Harvey Weinstein’s name wasn’t uttered once at Friday night’s AMD British Academy Britannia Awards and maybe that was the biggest surprise of all in a night full of great speeches.
And a lot of laughs, especially from Aziz Ansari, winner of the Charlie Chaplin Excellence In Comedy Award, and host Jack Whitehall who completely resisted any temptation to wade into Weinstein scandal territory in his monologue. If this early awards season outing is any indication, then perhaps this will be an off-limits on-stage subject at the endless number of dinners to come.
But the evening didn’t completely avoid the topic as Ava DuVernay, the John Schlesinger Excellence In Directing honoree, made some potent remarks in her acceptance speech about the trusted bond in making films.
“I regard the bond between director and actor as sacred,” she said. “I really do…so to imagine what’s been in the news the week, the harmful manipulation and harassment and emotional violence towards actors in my view is sinful. Sinful, because I’ve held the innermost feelings of an actor in my hand. I know what it means for an artist to give themselves over to you, to tell stories of our humanity. Actors give their faith, their bodies, their memories to this effort at making films.”
“They give more than anyone else,” she added. “I truly believe that. How dare someone enter into that sacred space with an intent to harm? It is an abuse of a very sacred bond. It is unacceptable.
“I have said it before and I will say it again. We don’t have time to work on these dark behaviors, these isms one by one. We don’t have time to be solely triggered by trauma and outrage. We should be outraged by all of it all of the time.”
DuVernay’s award was presented by Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn who lavishly praised the director of Selma, the Emmy winning documentary 13th, and the upcoming Disney film A Wrinkle In Time.
DuVernay returned the compliments and singled Horn out for making history by championing a black woman with a $120 million film.
Mostly this was a night of pure celebration for the six honorees who in addition to Ansari and DuVernay included Sir Kenneth Branagh (Albert R. Broccoli Award for Worldwide Contribution to Entertainment), Claire Foy (British Artist of the Year), Dick Van Dyke (Excellence In Television honoree ) and Matt Damon (Stanley Kubrick Award for Excellence In Film).
Damon turned out to be a last minute no-show due to a family emergency in Boston. His award was presented in abstentia by his The Martian co-star Kate Mara with a brief video thank you from Damon on tape.
That was the only disappointment in a room filled with warmth from both the presenters and the honorees. I caught up with Branagh to tell him I had seen the stunning-looking 70MM film version of his new film Murder On The Orient Express. It truly has the scope and lush visual splendor of a movie from the golden age of wide screen epics. It was entirely appropriate that Branagh’s award was presented by his Dunkirk director Christopher Nolan since that superb film is available in the 70MM film format as well.
Fox’s Distribution President Chris Aronson, at the Britannias to support Branagh, told me they plan two runs each in NY and LA of the 70mm film print of Orient Express. Believe me, this is one film you don’t want to see on a laptop. It was made for movie theaters.
Branagh said his movie had to wait to get the last piece of equipment Nolan was using. Nolan correctly pointed out in his remarks that Branagh was a modern pioneer in keeping this format alive by getting his 1996 Hamlet shot in 65mm and released with 70mm prints, something championed by Alan Horn when he ran Castle Rock.
Branagh praised Fox’s Stacey Snider and Emma Watts for getting fully behind his vision of this new version of the Agatha Christie classic. Making a further connection with his love of widescreen films, he pointed to the joy of seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang when he was a kid – produced by the namesake of the award, Albert R. Broccoli. That movie starred none other than another of the night’s honorees, Dick Van Dyke, who seemed to love Branagh’s acknowledgement when the cameras caught him.
Although DuVernay and Branagh received hearty standing ovations, it was in fact the 91 year old Van Dyke who got the most rapturous reception of the night, and I was honored to write the tribute to him in the program book.
Kevin Spacey presented the award and even led a brief sing-a-long of “Let’s Go Fly A Kite” from Mary Poppins in which Van Dyke starred as Bert the Chimney Sweep. Van Dyke actually played two roles in that film including the old man, and in the new Mary Poppins returns in a small role as that old man’s son.
An impressive clip reel was shown that focused on his brilliant physical comedy in the landmark The Dick Van Dyke Show, the series that ran for five years in the ’60s and has never stopped airing somewhere. Much was made of the varied reaction to Van Dyke’s English accent in Poppins, but in his acceptance he laid the blame on the fact that he worked with Irishman Pat O’Malley.
“Basically I stole from everyone,” he laughed. At the end of his acceptance he simply said, “This is not a Q&A so I guess I can’t answer any questions. But you have done an old man good.”
Ansari joked about the fact that he had to follow Van Dyke. “I am convinced everyone is horrible except Dick Van Dyke. That man is clearly the only good human being we have here,” he said to big laughs after an intro from Edgar Wright.
Ansari was hilarious, mostly at the expense of everyone in the room including the Beverly Hilton chefs. He had just flown in from the U.K. to be at this event. “I was in London and I had to fly to f*cking L.A. to accept this British award?”
Among those at his table was NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt who also oversees Universal Television which produces Ansari’s Emmy winning Netflix hit Master Of None. He told me he’s proud that This Is Us is even bigger this year, and was especially proud also that Will And Grace has come back so strong. “Wait until you see next week’s episode,” he teased.
And speaking of Netflix, Claire Foy’s co-star in The Crown, John Lithgow, introduced her with praise as one of the best actors he has worked with in his 50 years in the business. “You set the bar high for the rest of us,” he said.
Lithgow won an Emmy for his Winston Churchill last season, and this next second season will mark the last for Foy as the young Queen Elizabeth. “I am in complete denial about this entire evening,” she said, seemingly overwhelmed at being named British Artist of the Year. In a loving nod to man of the hour Van Dyke she added, “As a British person and the Queen I say your accent is perfect”.
And so was this evening.