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Battling biographies head to Toronto to win awards season hearts

By Mary Milliken

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As a first-time film director, television comedian Jon Stewart pleads ignorance about the workings of the movie industry.

But as he heads to the Toronto International Film Festival this week, he shares many of the feelings of more seasoned directors: excitement, nausea and the hope that he has done justice to the man whose story he depicts in film.

"The Daily Show" host's film is "Rosewater," the real-life story of journalist Maziar Bahari and his five months of torture and interrogation in an Iranian prison at the hands of a man who smells of rosewater.

"I felt like Maziar was really trusting me with something that was very personal to him," said Stewart. "I have tremendous affection and respect for the guy and I wanted to do right by it."

Stewart's debut is one of several highly anticipated biographical films to feature at the Toronto festival that runs Sept. 4-14 and is considered the kick-off to a six-month awards season that concludes with the industry's top honors, the Academy Awards.

There is the story of cosmologist Stephen Hawking in "The Theory of Everything," the portrayal of British World War II code-breaker Alan Turing in "The Imitation Game," and "Pawn Sacrifice" about American chess champion Bobby Fischer and his 1972 match against Russian rival Boris Spassky.

In the women's camp, Reese Witherspoon stars in "Wild," based on the best-selling memoir of Cheryl Strayed, a self-destructive woman who treks solo across 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of wilderness.

Biographies are "catnip for the Academy," says Keith Simanton, managing editor of movie website IMDb.

"We are seeing more biographies that have a really good shot of ending up being talked about at awards next year and in top 10 lists at the end of the year," said Simanton.

The top award in Toronto, voted by the ordinary people who attend the multiple screenings of some 300 movies, can give a film extraordinary momentum to withstand the long season, like last year's Toronto winner "12 Years a Slave," the drama that went on to capture the Oscar best picture.

TRIBUTE TO THE OUTSIDER

Toronto prides itself on its role as early arbiter of top awards and this year decided to tighten rules on its premieres in hopes of preserving its cachet. If a film chose to go first to the smaller Telluride Film Festival this past weekend, it would not screen in the first four days at Toronto, when media attention is highest.

"Rosewater," "Wild" and "The Imitation Game" all went to Telluride and received positive reviews.

For "The Imitation Game" director Morten Tyldum, who made the acclaimed Norwegian 2011 art caper "Headhunters," the one-two Telluride-Toronto step is "a good way to start and creates a great awareness of the film."

In his film, Benedict Cumberbatch plays Turing, the brilliant Cambridge mathematician who headed up the Enigma-code breaking operation and saved countless lives in World War II, but was later persecuted by the British government for being homosexual.

"It is such a big and wonderful and important story," said Tyldum. "To me it became a tribute to everybody who is different, who is not really fitting in and who is not following the norm."

In another portrayal of a famous Cambridge mind, "The Theory of Everything" director James Marsh looks at Stephen Hawking over decades from the perspective of his first wife Jane, as they fall in love and he is diagnosed with a form of motor neuron disease.

Eddie Redmayne's portrayal of Hawking is already sparking talk of awards.

"He starts off being able-bodied and then he has to use a stick and then two sticks and he ends up in a wheelchair," said Marsh. "He has to get across a range of disabilities and that is extraordinarily difficult."

In "Pawn Sacrifice," veteran director Edward Zwick was captivated by Fischer, an American prodigy who was "unruly, inappropriate and arrogant," and maybe the most famous person in the world during "The Match of the Century" in 1972. He is played by Tobey Maguire while Liev Schreiber is Spassky.

"Even as he was reaching toward the world championship, he was also fighting this battle against extraordinary demons which ultimately did him in," said Zwick.

The tough subjects and challenging roles may make 2014 an even better one for film than the acclaimed 2013.

"I do think this is a richer year and for my money it is already a better one," said Simanton.

(Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

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