TORONTO — Who do we want our stars to behave like? “Themselves,” whoever that may be, or the public-dramatic personae by which we think we know them? Do we prize the familiar or prefer novelty? Or is there a more complicated pop algorithm in which we welcome an actor trying something new, so long as it’s within the bounds of consistency?
A cultural circus like the Toronto International Film Festival puts all these questions center stage. Stars arrive in town glammed up for gala premieres and packed press conferences, and then audiences settle in to watch them transform themselves into characters racked with flaws and drama. It’s the start of the awards season, like it or not, so artistic respect and financial profits are at stake. But it’s also a chance to see who certain performers want to be seen as this year — even the ones who are someone different every year.
Eddie Redmayne, for instance, is the latest brilliant British kid, newly minted from last year’s Toronto festival, when his performance as physicist Stephen Hawking, in “The Theory of Everything,” set him on the path to a best actor Oscar. At this, Toronto’s 40th anniversary edition, running for 11 days through Sunday, Redmayne’s the title character of “The Danish Girl,” a stolid, tasteful, and affecting-almost-in-spite-of-itself biopic about Lili Elbe, born Einar Wegener, who in 1931 became the first person to undergo sex-reassignment surgery.
Alicia Vikander plays Einar’s wife, Gerde Gottlieb, whose painting career rose with her portraits of her husband as the latter’s true self, Lili. At its best, the movie’s a portrait of a marriage bound by love and unconventionality yet nearly undone by a situation we only now have the vocabulary to talk about with any empathy or sense. The most moving scenes in “The Danish Girl” have to do with this couple struggling to redefine their togetherness even as Lili struggles to redefine herself.
It’s another protean performance from Redmayne, one that fits in with the actor’s own persona as an otherworldly changeling; complaints from the transgender community that the part should have been cast with a trans actor are worth hearing out but also moot — to quote Olivier, “It’s called acting.” “The Danish Girl” is directed with the hollow, burnished high-Oscar perfection we’ve come to expect from Tom Hooper (“The King’s Speech,” “Les Miserables”) — an industry house style that discreetly begs for Oscars and often gets them — but it’s worth seeing for Redmayne and for Vikander (“Ex Machina”), a young talent whose own pop profile has yet to be settled. After “Ex Machina” and this, it won’t be long now.
But then there’s Matt Damon, who always seems to play Matt Damon. Or does he? Unlike Redmayne’s Great Thespian, Damon is a Hollywood Star whose job is to work variations on a core persona, in his case, the hard-working, smart, regular guy. This is much harder than it seems and requires more skill than it ever gets credit for. Over the past two decades, Damon has built a strikingly wide-ranging filmography under the guise of seeming like himself, and in “The Martian,” director Ridley Scott’s resounding return to form, he does it again. And, again, he does it invisibly.
His character, an astronaut accidentally left behind on Mars after his mission team has to abandon the planet and return to Earth, is the centerpiece of a large bustling cast, most of whom are back on the home planet trying to bring Damon’s Mark Watney home. The film is an intensely pleasurable — and pleasurably old-fashioned — epic about group effort and individual brainpower, and it deserves to be a big hit. It has aspects of both “Apollo 13” and “Castaway,” and Damon holds the entire three-ring enterprise together with the wits and the wit we’ve come to enjoy most about his performances and his persona. He has become the movie’s best-case Average Man.
Everywhere you look in Toronto, actors are playing with who we think they are. In Jeremy Saulnier’s “Green Room,” a scarifying and tautly directed follow-up to “Blue Ruin” (2013), there’s Sir Patrick Stewart as the leader of a neo-Nazi gang in the Pacific Northwest woods. Tom Hardy, another chameleon from the British Isles, plays against himself as both Kray twins, notorious gangsters in 1960s London, in “Legend.” Sandra Bullock continues the harder task of finding meaty roles in an industry scornful of women over 40 in “Our Brand Is Crisis,” a sadly misdirected misfire from David Gordon Green, in which the star’s broadest tendencies are encouraged as a US political consultant in Bolivia.
What really makes Toronto unique, though, is the chance to see actors and other celebrities play themselves, or public versions of same. George Clooney isn’t in a movie at the festival, but he produced “Our Brand Is Crisis,” and he worked the throngs lining the street outside the Princess of Wales Theatre like the glorious Hollywood throwback he is. His brand is Old School Star Power, and he wields it like a pro. By contrast, a figure like Michael Moore, a documentary filmmaker but a pop personality in his own right, unveiled a mellower, more hopeful, and less strident side of himself with “Where to Invade Next,” which travels to other countries to find the best they do rather than haranguing us, however necessarily, on the worst we do.
Most intriguing are the events here that throw everything up in the air and watch to see how the dust settles. Saturday night saw the latest in director Jason Reitman’s annual “live reads” of classic Hollywood scripts, a packed occasion at the Ryerson Theatre in which William Goldman’s screenplay for “The Princess Bride” — a Toronto world premiere way back in 1987 — was performed by a glittering and game cast. The players included the original Westley, Cary Elwes, Rachel McAdams as Buttercup, Gael Garcia Bernal as Inigo Montoya (late because of a delayed flight; Reitman’s actress sister Catherine ably pitched in until Bernal arrived), Patrick Stewart as Prince Humperdinck, a riotous Chris O’Dowd as Count Rugen, and the film’s director, Rob Reiner, in the role of the grandfather.
It was a joyfully slapdash evening, with the audience cheering their favorite lines (”As you wish” — ROAR) while trying to process the spectacle of new actors stepping into beloved roles. The evening’s crossed wires and multiple levels became apparent when Elwes took a moment to snap a cellphone photo of Stewart, seated next to him, in the middle of one of the latter’s monologues. The moment brought down the house and tickled Stewart no end. It also saw performance, persona, celebrity, and fandom collapse into a rare and welcome singularity. In Toronto, even the stars are star-struck.