This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 21, 2008
Canadian Films Compete for Oscars
It was a peculiar showbiz moment. Last week, Canadian punkette Ellen Page, suddenly glam in high heels and a smart grey dress, was explaining to a weirdly bearded David Letterman that her new house in Halifax is a former brothel haunted by ghosts of 19th-century whores who are stealing her lipstick. "I come in at night and expect to see some transparent slut at the top of the stairs," she told Uncle Dave, who seized on the phrase "transparent slut" like a grizzled prospector plucking a gold nugget out of her hand. Page went on to regale him with stories of a Canada Day greased pole sliding contest in her dad's hometown of Lockeport, N.S., her experience climbing a mountain in the dark in Newfoundland, and the record-shattering Halifax explosion of 1917.
Hey, it's awards season in Hollywood, and who can blame a girl for trying to turn heads with some Canuck exotica? As the star of the hit movie Juno, by Montreal-born director Jason Reitman, Ellen Page is currently the hottest young actress in the land. And she belongs to a new constellation of Canadian talent quite unlike anything we've seen before. At this Sunday's Golden Globes - shrunken to a press conference by the writers' strike - Canadians and/or Canadian films are being honoured with a whopping eight nominations. It's hard to gauge awards, especially in a year when vanity is being trumped by solidarity. But the Globes do serve as a bellwether for the Oscars, and at the risk of jinxing our local heroes, it's tempting to picture some winning scenarios.
The Oscar race for Best Actress could come down to an age vs. youth duel between two stars of movies directed by Canadians. In one corner is British screen legend Julie Christie - coaxed out of semi-retirement by Canada's sweetheart, Sarah POLLEY, to star in Away From Her. In the other corner is Page, Canada's new sweetheart, who plays a pregnant teen opposite Ontario's Michael Cera in Juno. In the Best Actor slot, Ryan Gosling of London, Ont., may land his second Oscar nomination with his uncanny performance as a man in love with a sex doll in Lars and the Real Girl. And his stiffest competition may come from Viggo Mortensen, cast as a Russian mobster in Eastern Promises by Toronto director David CRONENBERG - whose film has three Golden Globe nominations.
Aside from Page and Cera, the third young Canadian to make waves in Hollywood last year was Vancouver's Seth Rogen. Don't expect him to be nominated, though. (You don't get Oscar cred by playing a bong-smoking porn peddler.) But Rogen has the distinction of starring in the summer blockbuster Knocked Up, plus co-writing and acting in the summer's other breakout comedy, Superbad - starring Cera as a character based on Rogen's high-school buddy in Vancouver.
A curious pattern emerges from these degrees of Canadian separation. In a cinematic landscape dominated by some of the darkest, most violent American films we've seen in a long time - from No Country for Old Men to There Will be Blood - a fresh generation of young Canadians has provided a blast of comic relief, and a warming breeze of optimism. Page is 20, Cera 19, Rogen 25, and Gosling 27. The characters they play are all innocents - naive outsiders putting their own oddball spin onto American family values. Which may explain why Canadians are so well-qualified to play them.
Their movies all subvert Hollywood formulas with tales of arrested development and coming of age. In Juno, Page is a cheeky 16-year-old, pregnant, mouthy and precocious. As she finds the "perfect" couple to adopt her baby, we can see her character mature as she passes through the trimesters of the movie, seeking a place in the suburban sun for her unborn child. And Cera, with his skinny legs in jogging shorts and his sincere puppy-dog charm, must be the most laid-back leading man/boy ever to make comedy romantic.
Juno and Knocked Up seem joined at the hip, as the feminist and frat-boy sides of the same coin. And their protagonists are remarkably similar. Like Page, Rogen plays a kind of hippie iconoclast who is suddenly forced to grow up and wrap his head around parenthood. As for Gosling in Lars and the Real Girl, he too portrays a misfit mimicking a "normal life," an idiot savant going through the motions of romance and domesticity with an inflatable doll, and somehow making it credible.
