I know it’s over because the Toronto Film Festival concludes this weekend. From here on in it’s downhill to bleak winter. So as the weekend approaches, I’m consumed with thoughts of what won’t be coming back.
The losses have mounted up over the past couple of months: Dog Clinton, still intensely mourned; close friend and noted theatre and food critic, Gina Mallet; former work colleague and neighbor, Greg Quill; old boss and Toronto Sun co-founder Peter Worthington; the world’s best movie critic, Roger Ebert. All gone.
George is still with us, thank goodness, but after presiding over it for thirty years, this week he hosted his last luncheon at the new Four Seasons Hotel. We ate chicken pot pie, and George said what we all were suspecting he would say–that it was time to move on. He would not be coming back next year.
Much has changed at TIFF since I started attending, but one of the surviving festival traditions has always been George’s lunch, a command performance over the years for local movers and shakers, visiting movie stars, and occasional rogue guests like me who George seems to invite year after year simply because he likes us.
George and I actually got off on the wrong foot. About the second year he hosted the lunch, he invited me–and I never showed up. Dusty Cohl, co-founder of the festival, was beside himself. How could I possibly have gone AWOL at George’s lunch? When Dusty was beside himself, one had no choice but to listen.
Thus I hurried to George, apologized profusely, and we have been friends ever since. One thing about George, he sticks by his friends, so despite our rocky start, and my total lack of any importance, I still get my annual invite.
I go back far enough that I can remember when the reception before the lunch was just a group of us standing around in the foyer fronting the Four Seasons dining room, chatting with visiting guests like Hume Cronyn and Dennis Hopper, pals together–at least for an hour or so.
All these years later, that casual reception has mushroomed into a huge cocktail party, an invitation to which is almost as coveted as an invite to the lunch–although the party now fills with young people, most of whom I can’t imagine George knows.
But the rituals of the lunch itself remained carved in (George’s) stone, as formalized as a piece of Kabuki theatre–except a lot more fun. He carefully chose the seating for the hundred or so invitees. Your table and your seat at that table could not be tampered with. Years ago, a newspaper columnist tried to change her seat and was immediately banished.
Over the course of the luncheons, I’ve found myself rubbing shoulders with Jodie Foster (tiny, remote, not very communicative), Helena Bonham Carter (tiny, remote, not very communicative–maybe it’s me), Swoosie Kurtz (delightful), and The Six Million Dollar Man’s sidekick, Richard Jordan (great fun).
Again, I go back far enough that I can remember when chicken pot pie was not always served, and George spent many hours agonizing over the menu. More recently, the chicken pot pie–the recipe provided by George–has become de rigueur. As chicken pot pie goes, it is great chicken pot pie.
But all of that is finished now; the Kabuki theatre played out over three decades has closed. We have eaten our last chicken pot pie. George has exited, a trifle reluctantly I suspect, but with the intrinsic sense of a clever ring master who knows his circus and understands it is always better to leave ’em wanting more.
At the cocktail party before the lunch, I instinctively looked around for Roger Ebert. Even after the cancer that would have stopped anyone else, he still attended with his wife, Chaz. But not this year. This year there was no Roger. More losses.
Chaz and I met at the Canadian Film Centre’s barbecue hosted by director Norman Jewison. We traded Roger and Dusty Cohl stories. It was Dusty, with his trademark cowboy hat and cigar, who first seduced Roger and convinced him to attend the fledgling Toronto film festival, thus helping to put it on the international map. Dusty died in 2008, but he and Roger remained close friends to the end.
I’d met Chaz several times, but until the barbecue never had the opportunity to spend time with her. She is–as has been widely advertised– an absolute delight. When she wants to meet someone, she walks straight up to them, holds out her hand, and introduces herself.
Despite the sadness of Roger’s death, she possesses a wonderful knack for making you feel good about life–or at least a bit more optimistic. So last night, in pursuit of getting on with it after a summer of sadness, I found myself in downtown Toronto celebrating the publication of my old friend David Gilmour’s new novel titled Extraordinary.
There, amid a houseful of people I didn’t know, was David in all his literary glory. Somehow the sight of him holding forth amid the madding crowd made me feel better. We have been friends since we both yelled and screamed about what we thought of movies, David for the CBC, me for The Toronto Star.
We are both about the same age and the same height, with (now) the same hair color. When I was single, a few good words from David got me through the horrors of various floundering relationships (“Hey, you’re a whole lot more interesting than she is, anyway”).
David’s novels are filled with an honesty that is sometimes frightening (at least for men), often very funny, and as close to documentary as any novelist dares to get.Extraordinary is about death and the passage of time–subjects that are right up my alley these days. Sally, the novel’s wheelchair-bound heroine, has had enough and has decided to end it with a little help from the novel’s narrator.
But David, thankfully, hasn’t given up yet. His life once again is in disarray, but as always, he maintains his sense of humor and keeps going. Distracted by the beckoning throng, he quickly autographs a book. We embrace and he plunges back into the fray. My wife and I drift off along the street through the humid evening, suddenly feeling pretty good about life, off to dinner to celebrate nineteen years of blissful togetherness.
So we go on as the summer closes. We haven’t yet had enough. We endure. Despite the losses and without the chicken pot pie.