Notes On The Season: AFI Fest Opens And Ruth Bader Ginsburg Steals Spotlight; Crazy Rich Actors Hit Early Awards Circuit

On The Basis Of Sex
AFI Fest

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.

Welcome to a new Oscar season of Notes on the Season, my weekly column and roundup of various events and interviews from the endless awards circuit. For the next few months, right up to Oscar night February 24, look to this space for all kinds of fun stuff — that is if you are an awards junkie like me.


AFI Fest

The fall film festival season that started with Venice, Telluride and Toronto in early September winds down this week with the AFI Fest, the American Film Institute’s annual November, gala-heavy movie showcase that grabs the films breaking late in the game this month and over the holidays. It opened last night with the anticipated world premiere of Focus Features’  Ruth Bader Ginsburg “origin” story On the Basis Of Sex.

Veteran helmer Mimi Leder directs the film which was warmly received, especially in light of the real Ginsburg’s fall in her office Wednesday  resulting in some broken ribs and hospitalization. Note was made of this by Leder as she introduced the filmmakers and cast on hand including Felicity Jones, who is terrific as the young Ginsburg, and Armie Hammer equally fine as her husband Martin and co-counsel on a landmark case involving an attempt to overturn a century of sexual discrimination.

On The Basis Of Sex
AFI Fest

Leder said she had been up into the early hours Thursday working on the pilot for her new Apple series about a morning TV show starring Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carell and when she finally woke up after 10 AM startled to hear the news about the key subject of her new film. The movie was written by Ginsburg’s nephew Daniel Stiepleman, who said he asked her permission once he discovered the facts about that early gender-based case and thought it would make a good movie. “Well if that’s how you want to spend you time,” is the response Stiepleman told me he got from her, along with access to all her files and research.

At the Focus Features and Participant Media after-party at the Dream Hotel in Hollywood, I asked Stiepleman how his 85-year-old aunt was doing and he said very well and expected her to be released to go home very soon,  which I can tell you is a relief to everyone. (She was released from the hospital today.) One partygoer, fearing another Supreme Court vacancy if this fall were to sideline her, said, “Where do I go to donate a rib?”

Jones also was concerned but happy to hear the woman she plays so valiantly on screen was doing better. She was receiving lots of love herself for her performance, which gives way to a brief cameo by Ginsburg herself at the end of the movie.  Also, there was the film’s talented production designer Nelson Coates who not only did this film but also the wildly different Crazy Rich Asians this year. He explained how, with Ginsburg’s help, he re-created the actual home Ruth and Marty lived in, and even put the same pictures on the tables in their bedroom. “I can actually say I was in Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s bedroom with her,” he laughed.

On The Basis Of Sex
AFI Fest

There were actually dueling after-parties, with AFI’s traditional celebration across the street from the TCL Chinese theatre at the Hollywood Roosevelt in addition to the one I hit at The Dream; filmmakers made their way to both in some cases. AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale got the festival off to nice start with this opening, thanked past fest director Jacquelin Lyanga for her years of service and welcomed new director Michael Lumpkin who also has run AFI Docs out of D.C. since 2015. He offered a brief overview of what the next eight days will offer, right up to next Thursday’s closing-night film, also from Focus, Mary Queen of Scots. Focus chief Peter Kujawski and Participant’s David Linde were among those at the opening, with Kujawski explaining to me he just learned how one is supposed to breathe when you get have broken ribs, a reference to the hot topic of Ginsburg’s predicament. Everyone wished their favorite Supreme Court justice well.

Focus is releasing On the Basis of Sex on Christmas Day in honor of the 25th anniversary of Ginsburg’s 1993 appointment to the high court. It is a nice holiday gift for all, especially as an antidote to all the other crap coming out of Washington D.C. these days. The Oscar voters I spoke to afterwards were uniformly impressed.


Nicole Kidman

Even though we just got through the midterms, and it is only early November with a number of contenders that haven’t opened yet, don’t tell that to the eager recipients of some of the season’s earliest statuettes. Sunday saw the annual Hollywood Film Awards, a non-television kudos show that bills itself as the true start of awards season. Although lots of critics and pundits deride it (all the awards are negotiated with consultants looking to get photos of their contenders holding statuettes, and if you don’t agree to show up in person, you don’t win one), it still draws a starry lineup that is impressive, especially when you consider it is not televised. CBS tried it a few years ago but it lasted one airing on the network after low ratings and the antics of Johnny Depp deep-sixed it.

