Toronto: Meryl Streep, Joaquin Phoenix Among Honorees at First-Ever Tribute Gala

Cameron Bailey Joana Vicente Joaquin Phoenix - Getty - H 2019
Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for TIFF

"This festival, sort of uniquely among festivals — major ones — is really stepping ahead and making real the charge to include women directors and women's stories," said Meryl Streep as she accepted the first Actor Tribute of two at the inaugural Toronto International Film Festival Tribute Gala on Monday night. "I'm so grateful and happy about that."

This gathering, a fundraiser for the fest, is expected to be an annual event, making it, for this year at least, the first awards ceremony of the long awards season. It took place inside a ballroom at the historic Fairmont Royal York hotel while the film that brought Streep north of the border, Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat, was having its North American premiere nearby. Streep came directly from helping to introduce her film, while Joaquin Phoenix, the second Actor Tribute honoree, departed from the gathering to head to a Q&A following the North American premiere of Todd Phillips' Joker, in which he plays the title character.

Presented with her award by her Laundromat co-stars Gary Oldman and Antonio Banderas, Streep began her acceptance speech by singing "O Canada!" and naming Canadians she loves, starting with Joni Mitchell. But then she turned serious, describing how she chooses her roles: "Lately, I've been asking myself a question — this is, like, I don't know, maybe for 10 years. I've been saying, 'Does this help or does this hurt? Is this piece of material something that needs to be in the world right now, for whatever reason?' And even if it doesn't help, even if it's just silly and fun, does it, on the other hand, do damage, does it make us complacent?" She said that intention is important, and added, "This festival is moving the needle by intention. Even though we didn't create the moment that we find ourselves in and we can't cure it individually and we can't control it, we sure can contribute to its toxicity." She closed by saying, "I just want us all to be really mindful that time is short. As you reach a certain milestone [she turned 70 in June], you realize that. So we should all do things that count."

Meanwhile, the famously eccentric Phoenix prematurely walked onstage and interrupted his introduction, being given by Willem Dafoe — who is in town with The Lighthouse, and described Phoenix as "one of the most talented and transformative actors in cinema" and whom Phoenix called "my all-time favorite actor" — before watching a montage of moments from his career and then resuming. "I don't know who's really giving me this award or why," he said, presumably jokingly. "In fact, I don't care. My publicist said somebody wants to give me an award and I said, 'I'm in. Let's do it.'" He then spoke from the heart: "Honestly, I thought I was gonna come out and just make a lot of tasteless jokes at my expense and yours, but watching those clips — I'm so embarrassed to admit this, but — I feel overwhelmed with emotion, because I just think about all the people that had such a profound influence on me throughout my career."

Phoenix, who has been acting since the age of eight, thanked the NBC casting director who employed Phoenix's mother as his secretary and then introduced Phoenix to the man who became his agent; his three sisters; his parents; and his late brother, the actor River Phoenix, who died of a drug overdose 25 years ago. "When I was 15 or 16, my brother River came home from work and had a VHS copy of a movie called Raging Bull, and he sat me down and he made me watch it," Phoenix recalled. "And the next day, he woke me up and made me watch it again. And he said, 'You're gonna start acting again. This is what you're gonna do.' He didn't ask me; he just told me. And I am indebted to him for that, because acting has given me such an incredible life." Phoenix closed with a cryptic comment: "Somewhere here, I don't know where, is a fervent dragon [probably a reference to his wife, Rooney Mara, who played the title character in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo], and I want to rip its wings off, fashion a blanket and sleep with it forever. I love you. Thank you."

And that wasn't even the weirdest speech, or the second weirdest.

Tribute Honoree David Foster, the accomplished songwriter, noted that he has been nominated for an Oscar three times, but never won. He recalled that one time he was nominated for "Glory of Love" from The Karate Kid, Part II but lost to "Take My Breath Away" from Top Gun, griping, "They didn’t finish the fucking lyrics and they won the Oscar.... I hate that movie." (To make the point that his song would have won the Oscar had it been used in Top Gun, he showed a clip of Top Gun paired with "Glory of Love.")

And Jojo Rabbit helmer Taiki Waititi, to whom Chaz Ebert and Guillermo del Toro presented the Ebert Director Award, improvised a meandering but sporadically funny speech that cannot be easily summarized.

The evening began with Canadian actors Sarah Gadon (best known for David Cronenberg films) and Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk), followed by TIFF co-chiefs Joana Vicente and Cameron Bailey, welcoming guests, and it ended with James, an alumnus of the TIFF Rising Stars list, helping to introduce this year's class of TIFF Rising Stars, which includes his brother, Shamier Anderson.

In between, several other honors were also presented. John Crowley presented Roger Deakins, his cinematographer on The Goldfinch, with the Artisan Award, calling him a "master of light." Roma's Yalitza Aparicio toasted Participant Media, which financed Roma and many social-issue films, and Steven Spielberg celebrated the company via video, before CEO David Linde accepted the Impact Award on behalf of himself and company founder/chairman Jeff Skoll, a Canadian, who was unable to attend. And Isabelle Huppert, in town with Ira Sachs' Frankie, bestowed the Mary Pickford Award — sponsored by MGM, at whose table I sat — to Mati Diop, the 37-year-old French director whose film Atlantics won the Grand Jury Prize at May's Cannes Film Festival (at which she was the first black woman to direct a film featured in competition) and soon will be released by Netflix. Calling Pickford's name one "that deserves enduring recognition," Diop emphasized her commitment to "representation" in her films.