It was a very English night in Beverly Hills last night as BAFTA LA’s Annual British Academy Britannia Awards were handed out to a half dozen luminaries in the motion picture business, but only three of whom actually were born in the United Kingdom. Brits Ricky Gervais and Felicity Jones, along with Scottish Ewan McGregor represented the home team, while Jodie Foster, Samuel L.Jackson, and Ang Lee joined them for the warm presentation on stage at the Beverly Hilton, site of so many awards events during the six month long season. This one also serves as an early opportunity to get potential Oscar contenders in front of an industry crowd holding a statuette – or presenting one.
In fact the presenters were just as starry, if not more so, and included several with movies in this year’s Academy mix including Tom Hanks (Sully), Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals), and Jennifer Lawrence (Passengers), along with last year’s Best Actress champ Brie Larson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw who has a strong supporting turn in the upcoming Miss Sloane, and Christopher Guest. The evening was surprisingly short on any reference to the upcoming U.S. Presidential Election (considering the explosive Friday headlines), or even Brexit. Amusing M.C. Ben “Doc Brown” Smith did a Tony Blair joke that the crowd seemed to love. But mostly, this was purely about show business and, in McGregor’s case this night, giving back.
All eyes would be on Gervais who has skewered many Beverly Hilton audiences before as host of the Golden Globes, and he did make reference to it at the top of his acceptance speech. “Oh wow. I have been to a lot of awards ceremonies here. And someone always gets up and says ‘oh I haven’t prepared a speech. I didn’t think I would win’. Well I knew I won and didn’t prepare a speech. It shows what contempt I have for this award, and this town” he joked, adding that the “BAFTA award is the greatest in the history of show business”. But he wasn’t up until towards the end of the evening. Before then, there were several more who also knew they had won and did prepare some nifty speeches.
Lawrence presented the Stanley Kubrick Britannia for Excellence In Film at the top of the show to Foster (having appeared in the Foster-directed The Beaver, hence the connection). It seemed an especially appropriate pairing since both had become Best Actress Oscar winners at a very young age. Foster, who has been in the industry since doing Coppertone ads when she was 3, mentioned she got her first BAFTA win over 40 years ago in 1975. “Honestly all I ever really wanted to do was make movies. That’s it. Whatever the job description – actor, producer and of course, director – to have been given that chance in the trenches alongside you guys, so many talented technicians and artists that is just a blessing. This community was my sentimental education and you guys are the ones who raised me” she said emphatically, adding that she is not done yet.
Gyllenhaal, who earlier in the week was on Broadway for a four-performance special run in Sunday In The Park With George presented the next honor, the John Schlesinger Britannia for Excellence In Directing to three-time Oscar winner Ang Lee, who may be from Taiwan but, as Gyllenhaal pointed out, actually had his international breakthrough directing the very British Sense And Sensibility. That film brought him a 1995 BAFTA Best Picture honor and several Academy nominations, kickstarting a stellar career that has never had to beg for awards attention. But as his Brokeback Mountain star Gyllenhaal said of him, “what makes him so unique and so deserving of our highest honor is that Ang realizes that each film is elementally different. Look at his body of work. How is it possible that Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon were made by the same man? That Ice Storm and Life Of Pi sit at opposite ends of the spectrum too?,” he said, while also mentioning that Lee’s new film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (Nov 11) is another example of the range in stories that he does.
I was honored to have been asked by BAFTA to write the souvenir program appreciation for Lee, who in his speech drolly tried to explain how he got these movies made, but then got serious. “My father had passed away and it brought me back to life. It nurtured me back to the love of filmmaking. One time I had a strong feeling that there was a movie god and he loves me,” he said. Praising all the actors he had worked with, Lee saluted the British for helping him through Sense And Sensibility and understanding his broken English direction, particularly in the case of one British actor on set after the first take. “I went up to him and said ‘less’ and then after another take I said ‘less’ and he looked irritated. The third time I didn’t have the guts to say less so I said ‘do more’. He said, ‘can you not make up your mind? Which way do you want me to go? Less or more? I said ‘do more less’.”
Mbatha-Raw, who co-stars with McGregor in the upcoming Beauty And The Beast, presented the actor, and now director of American Pastoral, with the Britannia Humanitarian Award. McGregor told me earlier in the evening that it seemed strange to him to be getting an award for this kind of work, but he welcomed the opportunity to put a spotlight on what he is doing with Unicef to help kids and refugees around the world. His heartfelt acceptance speech had many in the room in tears as he described the heartbreaking situations with innocent kids he had seen from Syria to Iraq and many other places torn by war including Mosul right now. He dedicated his “nice award” to all of the volunteers who work day in and day out for Unicef.
Hanks was next up to present his current Inferno co-star Felicity Jones with the British Artist Of The Year Award. He apparently had been on IMDB preparing for this because he couldn’t stop talking about the info-centric website. When he first mentioned the Internet Movie Database, there was big applause from one table in the room. “I don’t know WHY you would applaud IMDB” Hanks said, apparently not knowing that the British creator and founder of IMDB Col Needham was right there in the audience. Later at the after party Needham, who recently noted that Jones’ film A Monster Calls was the 10,000th he had seen (he DOES run a database after all) was thrilled by Hanks’ recognition. “He should be working for us,” he laughed.
At any rate, Hanks detailed everything he learned on IMDB about Jones. “When I looked up her name on the much beloved IMDB here is what you find out. She was born in the West Midlands. As an American I ask you ‘where the hell is that?’,” he said as he continued to reel off her British credits for deserving an award that has “British” in the title. Jones mentioned she had been in the business now for 23 years. “I have been so lucky to continually work with people I really respect, ” as she also told about her wonder in making the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One, at Pinewood in England. “It all becomes worth it at that priceless moment when you hear action. Everyone’s hard work comes together to create a tiny slice of screen magic that no one person could create by themselves. That’s what I love about this job, the collaboration,” she said.
Director Christopher Guest presented Gervais with the Charlie Chaplin Britannia for Excellence In Comedy. A relatively restrained (for him) Gervais tried, as I mentioned earlier, to explain what the award meant to him. “What I have taken from this is that you, and everyone in show business is saying to me is that I am better than Charlie Chaplin. I humbly accept this award,” he joked while thanking Guest for making the biggest single influence on his career and the only mentor he has had over the past 15 years. “I want to also thank my girlfriend of 30 years, Jane, although she hasn’t really contributed to my career. This is sort of all me,” Gervais said, getting a lot of laughs at her expense (she was loving it however). Gervais added that he appreciated getting the award because it also meant “a free trip to L.A.”
Finally Larson, who worked with Samuel L. Jackson recently in Kong: Skull Island, came on to present his Albert R. Broccoli Britannia for Worldwide Contribution to Entertainment, and noted that his films have made over $4.5 billion dollars. “I have made some interesting choices that put me in some interesting films that a lot of people loved, and they became blockbusters, and some of the small films that became cult films that people loved,” Jackson said in his acceptance. He mentioned that Pulp Fiction continues to re-generate new fans every time it is discovered by different audiences growing up. He offered specific praise to his longtime publicist Lisa Kasteler for helping him learn how to become, and behave as, an “international personality”.
Fun night. The event will be broadcast to air exclusively in the U.S. on Pop Wednesday Nov 2 at 8pm (ET/PT).