, Killer Elite, The Burning Man, Melancholia, Drive and Americano. Whew. And most of them had their own parties or dinners. Tomorrow there are several more. One cocktailer and dinner that was canceled was the planned gathering for Bruce Beresford’s Peace, Love and Understanding, which stars Jane Fonda as a hippie grandmother. The film, looking for distribution, will premiere Tuesday, but Fonda was going to appear at the Monday night party for the film. Unfortunately, according to a publicist for the film, doctors have ordered her not to fly due to a “private medical matter”.

One premiere I attended this afternoon, followed by an after-dinner at Bymarks, was for the new film version of Christopher Plummer’s Tony-winning portrayal of John Barrymore in Barrymore. Plummer is originally from Montreal, so it was a nice homecoming for him. Among the guests at the intimate dinner was Former Canada Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who made a heartfelt speech to the group after the film’s producer Garth Drabinsky spoke first. Both Drabinsky and sales honcho Andrew Herwitz told me they hope to get a distribution deal in time to release it this year and qualify Plummer for the Best Actor race. Director Erik Canuel just finished the film yesterday and is still going to tweak it. Herwitz thinks Plummer could pull off dual noms for this and his June release Beginners, for which he has landed on just about every pundit’s list of Supporting Actor contenders. The 81-year-old star said he’s happy to be having such a great year, and added that he’s also really excited about being part of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sony’s December release. He offered nothing but praise for director David Fincher, who he says is among the best he’s ever worked with, and was really impressed with the Fincher method. He called him an “extraordinary” director. Despite a long film career that began in 1958′s Stage Struck, Plummer has had only one Oscar nomination, and that came just two years ago for The Last Station. He didn’t even join the Academy until a year before that.

This version of Barrymore was filmed in Toronto this year over seven days even though, at 81, Plummer is more than 20 years older than Barrymore was when he died. He said drinking had taken such a toll on the star, though, that they actually look about the same age. As for returning to the same material he has performed so many times over the past decades, Plummer said “it was like getting on a bike again.” If the film, which has been given a nice visual style and some cool cinematic touches by its director, does get distribution and a release in time for Oscar this year, it is not unprecedented to see a one-man filmed play get a nomination. James Whitmore did it for the filmization of Give ‘em Hell Harry in 1975. Plummer said he has no plans to retire. “I’ve got to go out and make some more movies,” the longtime Connecticut resident said. “Hurricane Irene did some damage to our house.”

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