The show an the Beverly Hilton — two months before the Golden Globes take over there — is actually a breezy entertaining affair no one takes too seriously. Dress is cocktail attire, dinner is pretty good (but off the tables by the 5 PM start time), and the speeches were nice tryouts for the next kudos opp. Say what you will, but this HFA edition started out with Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling only presenting, and ended with a Career Achievement Award for Nicole Kidman, and there was lots of star wattage in between.

Kidman’s in the running for Oscar noms for both Destroyer and Boy Erased this year and purposely kept the emphasis on them in her spirited acceptance.  A rep for the Oscar and Emmy winner told me beforehand she wanted to call this honor The Diversity Award, since Kidman has been playing all kinds of diverse mothers lately — and that includes the upcoming Aquaman. Kidman’s husband Keith Urban was there with her and suggested the name “Aquamom” when I caught up with the pair in the Hilton lobby as they arrived. Every one of these awards starts with the name “Hollywood” even as it actually takes place in Beverly Hills.


Hollywood Actress of the Year went to Glenn Close, who told me she flew in from New York that morning from her new off-Broadway show Mother of the Maid, where she had tacked on an extra Thursday matinee to get Sunday off to fly in to take this honor. Her team is making sure her electric performance in The Wife isn’t lost in the buzz since it opened in August. They have lined up the Modern Master award from the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February, and yesterday announced she is getting the Icon Award from the Palm Springs Film Festival on January 3, two must-stops for exposure of Oscar hopefuls these days. (Check out my interview with Close on this week’s edition of my Deadline video series The Actor’s Side.)

I was sitting right near Close, who was surrounded by Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and Tom Bernard, who flew out for the weekend events (including Deadline’s all-day The Contenders Los Angeles show at the DGA on Saturday). However, I was actually at the Netflix Roma table  which was celebrating non-pro Yalitza Aparicio’s New Hollywood Award. She delivered her heartfelt speech in Spanish; she doesn’t speak Eenglish — yet. Sitting at that table I was confused since not everyone was well known and the HFAs have a serious empty seat complex (even though they aren’t televised), so seat fillers kept showing up. With the Roma gang, the seat fillers, and a phalanx of Netflix publicists showing up at different moments, it was hard to keep everyone straight, but I have a feeling the much-acclaimed Roma is going to be in this room a lot this season.


Crazy Rich Asians

Hugh Jackman (Hollywood Actor), Timothée Chalamet (Hollywood Supporting Actor, moving up from Hollywood Breakout Actor last year), Damien Chazelle (Director) the Black Panther group (Hollywood Film) and a bunch of Crazy Rich Asians were among other HFA selectees. The latter took over two tables in the front and seemed to be having the best time of anyone celebrating their Hollywood Breakout Ensemble award.

“Have you ever seen this many Asians on a Hollywood stage before? star Constance Wu asked. That whole group didn’t want to stop partying, so they carried it on the next night down the street at Crustacean at a bash Warner Bros threw to “celebrate their Hollywood Breakout Ensemble Award.” That event was so packed there was hardly any room for the noodles they were passing around.

Henry Golding, who got his big break in the film, told me he was going to be gone for most of awards season as he’s shooting Guy Ritchie’s new film Toff Guys and Paul Feig’s Last Christmas back to back. He also had a key role in Feig’s recent hit A Simple Favor. Last year at this time the only people who had heard of him were those who watched him hosting a British travel series(!) Now he’s the Asian Brad Pitt.  I am guessing Henry and those two tables full of about-to-be crazy rich actors (I hear they are plotting to shoot sequels of the last two books of the trilogy at the same time since everyone is in such demand now) will all be back in force at the Golden Globes, where it has a real shot in the comedy or musical categories.

Hamilton Behind The Camera

As if one show wasn’t enough Sunday, the Hamilton Watch people threw their 10th annual Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards almost simultaneously in which Gosling was again a presenter, this time to First Man costume designer Mary Zophres. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rami Malek, Angela Bassett and Felicity Jones also were among presenters to various behind-the-scenes artisans who worked on their films.

Get ready everyone. This is just the beginning.


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