Toronto: Oscar feels 'August' heat

The Weinstein Co.’s “August: Osage County” had its world premiere Monday night at Roy Thomson Hall, the last of the big awards hopefuls to debut at Toronto. And the verdict: big thumbs up.

The audience ate it up, applauding several times, laughing a lot and gasping at all the right moments. There was an unusually long standing ovation.

Early buzz on the film was mixed, but it’s a clear awards contender in multiple categories.

Kudos advantages: Classy material (Tracy Letts adapted his Pulitzer-winning play), with many juicy roles for actors. (Between SAG Awards and a hefty branch in the Academy, this is a big asset during awards season.) The film’s big names means voters will make a point of seeing it, even in a busy season when they’re inundated with options. Another advantage: Every voter has a family and every family  is dysfunctional, so everybody can relate to this film.

Kudos challenges: It’s a crowded year, which is a factor for every film. Stage adaptations have had a mixed record with awards: “Doubt” did well, “The History Boys” wasn’t even on the radar. And despite some huge laughs, it’s unsettling material.

A few hours before Monday’s premiere, director John Wells and writer Letts came to the Variety Studio. Wells said it was hard to trim the play to a shorter running time, and even harder after the first read-through: “Everyone had their favorite lines from the play and after the reading, we picked up 10 pages. About half of it wound up in the film.”

He praised the play as “one of the seminal pieces of American dramatic literature of the past several decades.” Letts said “It’s based on real events in my life but it’s not autobiography by any stretch.” He added that the characters are “all some facet of me.”

After the preem, guests headed to Soho where the executives, actors and filmmakers accepted heavy congrats. Wells got several pats on the back for his work, including a harder-than-it-looks dinner scene that lasts 19 minutes and is a subtle but impressive feat. Wells laughed that he couldn’t stay at the party too long because he had to work on an episode of “Shameless.”

And Julia Roberts was beaming and playful as she got high praise for her performance, stretching into new territory as an actress. Supporting category? Probably. However it shakes out, awards attention seems inevitable for her, and for many of her colleagues. Meryl Streep jumps into the best-actress race (though she was under the weather and missed the Toronto festivities.)

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