TIFF Diary #5: ‘Disobedience,’ ‘Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool,’ ‘Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood’

Our TIFF coverage concludes with a movie-ccentric drama and doc, and one of the fest's best-acted films.

Rachel McAdams’ great gift as an actor has always been her ability to communicate what she’s thinking, and that’s a particular blessing when playing a character as trapped by tradition as Esti Kuperman, the closeted lesbian in an Orthodox Jewish marriage in Sebastián Lelio’s Disobedience. Her husband (Alessandro Nivola) is about to ascend to the head of his community, following the death of their rabbi. But that death hastens the return, if only briefly, of his daughter Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz, also doing her specialty: the unapologetic free spirit). When she shows up the strained history becomes clear, based if nothing else on the way pauses just linger in the air. She’s shocked by the marriage; “It was always the three of us, and then you left and it became the two of us,” the husband explains. But when the two women are finally alone, it all comes flooding back.

“Yesterday I behaved like an adolescent, so stupid and so senseless,” Esti insists, but that hesitation never lasts. When she and Ronit finally succumb, yes, it’s intensely erotic – to a narrative end. The genuine ecstasy she experiences with Ronit makes her fakery with her husband all the more obvious, and, perhaps, unacceptable. “We’ve always been honest with each other,” he insists, but she puts the point back to him: “Have we? Have we?”

We enter the story with Weisz, but McAdams becomes our focus – there’s a real urgency to her actions and decisions, and consequently, to the hopes and expectations of those around her. At the film’s climax, Lelio’s camera simply holds on Nivola’s face, his pain and anguish, and then the camera moves on, allowing each of these characters to consider this impossible situation. No words, just faces. With the right actors, in the right story, that’s all you need.

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The opening scene of Paul McGuigan’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool finds Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) in her dressing room, laying out the tools of her trade: Hair supplies, make-up, mementos, and pills. She was a big movie star, once upon a time; she’s best known by average moviegoers for playing Violet in It’s a Wonderful Life, and she co-starred with Bogart in In A Lonely Place, and won an Oscar for The Bad and the Beautiful. When Peter Turner (Jamie Bell) first meets her, he’s told that she “always played the tart” in those old movies, and that’s what she starts out doing with him, giving the much-young would-be actor her bedroom eyes and inviting him to her apartment, where she pours him drinks and says thinks like “I like habits – especially bad ones.”

But we first meet them towards the end of their story, in 1981, and they speak and interact with the shorthand of people who share a history of both love and hurt. Matt Greenhalgh’s script then skips back to fill in the blanks, back to 1979, when they met in London and fell into something like love – a cynical version of it, perhaps more inspired by what they represented to each other than who they were. Sure, there’s an attraction, and affection. But her insecurities are always the third person in the room, and her breathiness and warmth can drop away in an instant when she gets angry (which is not infrequently). And her big secret is waiting in the wings.

Film Stars could’ve been a dull bio-drama, and for fleeting moments, it is (in particular, their cycle of fights and reconciliations gets dreary fast). But Bening’s charisma and verve gives the picture a much-needed goose. Perhaps only an actor of a certain age can truly convey the difficulties of being an actor of a certain age – or perhaps, more likely, Annette Bening is just a boss.

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The most striking thing about Scotty Bowers, when he’s first introduced, is his ordinariness – he’s just a harmless old guy in a messy house, checking his messages. But Scotty Bowers knows some shit. He was Hollywood’s “gentleman hustler,” who ran a gas station during the Golden Age that was basically a drive-up brothel, with a particular specialty in arranging trysts for the industry’s closeted gay and bisexual actors and filmmakers. “He was never a pimp,” one of his employees insists. “He was a friend doing another friend a service.” A few years back, he wrote about those years in a memoir titled Full Service; now Matt Tyrnauer (Valentino: The Last Emperor) has made him the subject of his documentary Scotty and The Secret History of Hollywood.

At first glance, Bowers appears to be one of the city’s many pack rats and scavengers, cultivating several houses and storage units’ worth of junk, as well as an odd relationship with his very square wife. But he’s also a storyteller, and Tyrnauer takes a full accounting of a wild life, in which (among other things) he claims to have had or arranged encounters for Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, George Cukor, Tom Ewell, Cole Porter, Bette Davis, Rock Hudson, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, William Holden, and Tracy and Hepburn, as well as J. Edgar Hoover and a healthy percentage of Chicago’s Catholic priests.

Tyrnauer backs up Bowers’ true stories and tall tales with other interviews that both contextualize and sometimes even confirm, and spices up the talking heads with cleverly chosen old clips (like Spencer Tracy growling, “You think this won’t get around?”; there’s a real Rock Hudson’s Home Movies vibe here). Bowers is a little bit sleazy, and some of his views and stories are disturbing – and the film gives voice to the questions some have raised about the morality of outing others, betraying their trust and upsetting families. Scotty and the Secret History is a fascinating portrait that neither lionizes nor judges its subject. It merely lets you take him for what he is.

Thus concludes our coverage of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival; to read our other TIFF diaries, click here.