Sverrir Gudnason and Shia LaBeouf in 'Borg/McEnroe.' (Nordisk Film/File)
The 42nd Toronto International Film Festival opened Thursday with a look back at the storied rivalry between tennis stars John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg.
The film "Borg/McEnroe" by Danish director Janus Metz Pedersen stars Sverrir Gudnason as the Swedish tennis legend and Shia LaBeouf as his brash American adversary. Borg's son Leo also has a small role, playing Borg at 13 years old.
"Borg/McEnroe" is one of more than 300 feature and short films from 74 countries to be screened at the Toronto film festival -- the biggest in North America -- which offers a key chance for Oscar-conscious studios to generate buzz about their movies.
"Bjorn and John were two legendary icons. Their famous rivalry in 1980 was something that made time stand still," Pedersen told a press conference on day one of the filmfest, which runs through September 17.
But this is not a movie about tennis, he insisted. It's a "psychological thriller" about "how two people were able to drive themselves to the edge and beyond in order to achieve something extraordinary."
By age 24, Borg had already won Wimbledon four times. Wealthy, engaged to be married and adored by fans, he was seemingly serene as he pursued a fifth crown in 1980.
But his composed public persona hid a deep anxiety, which he suffered from all of his life.
"He had been winning and winning everything for many years. That feeling of everyone expecting you to win... makes you afraid to lose," said Gudnason.
'McEnroe misunderstood,' says LaBeouf
McEnroe, with his powerful and precise left-handed serve, was eager to win his first men's single final at Wimbledon.
But his explosive tantrums and expletive-laden insults directed at umpires and spectators made it easy for the public to loathe him, and he was booed by the crowd as he entered center court.
LaBeouf, who broke his foot learning to play tennis for the film, said McEnroe is misunderstood. The actor previously declined another role as McEnroe, saying it lacked respect and empathy and portrayed the tennis star as "a clown, a screaming shrew."
"It's more complicated," he said. "When (McEnroe) entered the game it was a power sport and Borg was the king of that. (McEnroe) brought touch and feel and a sensitivity to the game.
"It's not just screaming rage. He used rage as a tactic to throw people off and he manufactured his intensity to hype himself up."
Bringing the two tennis players' incredible talents and inner demons to the court resulted in one of the most suspenseful finals in tennis history.
Spoiler alert: Borg won in the fifth and final set. But McEnroe exacted revenge a few months later, beating Borg at the US Open.
The film premiered in Stockholm on Monday, and will also kick off the Zurich Film Festival later this month.
Continent's biggest film festival
In past years, films such as "Spotlight," "12 Years a Slave," and "Slumdog Millionaire" went on from winning Toronto's audience prize for best picture to take the top honor at the Oscars.
Last year, the musical "La La Land' won the award and took home six Oscars including best actress and best director -- but not the top Oscar prize, won by "Moonlight" after a shocking mixup at the end of the gala.
Films being positioned for accolades this year include "Battle of the Sexes" with Emma Stone and Steve Carell as tennis stars Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, "mother!" starring Jennifer Lawrence, and George Clooney's Coen brothers-scripted "Suburbicon."
For sports fans, "I, Tonya" about disgraced Olympic skater Tonya Harding, who was banned from the sport for her role in an attack against her rival Nancy Kerrigan in 1994, is also premiering in Toronto.
Others expected to generate buzz are the science fiction social satire "Downsizing," about a man who chooses to shrink himself to simplify his life, starring Matt Damon, the Winston Churchill biopic "Darkest Hour" starring Gary Oldman, Angelina Jolie's Cambodian genocide drama "First They Killed My Father" and "Kings," based on the 1992 Los Angeles race riots, starring Daniel Craig and Halle Berry.
The festival will also host intimate talks with Jolie, Javier Bardem, Gael Garcia Bernal and Helen Mirren.
From the music world, rock legend Eric Clapton will be on hand for the premiere of the documentary "Eric Clapton: Life in 12 Bars," as will Eminem for his film "Bodied" about rap battling, and Drake, who produced a documentary about NBA star Vince Carter, a longtime player in Canada.
And finally, Lady Gaga will perform live at the screening of the documentary "Gaga: Five Foot Two."