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TIFF Day 1 – Jason Reitman’s live script reading of “American Beauty”

Read all our TIFF 2012 coverage here.

8 actors and a plastic bag – ★★★★★

While most of the attention of the watching media was focused on the opening gala screening of Looper at Roy Thomson Hall, those of us present in Ryerson University’s theatre were treated to a much more unique evening’s entertainment.

As Jason Reitman noted in his introduction to his script reading of Alan Ball’s American Beauty, we’re used to classic stories appearing time and time again on stage, so why is there such a fear of doing the same with film scripts? Remakes usually modernise elements of the film and frame-to-frame remakes like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998) are treated with contempt, putting forward the notion that the original work should never be touched.

Reitman has been hosting live readings of classic scripts for the past year or so, with contemporary casts taking on films like The Big Lebowski, Reservoir Dogs, The Breakfast Club and Billy Wilder’s The Apartment. Some of his casting choices are inspired with Seth Rogen picked as “the dude” in the role originated by Jeff Bridges and Paul Rudd and Emma Stone taking on the leads in The Apartment.

Last night saw Montreal-native Reitman return to the theatre which hosted the premieres of his first three films – 2005’s Thank you for Smoking, 2007’s Juno and 2009’s Up in the Air. To say he has a special place in his heart for the TIFF audience would be a serious understatement. The cast he enlisted for American Beauty was announced during the week on his twitter feed and consisted of actors in town for other films who evidently were game for something new in front of a live audience.

  • Man of the moment Bryan Cranston took on the lead role of Lester Burnham (originally Kevin Spacey)
  • Christina Hendricks played Carolyn Burnham (Annette Bening)
  • Mae Whitman played Jane Burnham (Thora Birch)
  • Sarah Gadon played Angela Hayes (Mena Suvari)
  • Adam Driver played Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley)
  • Nick Kroll (announced as Woody Harrelson who had to cancel as he was “stuck in hawaii”) played Colonel Frank Fitts (Chris Cooper)
  • Paul Scheer played Buddy Kane (Peter Gallagher)
  • George Stroumboulopoulos played Jim (Scott Bakula)

| o | – Image of Joan and W.W. from

After a few technical hiccups, everyone settled in to a compelling 90 minute read, with narrations and descriptions read by Reitman.

What is most surprising is just how quickly you forget the Oscar-winning originators of the roles and settle in to accept these men and women as the natural inhabitants of the characters. Lest we forget American Beauty almost did a big five “sweep” of the oscars, with gongs for picture, director, screenplay and actor. Annette Bening’s lead actress nomination being the only thing that prevented it joining the illustrious company of It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991)So the fact that we very quickly came to accept Cranston and Hendricks in the lead roles shows just how strong Alan Ball’s script was when withdrawn from screen to page.

To help set the scene a little, Reitman had enlisted the help of his long-time collaborators Gareth Smith and Jenny Lee who have created the opening titles of all his films. Smith and Lee went through the film and painted out the actors from the 1999 version of the film and left us just with empty scenes. It sounds gimmicky but worked surprisingly well, even with the infamous plastic bag scene.

The evening kept a light-hearted atmosphere with plenty of laughs throughout, with particular highlights being Adam Driver (HBO’s “Girls”) weird take on boy-next-door Ricky and Cranston’s goofier take on Lester. With “Breaking Bad’s” Walter White being such a serious old soul, it’s a pleasure to see him kick back and have some fun like he did on “Malcolm in the Middle”. And while things remained loose throughout, by the time of the film’s tense final act you could hear a pin drop in the theatre.

All in all, a real treat of a singular event. Something tells me this live-action drama on a stage thing could catch on!

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 Read all our TIFF 2012 coverage here.