These three films are the year's best live-action comedies, and they all temper fuzzy sentiment with a shrewd but subtle sense of satire. We already know Canadians are funny. Humour has become a point of national pride, like hockey. We can rhyme off our pantheon of comedy exports - Mike MYERS, Jim CARREY, Eugene LEVY, Dan AYKROYD, etc. - along with the émigré godfathers, Saturday Night Live's Lorne MICHAELS and Ghostbusters mogul Ivan REITMAN (Jason's father). But this new generation is something else. These performers aren't products of sketch-comedy mills like SNL or SCTV. Most are not even comedians - Gosling and Page are dramatic actors who happen to be starring in comedies.
Like musicians in Canadian indie bands such as Broken Social Scene, Hollywood's indie Canadians appear to form a fluidly improvised community. And to see Cera migrate from Superbad to Juno, one could assume there's a junior Canuck mafia at work. "But I don't think it was planned out," Page told me in a recent interview. "I didn't even know Michael Cera was a Canadian until we were flying down to L.A. for screen tests."
When I ask Reitman how he ended up casting two Canadians as the leads in his American movie, he says it was not by design. Instead, he points to Juno's script, and the stylized, off-kilter dialogue written by Minnesota screenwriter Diablo Cody, a former stripper and phone-sex worker. "Perhaps it's something about them being Canadian that gives them the voice to do Diablo's dialogue," Reitman suggests. "Diablo wrote this very tricky dialogue, and there's something unusual about their voices that lent itself perfectly to this movie. I can't help but attribute some of that to them being Canadian."
In acting, as in indie music, maybe there is such a thing as a "Canadian sound," a fresh attitude and deadpan inflection that go beyond the nuances of how we pronounce "out" and "about." Music sets the tone of Juno, and it's cut from the same raw cloth as the performances. Reitman asked Page what kind of music her character would listen to, and she suggested Kimya Dawson and the Moldy Peaches. Their tunes - childlike acoustic ballads with a kindergarten groove - dominate the soundtrack, contributing to the film's faux-naïf style along with the Pop-Tart dialogue, the Crayola colour scheme, and the scrawled animation over the titles. The movie, in fact, ends with Page and Cera sitting on a curb with guitars, reprising a song by the Moldy Peaches. The band is from New York and inhabits a sub-genre known as "anti-folk," which did not originate in Canada. But trivia buffs should note that there is an anti-folk band from Britain called David Cronenberg's Wife.
Just another sign that, in a Web-wise world, everything and everyone is up for grabs. International frontiers are porous, and old notions of national culture no longer apply. Linguistically fortified Quebec remains a special case. But English-Canadian culture has a diaspora that extends well beyond our borders. Independent cinema is a mongrel, shape-shifting medium, and ours can be found conjuring the Russian mob in a London restaurant, improvising stoner jokes in a Los Angeles suburb, or engineering Julie Christie's comeback in an Ontario nursing home.
In Canada, actors have typically faced a dilemma: abandon their culture for a commercial career in L.A. or tough it out back home making CBC dramas and underfunded art films. Now the choices are not so cut and dried. Page works both sides of the border, but remains proudly based in Halifax. Five years after his TV breakthrough on Arrested Development, Cera still lives with his parents in Brampton, Ont., a fact that only enhances his nerdy charm. Rogen lives in Los Angeles but he made his character in Knocked Up a Canadian pothead from Vancouver working illegally in the U.S. And the movie is riddled with Canuck references, like the red maple leaf tattooed on the chest of Rogen's Ottawa-born co-star, Jay Baruchel, which prompts a crude ejaculation joke - "How many points do you get for hitting the stem?"
That's not the kind of CanCon that would score points with Telefilm Canada or the Genie Awards. But it begs the question: what makes a movie Canadian? Which film has more maple syrup in its veins, Eastern Promises or Juno? Both are directed by Canadians, although Cronenberg lives in Toronto and Reitman has spent his life in Los Angeles. As a U.K-Canadian co-production, Eastern Promises is eligible for Genies even though it was shot in England with stars from America, Australia, France and Germany. Juno was shot in B.C. with a cast largely made up of Canadian actors, including the two leads. But as a U.S.-financed production it's not eligible.
No matter. As Ellen Page courts the Globes and the Oscars, Halifax can embrace her as a hometown heroine. Not the girl next door, but the one who lives in the haunted whorehouse down the street.
Maclean's January 21, 2008