In my 12 years of covering the Toronto International Film Festival, I have seen a lot of movies go over huge north of the border — Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, Silver Linings Playbook and the list goes on — but I have never seen a film evoke the sort of response that the North American premiere of A Star Is Born did Sunday night at the Elgin Theatre.
This fourth incarnation of the classic showbiz heartbreaker — directed by and starring Bradley Cooper opposite Lady Gaga, aka Stefani Germanotta — evoked applause after several musical numbers featured in the film, a standing ovation after the closing credits and another standing ovation in the middle of the post-screening Q&A in recognition of a compliment paid to its leading lady. That just doesn't happen.
The clear takeaway for me from watching A Star Is Born — and that reaction — is that Warner Bros., which will release the film Oct. 5, has a giant Chicago-esque hit on its hands, with the same sort of across-the-board awards potential. As a further point of reference: the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, which starred Barbra Streisand, whom Gaga physically resembles and vocally rivals, may have been poorly reviewed, but it was still the third biggest box-office hit of 1976.
Many, including me, went into this film with questions.
First: Can Cooper direct? The answer, as Sean Penn and others who were shown earlier cuts of the movie had forewarned, is decidedly yes; Cooper's experience working three times with David O. Russell and once with Clint Eastwood undoubtedly helped to prepare him.
Second: Can Cooper sing and can Gaga act? On both counts, hard yes. Cooper is totally convincing as a fading country music singer beaten down by booze, drugs, hearing loss and life in general (sort of a younger version of the Crazy Heart character for which Jeff Bridges won the best actor Oscar), while Gaga is every bit as believable as a working-class shrinking wallflower with physical insecurities as she is when her character — who hits it off with Cooper's following a meet-cute scenario — grows into a, well, Gaga-esque star. (Critics have noted that, like the best actors, Gaga has expressive eyes and really appears to be listening intently to and processing information onscreen, which helps the audience to fall in love with her. And, by the way, she and Cooper have electric chemistry together.)
A third question heading in was why Warners took A Star Is Born — which was adapted this time by Oscar winner Eric Roth, Will Fetters and Cooper — to Venice and Toronto but skipped Telluride in-between, particularly in light of the fact that Argo (2012) and Gravity (2013), two other Warners releases, did play Telluride en route to giant awards seasons. Having now seen A Star Is Born, and despite the fact that I love Telluride, my sense is that the studio did the right thing for this movie, which, while every bit as artistically distinguished as most Telluride movies, probably gets a more openhearted reaction from civilians than industry insiders.
That being said, the Academy is likely to eat up this version of A Star Is Born, just as it did the versions from 1937 (seven noms, including picture, director, actor and actress, with a screenplay win), 1954 (six noms, including actor and actress) and 1976 (four noms, with an original song win), for Academy members love good films, but especially good films about fellow creative artists — see, just in the past decade, best picture Oscar nominee Black Swan (2010), winner The Artist (2011), winner Argo (2012), winner Birdman (2014), nominee Whiplash (2014) and nominee La La Land (2016), which is sort of a relative of A Star Is Born.
A lot can still happen between now and the 91st Oscars on Feb. 24 — although the only known Oscar hopefuls that haven't yet shown their cards to pundits are Mary Queen of Scots, Bohemian Rhapsody, On the Basis of Sex, Bird Box and the untitled Adam McKay movie.
But, at this specific moment in time, I would be surprised if this film doesn't rack up a nominations tally in the double digits. Likely are noms for best picture, director, actor, actress, adapted screenplay, cinematography (Matty Libatique), film editing (Jay Cassidy), original song (probably two, the maximum allowed, most likely "Shallow," the song at the center of the film's love story, and closing number "I'll Never Love Again"), sound editing and sound mixing.
I could also see a scenario in which Sam Elliott, the popular veteran, gets swept along for a supporting actor nom in recognition of his portrayal of Cooper's character's much older brother/father figure, with whom Cooper and Gaga each share some of their most emotional scenes. (At the premiere's afterparty, Gaga told me that she had to shoot her final scene with Elliott — and her final musical number — just moments after learning of the death of a close friend, and that, at the encouragement of her friend's widower, she channeled thoughts of that friend into her performance.)
Yes, folks, it appears we have an Oscar race: out of the gate, it’s looking like Roma, the breakout hit of Venice and Telluride, versus A Star Is Born, the movie that has popped the most here in Toronto. In other words, apple (a black-and-white Spanish-language film with no stars that is a critical darling but hails from a distributor that doesn't release its films in theaters) versus orange (a big studio remake in an age of big studio remakes, sequels and adaptations) — with just under six months to go until the big night.