I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: I can’t think of another event in the long slog of awards season that is more fun and meaningful than the annual AFI Awards luncheon, held each year in a fairly intimate space at the Four Seasons. Well, it is about as intimate as you can get when you have to squeeze 10 tables for the top television programs of the year and 10 for the top movies. Actually make that 11 for motion pictures. This year, for the first time since its inception, AFI had a mathematical tie. AFI CEO and President Bob Gazzale, who hosted the afternoon, told me later they originally thought about breaking that tie, but the selection committee headed by Leonard Maltin said no. It’s indicative of the wide-open race this year that there would be more choices than ever, and in the expertly chosen film clips (not snippets but actual scenes) chosen to highlight these films, you could see why it may have been hard for the judges to drop one of their choices.
Without a lot of hoopla or even a TV camera in sight, this luncheon draws the who’s who of the industry including studio heads (I spotted Jim Gianopulos, Ron Meyer, Brad Grey, Kevin Tsujihara, Alan Horn, Bob Iger, Harvey Weinstein, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, to name a few, not to mention numerous top TV execs), and a really stellar turnout of the crème de la crème of 2014’s movie and TV crop. Clint Eastwood was among those repping American Sniper. Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane and director Richard Linklater were at the Boyhood table. Steve Carell and director Bennett Miller came for Foxcatcher. Christopher Nolan and virtually his entire Interstellar cast showed including Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. From Selma there was Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay. At the Into The Woods table were director Rob Marshall, Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick and James Corden, to name a few I saw. For Nightcrawler it was writer-director Dan Gilroy, Rene Russo and Open Road chief Tom Ortenberg. Miles Teller turned up for Whiplash. There was another table for Birdman with Edward Norton and others. The Imitation Game had a full contingent too with co-star Keira Knightley , director Morten Tyldum , Writer Graham Moore and the producing team. And for Unbroken it was director Angelina Jolie, there with Brad Pitt, who also executive produced Selma. When I ran into them on their way in, they thought they were going the wrong way and turned around heading smack into the paparazzi. It didn’t take them long to come back. Jolie is fresh from Rome, where she showed her hit film to Pope Francis. I asked her how that was, and she summed it up as “very cool”.
Some had just gotten word of their BAFTA nominations the night before and already were in a celebratory mood. Russo told me she was shocked. “I have never been nominated for anything before,” she said happily. I caught Weinstein chatting it up with Miller, and he declared for the record that “other than my own films, Foxcatcher is the best picture I saw all year.” Miller jokingly told him to tell that to me — and he did. Disney’s Horn obviously was happy about the grosses for the hit Sondheim musical Into The Woods. “I think these things really can work when they have emotion in them, and they worked hard to also make our film an emotional experience for the audience,” he said. Gianopulos told me he was particularly proud of the year Fox Searchlight has been having, not only with Birdman, which made the AFI list, but also with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which premiered nearly a year ago in Berlin and has been coming on extremely strong this awards season, even leading BAFTA with 11 noms. I congratulated him on his own upcoming award; he will be named Pioneer Of The Year at CinemaCon in April. “Now I have to write a speech,” he laughed. I went up to Oyelowo and started singing his name to him as Brad Pitt did in leading the crowd at the Palm Springs Film Fest last Saturday. “I had no idea he was going to do that, but he did me a favor. Now everyone knows how to say my name!” he laughed.
But at the heart of this day, it all about what you get up on screen, big and small. And the clips chosen really illustrated that. After seeing Robert Morse’s soft shoe number in the Mad Men clip, you have to wonder how he possibly could have lost the Emmy last year. But the sad fact is no actor on Mad Men has ever won, and that’s a shameful statistic for the TV Academy for a show that has been on AFI’s top 10 every year of its seven-season existence. Creator Matt Weiner told me the final episode really is a final ending and he’s very pleased with it, though it is a bittersweet to leave this landmark AMC drama behind.
Some of the television clips really had the crowd’s attention including from new shows that made the cut this year including Amazon’s Transparent, Cinemax’s The Knick from Steven Soderbergh, HBO’s Silicon Valley with a really hilarious clip, the CW’s Jane The Virgin, and Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black (actually back for a second go-round with AFI). The only new broadcast network show to make the list, in fact the only broadcast network show period, was ABC’s How To Get Away With Murder. FX’s The Americans made the list (as did the network’s Fargo) and FX chief John Landgraf told me the upcoming third season is a knockout, exceeding anything to date. He’s thrilled with it. Maybe Emmy finally will notice?
Why is this such a special event? It has no pretense of being anything other than what it is: a celebration of creativity. As Gazzale said in his opening remarks, it was a place where you can breathe. “There is no game to be played here today. You have won. Our goal is for all of you, in fact all of you, to feel appreciated, to feel proud and to feel it together, not as competitors but as colleagues in this mad, mad, mad, mad world, one that you help us make sense of with your stories,” he said before recognizing four previous recipients of the AFI Life Achievement Award who were in the room: Steven Spielberg, Eastwood and Streep. The fourth, a silver ponytailed Kirk Douglas, was brought onstage to announce a new AFI fellowship grant for the AFI Conservatory, promoting young filmmakers (Gazzale called it “a gift of dreams”).
Douglas, now 98, recalled being in the White House rose garden when President Lyndon Johnson officially established AFI 50 years ago. Douglas, still spry, received two standing ovations, as did the much younger man who made the benediction at the end of the luncheon. Norman Lear, now 92, who also got laughs in talking about how his age has made a difference. “When you hit 90, there’s a huge change. It doesn’t take place in me, it takes place in you. At 88, 89, I got a nice warm reception. But at 92, holy shit!” he said to a big laugh. Looking around the room of industry heavyweights, he also noted, “There hasn’t been as much talent gathered in one place since Orson Welles dined alone at Ciro’s.”
On a more serious note, Lear talked about the tragedy in Paris and had a word of encouragement for the filmmakers in the room. “The world needs saving, and I will wake up one morning, I believe, when the world will be safe,” he said. “And when it’s safe, the door will be kicked open by you who make films. And the policies and the politics and the rest of it will follow. So my best advice to you is to keep on doing what you’re doing because you are paving the way. And the events in Paris can throw a blanket over a lot of our intention, a lot of our desire, and I want to coax you with everything I have left in me to not let that happen, because it is a threat to creative spirit.”