“What The Hell Are You Doing Here?”

Every year as the Toronto International Film Festival gets under way, I think of Loving Couples.

That’s Loving Couples, the romantic comedy starring Shirley MacLaine, Susan Sarandon, and James Coburn. You may be forgiven if you don’t readily recall it.

For me, however, it was to be the first film I reviewed after being named  the movie critic at the Toronto Star. Back in the days when the festival was, shall we say, a tad more indiscriminate about the movies it programmed, Loving Couples was chosen as the opening night gala.

The Star’s new critic, moi, would attend the movie’s world premiere and then review it for the following day’s newspaper.

In the meantime, the movie’s producer, David Susskind, was in town and available for interviews. Susskind was  a former talent agent who hosted The David Susskind Show, a hallmark of intelligent TV conversation for thirty years. He was also a noted producer of theatre, television, and films.

I had interviewed him years before in Detroit and thought he was the most charismatic person I had ever met.

Susskind was married to Canadian talk show host Joyce Davidson who I happened to know and on whose show I had appeared a couple of times. Joyce, however, was nowhere to be seen as Susskind and I sat down to talk in his hotel suite. He turned out to be as charming and witty as I remembered.

At the conclusion, the door opened and in came Joyce Davidson, smiling and welcoming, and every bit as charming as her husband. How wonderful it was to see me again, how exciting to be opening the film at the Toronto festival. I must stay for a drink.

Caught up in the intoxicating glow of the Susskinds, I agreed. Drinks were poured. Clever conversation ensued. David Susskind inquired about my job. I told him I was the Star’s movie critic. Interesting, he said. How long had I occupied that position? About a week, I said.

He appeared taken aback by this. And what movies had I reviewed so far? I hadn’t reviewed any, I said. What about Loving Couples? he inquired. Who would be reviewing it?

I would, I said.

So this would be my first review? he said slowly. I agreed that it was.

Somehow, he held his smile in place.

He glanced at his watch. It was time to depart for the premiere. I rose to say good-bye. Susskind shook his head. It’s late, why don’t you come along with us?

Without thinking, I agreed. Down to the lobby we went and out to where a huge black limousine waited. I stopped dead when I saw the car, but then the chauffeur was opening the door, and Susskind was pushing me forward.

The next thing I knew, I was inside. Even the air smelled expensive. Susskind and Joyce appeared very much at home in these confines. I, on the other hand, was breaking into a sweat, beginning to realize that I was about to review the first movie in my career at the Star by arriving at the screening in the producer’s limo.

To say the least, this is not the way it is usually done.

By then it was too late. The limo was pulling up in front of the University Theatre. A crowd had gathered at the entrance. This was the festival’s opening night, after all, and everyone was eagerly awaiting the arrival of movie stars. Here was the first limo to appear, and it was sure to be full of them.

I was seated by the door as the chauffeur yanked it open. Out you go, Susskind said, and out I popped.

The crowd surged forward, excited at the prospect of the evening’s first star. Instead, they got a slightly drunk movie critic, blinking into the lights. Everyone stopped dead in their tracks.

Susskind and his wife were coming out of the limo behind me. I stumbled forward, past blank, uninterested faces. Then in the midst of the throng, I spotted one familiar face,  Star photographer Erin Combs, her jaw dropping in astonishment.

She then proceeded to utter the words that have stayed with me all these years later: “What the hell are you doing here?”

That’s a question I have never been able to satisfactorily answer.

I ducked into the safety of the University, somehow lost the Susskinds, and found a seat near the front in the theatre’s cavernous interior. The lights went down, the movie started, and I groaned with despair.

Loving Couples was awful!

As soon as it was over and the end credits started rolling, before the lights went on in the theatre, I hurried up the aisle, eyes straight ahead, out into the September night, praying I would not encounter the Susskinds.

I walked all the way back to the newspaper at the bottom of Yonge Street, cursing myself. How could I have been so stupid? How was I now going to write a bad review of this lousy movie after being limoed over to the theatre by the film’s producer? Suppose my editors at the Star found out? My career was finished before it even started.

Back in the newsroom, I sat at my desk and pounded out my first Toronto Star movie review, dutifully panning the festival’s opening night world premiere.

Television personality Brian Linehan in the years to come would gleefully remind me that his friend Shirley MacLaine refused to talk to me because of what I wrote about the movie. I don’t know how true that was, but the fact is I have never spoken to Shirley MacLaine.

If only she’d known about the limousine.

I never heard from David Susskind or Joyce Davidson. They divorced six years later. Susskind made one more movie before dying of a heart attack at the age of only sixty-six.

As for Loving Couples, it disappeared with hardly a trace shortly after its release and today is totally forgotten. I never forgot it, though, as I covered the festival for the better part of the next decade, making sure to avoid producers and limos.

And I remember it again each year about this time. I see that a U2 documentary is opening the festival. I’m willing to bet Bono won’t be chauffeuring any movie critics to the premiere.

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About

Author of "The Sanibel Sunset Detective" and "The Strange." Ron spends part of the year on Sanibel Island, Florida, where he writes detective novels featuring private eye Tree Callister. When he is not in Florida, he resides outside Toronto, Ontario with his wife, Kathy.

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