TORONTO — “Did you like it?”
The lights came up in auditorium No. 1 at the Scotiabank Theatre as the final credits rolled. “August: Osage County,” director John Wells’ film version of the Chicago-sprung Tracy Letts play, had just finished its world premiere screening, the 4:45 p.m. Monday press-and-industry affair (long line, no empty seats) prior to the rapturously received 6:30 p.m. gala at the nearby Roy Thomson Hall, another key venue at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Lights up, credits rolled, murmurmurmur, muttermuttermutter. Someone behind me asked her friend: “Did you like it?”
“Well,” came the answer, “I … well, I liked the play.” Pause.
That sideways answer may well be echoed by a lot of fans of the play once they see the film starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Chris Cooper, Ewan MacGregor and others as three generations of the extended, fed-up, love-starved and conversationally vicious Weston clan of Osage County, Oklahoma.
In this Oklahoma, the wavin’ wheat can sure smell sour, as opposed to Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-sweet. The characters with their various secrets and grudges have gathered to sort out the state of things in the wake of a suicide committed by the weary, alcoholic family patriarch (Sam Shepard, in exceptional if brief form).
An initial response to the movie necessarily comes from one of two perspectives. Either you saw the play or you did not. I did, and thought it was great, nasty fun — three acts, three hours and 20 minutes of ensemble heaven, at least with the right ensemble.
The film’s not a disaster, or a dullard, in the way of too many recent filmed plays (“Proof,” for one). But “August: Osage County” comes to life, to cinematic and dramatic life, only sporadically. Behind his all-too-dutifully planted camera, director Wells seems uncertain as to how to keep the momentum of each new scene and familial smackdown humming. He favors lots of isolating, Oscar-clippy close-ups rather than a subtly dynamic ebb-and-flow of movement. The technique’s pretty stilted, even when the acting’s juicy, and it may be that Wells’ interests are simply more in line with the humanistic uplift he favored all those years as one of the creative forces behind the TV series “ER.”
It’s Streep’s show, and she’s preordained, I’d say, for her 18th Academy Award nomination. Chewing her fingers, relishing each new triumphant zinger of disdain, she makes a series of meals out of the central role of Violet, the sadistically inclined, pill-gorging cancer patient out for blood. Roberts, also likely to be nominated, plays as the cagiest of the three grown daughters or, as we say around Chicago, “the Amy Morton role.”
The play delineates a struggle for this woman’s soul (will she really turn into her own miserable mother?). Yet the way Wells treats Roberts in the role, and showcases the role within the film, there’s little suspense. You can feel the determinedly optimistic ending coming from three counties away. And each time the yelling commences, the movie’s musical score, always in a better mood than its characters, works like a sedative.
While the stars bash away, the most valuable supporting turns include Cooper and Margo Martindale, playing a long-married couple whose son, Little Charles, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a major presence in this year’s Toronto festival. Love is a scarce commodity in “August: Osage County,” and Little Charles has lost his heart to his first cousin, the Weston daughter who stayed behind (shrewd, unaffected work from Julianne Nicholson). Other roles are either overplayed (Dermot Mulroney’s skeezy Florida predator) or played uncertainly and blandly; McGregor goes through each scene with a look on his face that says: What am I doing in “August: Osage County”?
These are first impressions. Certainly the impression the film made on the public at Monday’s gala following the press-and-industry screening was terrific, and bodes well for the film’s awards heat. Variety’s Tim Gray wrote a glowing report from gala premiere: “The audience ate it up, applauding several times, laughing a lot and gasping at all the right moments. There was an unusually long standing ovation … Early buzz on the film was mixed, but it’s a clear awards contender in multiple categories.” Scott Foundas, in the Variety review, declared the movie “splendid.”
Tuesday morning brought the “August: Osage County” festival press conference, minus Streep (ailing) and Martindale (unknown). Most of the questions were directed at Roberts, her being a movie star and all. “We worked our asses off,” she said, “because there was no other way to do it. I’ve never worked so hard in my whole life, and I’ve had three children.” She added that her emotionally and physically demanding smackdowns with Streep were, well, emotionally and physically demanding.
“The best acting experience of my life,” she called it. On stage, she said, “I don’t know how they did it eight times a week, without some kind of rehab after.”
The love for playwright and screenwriter Letts came in a series of waves. “I’m in love with his words, and stories,” said Juliette Lewis, who plays the most delusional of the Weston daughters. “The light shone through the pages” of the script when she read it, she said.
The Broadway “August: Osage County” production directed by Anna D. Shapiro, said co-star Nicholson, was “the best thing I’d ever seen.” Cooper called the play a “great, great study in human behavior.”
Letts spoke of the adaptation process. “Slow,” he called it. “Many drafts.” The trims, he said, smiling the smile of the nicely compensated star playwright turned screenwriter, “were painful to me then, and are painful to me now. I’m still fighting about some of them!” Director Wells said Streep and her fellow company members shared a row of condos near the filming location “in the middle of nowhere,” as Cooper put it, in Osage County. They rehearsed the next day’s scenes in the evening. “You don’t rehearse for movies, usually,” McGregor said.
On Tuesday, reports emerged of the Weinstein Company’s Oscar strategy regarding “August: Osage County” and a switcheroo in the offing. After floating the notion of Streep’s performance for a supporting actress nod, while positioning Roberts for best actress, the Weinstein company now is rumored to be putting up top-billed Streep for best actress consideration. And Roberts for supporting. And who knows? Martindale’s a worthy contender as well.
The assembled cast of “August: Osage County” couldn’t get away from questions about Oscar prospects. Roberts, a seasoned pro when it comes to deflecting yet encouraging such specuation, smiled (or, in Roberts’ case, smiled) and had this to say about winning an Oscar (for “Erin Brockovich”): “I highly recommend it.” And with that, the movie completed its Toronto publicity lap, readying itself for the next few months.