There’s no question about it. Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award For Excellence In Comedy winner Sacha Baron Cohen stole the BAFTA-LA ‘s annual Britannia Awards Saturday night with a comedy routine that had half the packed Beverly Hilton audience roaring and the other half shaking in their Jimmy Choos wondering if he had really just killed an elderly woman in a wheelchair – or was it one of his patented tasteless gags? You can see for yourself when the show airs Sunday night on BBC America but the reaction was so visceral in the room host Rob Brydon had to literally calm down the normally more sedate British crowd. Some clearly thought it was real.
At any rate, the bit made the awards gathering memorable for reasons organizers probably didn’t imagine. One BAFTA exec told me later that they were up until 3 AM just trying to clear all the legalities of Cohen’s acceptance bit which involved presenter Salma Hayek on stage with someone rolled out in a wheelchair she very believably identified as Grace Collington, an actress she said appeared with Charlie Chaplin in 1931’s City Lights at the age of five. “At 87, she’s the oldest surviving actor to have worked with Chaplin in a silent movie,” she told the audience as the woman sat there. When Cohen came up to accept his award from them, “Collington” warmly presented him with one of Chaplin’s famous canes. He then proceeded to push her off the stage and she landed face down, motionless and apparently dead on the ground. “Grace Collington is the oldest, sorry, was the oldest… I dedicate my award to her. It’s obviously a tragedy, but on the bright side what a great way to go. She’ll probably make the Oscars In Memoriam section… Anyway tonight is not about her, it’s about me,” he said as the limp body was carried out of the ballroom to rollicking laughter of the sort you rarely hear at these events.
Judd Apatow began the segment honoring Cohen by noting he hasn’t done a single thing this year to merit an award. “In fact, Sacha is so talented and funny that he is winning this award for his comedy work in 2013 even though he did not create any comedy work in 2013. He made exactly zero films which means he had the same amount of output as Don Knotts, who has been dead since 2006. In 2013 Will Ferrell made what is probably his greatest work, Anchorman 2, which I produced. Apparently Sacha doing nothing is better than Will’s finest achievement. Apparently all he did this year was a performance art piece called ‘sitting on my ass living off my Borat money. And another one where he held his wife’s [Isla Fisher] purse at Great Gatsby premieres,” he said.
The other honorees certainly had a hard act to follow but each had their moment in the sun at a lively, well-produced 95 minute show that handed out Britannias to Benedict Cumberbatch as British Artist of the Year, Idris Elba for his humanitarian work, Kathryn Bigelow for excellence in directing, and Sir Ben Kingsley for his “worldwide contribution to entertainment.” George Clooney won the final award of the evening, the Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence In Entertainment.
Although it is being televised for the second consecutive year, this breezy no-holds barred show had the feeling of a free-flowing fun industry party rather than just another TV awards slog. And the presenters were impressive including Nelson Mandela’s daughter Zinzi and Sean Penn presenting the award to Elba who plays Mandela in a new film Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom, opening in December. Penn said Elba reps a “unique dichotomy. He’s manly and English”. As he began his acceptance Elba told Zinzi “you can stop calling me ‘Dad'”. Among other highlights was Sigourney Weaver‘s witty intro to Kingsley who elegantly dedicated his award to a new generation. “Over the last few years I have seen a younger generation of actors walk on to the set and participate with joy and dignity and astonishing depth of imagination… So my dear young actors, I know how difficult it can be being you. The gladiators and poets of the 21st century, a century that will hurl challenges at you that are beyond my wildest imaginings. And as you journey through the 20th century, may your craft remain undiminished, undistorted, untarnished and bright and hard like a diamond. And know that to tell a story is to heal someone somewhere, and that your vulnerability is your greatest strength,” he said.
Julia Roberts, who has worked for and with Clooney in many capacities including in August: Osage County which he produced, was the sole presenter for his Kubrick award. “There are two obvious reasons I was chosen to do this. One, Brad Pitt was out of town and two, Matt Damon was in town but unavailable… And BAFTA-LA, what is that? I mean it’s so cool for you, George but it’s so confusing for me,” she said about the irony of a non-Brit getting this very British honor. She then read a letter from her August: Osage County co-star Meryl Streep who said of Clooney, “George is like the dream boyfriend you have right out of college – sophisticated, older, knowledgeable about the ways of the world unlike all the callous, dopey undergraduates you so recently dated. And yet he is utterly, completely, thoroughly devoted, amazingly, to you. He calls, he writes, he charms, he disarms, you are a love, you are his socket. This is the guy. And then… you find out he has been hooking up in the past few months with women who look just like Cate Blanchett, Julia Roberts and Valerie Jarett. You are shocked, shocked and yet somehow you can never ever be really mad at him. George is everywhere and all at once and somehow never shows a dent on him bumper.” Roberts also presented a special reel with greetings from several Clooney colleagues including a hilarious running bit in which Sandra Bullock “interprets” thoughts on George from their Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron as he sits by her side.
In his acceptance speech, Clooney recounted early odd jobs he had including selling ladies shoes in which he had to deal delicately with corns on women’s feet, a point where he said he decided to move to Hollywood. “It’s a long way from co-starring in Return Of The Killer Tomatoes to standing up here on this stage. But it’s not that long. It all goes by in the wink of an eye. So before we get much older let me say thank all of you for this award. It is an honor to be here, and if anyone needs their shoes stretched see me,” he said.
The evening was opened by BAFTA-LA Chair Gary Dartnall who noted all the philanthropic activities the organization does throughout the year.