- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

Toronto, Canada, might seem like an odd choice to become the North American Cannes.

The French city is on the gorgeous Riviera; the Canadian city is on Lake Ontario.

Skinny actresses can nosh on high-protein cheese and pate in France; Canada’s gift to world cuisine is poutine, a French-Canadian concoction of French fries, gravy and cheese curds.

But the Toronto International Film Festival, a 10-day affair that ended last weekend, has put the city on the movie map. At a New Line dinner for its upcoming release “Little Children,” a festival marketing committee member informed me that TIFF is now the world’s second biggest film festival. Unlike Cannes, the largest, Toronto’s screenings are still open to the public; government support, she said, is contingent on it.

Why government funding is needed for an event that attracts big stars and big money is anyone’s guess.

After 31 years, more films are now sold in Toronto than at any other festival. In 2002, the festival brought $67 million into the city, $33 million of that in tourism alone. It’s not a niche event. Past films premiered at the festival include such hits as “Crash,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “American Beauty.”

Toronto is embracing its role as the new Cannes. To this Western Canadian by birth, it’s mildly amusing to see the city that prides itself on being the country’s intellectual capital fall head over heels for Hollywood.

Toronto even looks like an intellectual city, after all. There must be more large, plastic-framed eyeglasses per capita here than in any other metropolitan area. The city has its share of typical celebrities, like music and television stars. But just as well known are people like Naomi Klein, author of the anti-globalization manifesto “No Logo,” and her husband, Avi Lewis, the son of a political party leader, who has hosted both a program on MuchMusic (Canada’s version of MTV) and a current affairs discussion show.

Even Toronto filmmakers seem more cerebral than their American counterparts. The intellectual-looking Atom Egoyan explores deep themes; his “Ararat” was about the Armenian genocide. David Cronenberg is a master of psychological horror who cites as influences Vladimir Nabokov and William S. Burroughs, whose “Naked Lunch” he memorably brought to life.

Other Canadians refer to Toronto with derision as “The Centre of the Universe” for the seeming inability of the national media to talk about anything other than their own city. These reporters took a break from hammering the prime minister to report on the every move of such stars as Brad Pitt and Penelope Cruz.

It’s not just the media; the average Torontonian seemed smitten with the stars, too.

Crowds gathered outside screenings. Forest Whitaker’s performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” is a tour de force. When the actor stepped on the red carpet in front of the historic Elgin Theatre before the film’s opening, he seemed blinded by the flash of camera bulbs. His co-star, Kerry Washington (“Ray”), put in a solid performance as one of Amin’s wives; but when she walked down a Toronto street the next afternoon, she went virtually unrecognized. Good work doesn’t matter as much as a big name.

Entrances to the top hotels were similarly mobbed all week. People stood watch at the Intercontinental, hoping to see someone, anyone famous. Christian Slater, not even a B-list actor now, had people not only following behind him as he walked down the street, but even people walking backward in front of him.

These stargazers would have had more luck if they’d gone inside and spent a little dough. Eating lunch in the Intercontinental Bar, I noticed that a few of the other patrons were journalists and most were French. So when Ed Harris, who played the composer in the festival-screened “Copying Beethoven,” walked in and stayed just a few minutes, he was allowed some rare peace.

He wasn’t the only celebrity who tried to lie low. The “Little Children” dinner invite promised its stars would be in attendance. But a ravishing-looking Kate Winslet didn’t stay long enough to eat. Perhaps that’s why she’s looking so thin.

It should be noted that Toronto did two things in an attempt to boost its image as a serious city. The festival’s Prize of the International Critics went to “Death of a President,” the controversial film that imagines the assassination of George W. Bush. Everyone was talking about this film before it screened. A festival worker told me she’d heard nothing but bad reviews afterward.

The city also slapped a celebrity on the wrist for violating one of the tenets of the Canadian religion. Sean Penn received a written warning from Toronto public health officials for smoking during a press conference for “All the King’s Men.” In Ontario, puffing is banned in enclosed public places.

But perhaps the city fathers themselves are a bit star-struck. The Sutton Place Hotel, which hosted the press conference, will have to pay the $540 fine — not the famous Mr. Penn.

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