TORONTO—The Toronto International Film Festival turns the big 4-0 this year with yet another star-studded edition of the annual movie marathon. It’s grown up a lot since starting out as the Festival of Festivals, a fledgling affair largely regarded as a local event until Hollywood started taking note and sending its A-listers north.
Throughout the decades there were stumbles, triumphs, and plenty of celebrity hijinks. Here’s a look at some of TIFF’s most memorable moments:
1976 – The first edition unspools in October with Canadian organizers promising visitors a wonderful Indian summer. It snows. Co-founders Bill Marshall and Henk Van der Kolk discuss the cost of renting snowblowers. Future fests move to September.
1978 – Publicity boss Helga Stephenson is punched in the shoulder as a frenzied mob tries to enter an overflowing screening for “In Praise of Older Women.” A dispute with censors over the film’s sexual content landed programmers in the papers and gave the fest the best publicity it could hope for. Staffers sneak an uncut version onto the screen.
1983 – The ensemble drama “The Big Chill” and its fresh cast of up-and-comers, including Glenn Close and William Hurt, enthral audiences. The surprise hit and parade of photogenic actors set the stage for future red carpet spectacles.
1990 – Now festival director, Stephenson convinces “White Hunter Black Heart” star/director Clint Eastwood to visit her dying mother in hospital. “He was her favourite actor. So after the presentation, we walked across the street from the Elgin (Theatre) and into the hospital where he was whisked to her room.”
1991 – A TIFF delivery van containing that day’s stash of film prints is stolen. Programmers scramble to find other flicks to screen. “Of course, the studios freaked out,” recalls current festival CEO Piers Handling. The van is recovered several days later behind a deli, with all the prints accounted for.
2001 – Matthew McConaughey reportedly leaps from his seat to tend to a woman who faints at a screening of “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing.” She later tells press: “I felt a man stroking my hair and kissing my forehead saying, ‘It’s OK, sweetheart.'”
Days later, red carpets, press conferences, and parties are cancelled when word spreads of hijacked planes slamming into New York’s World Trade Center. Stranded film stars gather around televisions, shocked by what they see. Canuck filmmakers including producer Robert Lantos open their homes to U.S. and European colleagues unable to immediately find a way home.
2006 – “All The King’s Men” star Sean Penn lights up at a hotel press conference, violating an Ontario law that forbids smoking indoors. Penn escapes punishment, but the hotel faces more than $600 in fines. Across town, Sacha Baron Cohen shows up at the midnight premiere of “Borat” in a cart pulled by women dressed as dreary peasants. At the screening, the projector breaks down and spectator Michael Moore (director of “Bowling for Columbine”) attempts to fix the problem, to no avail.
2007 – “Cassandra’s Dream” star Colin Farrell makes headlines for taking a homeless man on a shopping spree for clothes and waterproof gear, and handing him a wad of cash. Meanwhile, a cranky Sean Penn returns with “Into the Wild” and berates reporters and photographers at a press conference: “You can stop taking pictures because I can’t think,” he snaps.
2008 – A man yells at legendary film critic Roger Ebert and smacks him on the knee at a screening for “Slumdog Millionaire.” Ebert, who had been rendered mute by health ailments, explains in a column afterwards that he tapped the shoulder of the guy in front of him because his head was blocking the subtitles.
2009 – Naomi Klein, Jane Fonda, and Viggo Mortensen join a local protest against TIFF’s decision to spotlight films from Tel Aviv, complaining it excludes Palestinian voices. Their petition is quickly denounced by a celeb-stacked counter-statement from festival friends including Israel-sympathetic stars Natalie Portman, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Jerry Seinfeld.
2010 – A rumour spreads that bed bugs have infiltrated Scotiabank Theatre, a multiplex hosting many TIFF screenings. Theatre owner Cineplex Entertainment denies the claims, but an itchy panic spreads online regardless.
2011 – Keira Knightley risks rankling a Toronto audience by striding into a press conference with a Montreal Canadiens jersey slung across her shoulders. The Brit star says she did so at the bidding of her “Dangerous Method” co-star Viggo Mortensen, a big Habs fan. Their Toronto-bred director David Cronenberg deems the stunt “perverse.”
2015 – TIFF marks its 40th milestone with a new program for foreign TV series and a juried competitive section for “artistically ambitious cinema.” For local fans, it offers free screenings through the fall, including Alfred Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” with a live symphony score Sept. 20, the last day of the fest.