During the Toronto International Film Festival, which ends on Saturday, Yorkville is considered ground zero for celebrities. By chance, I was walking the dog through that area earlier in the week, when just around the corner from the Four Season’s Hotel—where all the A-List celebrities stay— I heard the roar of a crowd. I dropped the dog leash and took off at a dead sprint to the noise. Bouncing off of a van that was trying to park, I found myself standing in the middle of a crowd. An important looking black vehicle was speeding away as a ragtag group of out of shape paparazzi huffed along beside it, trying to snap pictures through the window.
I asked the woman standing next to me who was in the SUV. This woman, who did not look remotely insane, told me in an elegant East Indian accent, “George Clooney. I don’t know what came over me, but I ran from my children just to get a look.” From somewhere in the crowd, a thin, adolescent voice could be heard yelling, “celebrities are over-rated, they’re just people!!” It was at this moment that I remembered I had abandoned my girlfriend and our dog about a block away.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of celebrity, curious to see if the stars actually have a luminous quality that exists off the screen, one that draws us helplessly toward them. With this in mind, my girlfriend and I went on a little celebrity hunt that took us to a swanky Yorkville hotel for a drink. It was here where we waited in line for 30 minutes in order to sit in a room full of other people who had also waited in line for 30 minutes. We paid $20 for a thin martini and sat on wobbly, if fashionable cubes. There was not a star in sight, just people looking for stars.
Later, we waited in line with about 30 other people to get into a party. Everybody was annoyed, humiliated that although they were on “the list” they still had to line up. Behind us, a woman with angry eyes declared, ” I never have to wait in line for these things. Never. I’ll give it ten minutes and then I’m gone!” She stayed for the next 45 minutes, until an indifferent bouncer eventually let her in.
A man who was trying to conceal the fact that he was in his 50s, told his friends— who were grumbling about being in the line-up— that he’d get them in. He knew somebody. He showed them all the bands he still has on his wrist from previous Festival parties, adding that he forgot he was wearing them he’d been so busy on the circuit. He then flashed a smile that made you want to take a few steps back. He did not return. It struck me that the only thing worse than waiting in line, was bypassing that line, in front of those who remained waiting.
On the way down to one of the hotels where the press conferences were taking place, the cab driver and I talked about the various stars he had driven around town. His English wasn’t very good and it was often very difficult to understand what he was saying, but I think that he said Anthony Quinn and some actress from Moulin Rouge — the one who wasn’t Nicole Kidman. Obviously, this was pretty disappointing, and perhaps sensing that, he added Sylvester Stallone to the list.
“He is very small man, very small, but real good guy.”
“Do you think he’d be small enough to fit in a teacup?” I asked.
“Yes, I think that Mister Stallone might fit almost in the tea.”
The hotel had erected an impenetrable hedge around its patio for the Festival. This protected the privacy of the people in there, and created an aura of mystery. Anything could be happening! Celebrities could be having sex!! Walking by, you heard muffled and disembodied voices that every once in awhile, broke into the inaccessible laughter of the good life.
A woman jogged by, and it was clear that she’d spent every bit as much time on her outfit as if she was going out on New Years. Oh, she wore her tight, white tank top and Lycra shorts, her hair pulled back in a youthful ponytail. Behind her designer sunglasses and plugged into her iPod, she bounced past all the bustling cafes, hoping that people might think she was a beautiful actress in town to promote her latest film.
Inside, a Kittenish broadcaster stood in front of a TIFF poster. She struck model poses and sucked in her cheeks. It looked like the cameraman might have a crush on her, as he leaned in after a take and tried to put his hand on her arm. She recoiled, as if worried that a star might see this.
The journalists are present to be charmed rather than to ask questions. They dress for the occasion, wearing their pass around the neck like an expensive piece of status jewelry. The films themselves are secondary, maybe even further down the list than that, and what’s important for those attending the festival is to look at home in this culture of glamour, even if they’re not.
In our minds the celebrities are larger than life. The camera focuses all of our attention upon them, and we imagine that the entire world must collapse around them when they walk down the street. But unexpected, on the periphery, they’re just a vaguely familiar looking person passing by, only smaller.
At a gourmet take-out store, I asked the girl working the counter what celebrities she had seen, and rather sourly, like the memory was unpleasant, she said, “Megan Fox.” She told me that she was little more than five feet tall, crazy skinny and that she looked WAY better on TV than she did in person. The girl had a scowl on her face as she said this, adding that most of the budget for The Transformers must have been spent on fixing her face. She allowed a small smile to animate her when she said this, clearly bitter that all the boys she went to high school with worshipped Fox, and ignored her, who by any objective measurement, was every bit as attractive, and an awful lot less bitchy.
A few hours later I saw a pretty woman on a downtown street. We gave one another a polite smile, the way that civil strangers do, and then about two minutes later, I realized that the woman I had just passed was Natalie Portman. What I saw, in that fleeting moment, was the shadow of a star, somebody, who without the illumination of my imagination, was just another ordinarily attractive woman. This, of course, reminds us that beauty is not necessarily what we perceive, but how we perceive.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.