Notes On The Season: AFI Awards Bring Out Best And Brightest; Extravagant Palm Springs Gala Tries To Foretell Oscar Nominees


A column covering events and conversations on the awards circuit

One day off for New Year’s and it was back into the swing of the season – BIG TIME. Kicking off a week’s end with non-stop awards-related events, you can safely use the word “whirlwind” to describe it all, as the annual Palm Springs Film Awards Gala launched the 30th edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival last night. The AFI Awards held their annual feel-good, everyone’s-a-winner-in-this-room luncheon at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills today, and the promise of numerous parties and screenings lead up to the week’s biggest event, Sunday’s Golden Globes, a party at the Beverly Hilton that may – or may not – give some idea of where momentum is heading as we hit the final two months of the season and the big prize of the Oscar on February 24th.


Of course, as I previously wrote yesterday, that night seems so far off at this moment, especially considering the Academy has yet to settle on a host. And (if it was really needed), former two-time Oscar host Ellen Degeneres complicated matters by firmly planting her flag in the Kevin Hart corner, actively pushing on her show, taped yesterday and airing today, for the return of the comedian who was  – or wasn’t – pressured to drop out in early December just two days after getting the gig (past homophobic tweets resurfaced on the evil Internet, followed by a heavily criticized “non-apology,” made it awkward for both Hart and the Academy).

Whether the Academy is – or was – close to resolving the hosting situation (a single host, group of hosts, no host) is further muddled by the continuing Hart debacle that threatens to make this year’s Oscars more about who or who isn’t hosting than having the focus on the movies. In a year where today’s PGA Best Picture nominations showed could be a strong one for Oscar ratings if the Academy voters (balloting opens Monday and lasts a week) agree with the PGA that blockbusters like Black Panther, A Star Is Born, A Quiet Place, Crazy Rich Asians , and Bohemian Rhapsody belong in the Academy’s marquee category.

That’s a sea change that threatens to be drowned out by the politicization of the Hart mess with any possible outcome at this point changing the conversation about the 91st Oscar show in ways that can only be divisive. I won’t say where – or who – but sometime in the past 24 hours, I found myself in the middle of a conversation with a couple of Academy members who both serve on the AMPAS board. One asked another, “Have you heard if we are close to an Oscar host yet?” To which the reply seemed to indicate, “Yes, It looks that way,”  before both realized I write this column. They carried on this part of the conversation out of ear shot, but I later mentioned the Degeneres/Hart business to one of them and got a quizzical expression, but no comment. Clearly, the Academy needs to resolve this, and I am not sure if even waiting until after the Globes hoopla is a good move. At some point, the Academy, which has never once officially commented on the Hart situation (it has all come from his side) has to wrap this up. To invoke the name of Hart’s latest film that he is out promoting, it is hard to see The Upside in any of this for the Academy. And anyway, again it’s about the movies, and always should be.


Pete Hammond/Deadline
Pete Hammond/Deadline

There is definitely one big annual awards event that it is purely “about the movies,” and that was today’s AFI Awards for the Top Ten films and tv shows of 2018. Held as always at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, it once again proved to be the highlight of the season it forever is. It’s fun talking to a newcomer to the event afterwards,  because it always seems like they have just found nirvana and a respite from all the other madness that surrounds the six-month run for Oscar gold. Emily Blunt, there with two films of AFI’s chosen few, A Quiet Place and Mary Poppins Returns, told me very enthusiastically that “This is the best awards event I have ever been to.” It’s a refrain you hear often about this early January gathering that, as usual, drew a packed ballroom of the current cream of the crop, as well as major power brokers.  “Breathe. Now breathe out. That is all we will be asking you to do…For those of you who have been with us before , you know the game. And you know that the game is that there is no game. You have won, ”  said AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale in his opening remarks, one of only two speeches allowed at the luncheon other than the revelation and reasoning behind each selection. The other speech came, as is tradition, at the end with the benediction, this year delivered by the indomitable 93-year-old Angela Lansbury, whose career began in 1944 with an Oscar-nominated Supporting role in George Cukor’s Gaslight, and continues to this day with a wonderful cameo in one of AFI’s Top Ten movies, Mary Poppins Returns.  

Check out some video from the event above.

Gazzale, who is very protective of the fact that there are no “favorites” or distinctions between the films and TV shows each year, assured me Lansbury was chosen for this honor before AFI was even aware she was in the Disney film and before it was named one of the best. She received a thundering standing ovation and could not have been more charming as she briefly reminisced about her early days at MGM and Stage 25, there where she first worked with Cukor, who discovered her, and what becoming a star meant to her. “As actors, you never know when it is going to happen and that you’re the one,” she said, before noting the collaborative nature of what everyone in this room does. Class doesn’t begin to describe Lansbury, or this event, actually.

Pete Hammond/Deadline

Her standing ovation was the second, and only other of the day because also in his remarks, Gazzale noted the many successful graduates of the AFI Conservatory that were now in

Pete Hammond/Deadline

the room as part of many of the honored movies and shows, including Black Panther cinematographer Rachel Morrison, A Star Is Born’s cinematographer Matthew Libitique, and others, including the recipient of that first standing ovation, Paul Schraderin the room on behalf of his A24 drama First Reformed. Gazzale noted he was part of the very first AFI Conservatory class in 1969, that also included the likes of David Lynch and Caleb Deschanel. Of course, the main business of the day was showing clips and explaining why AFI’s juries for film and tv chose the things they did. Rich Frank presided over the TV presentation, honoring The Americans, The Assassination Of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story, Atlanta, Barry, Better Call Saul, The Kominsky Method, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Pose, Succession, and This Is Us. The Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday explained the reasoning behind the film selections, beginning with a rare special award to a non-American production, Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma,  followed by the regular 10, including Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Eighth Grade, The Favourite, First Reformed, Green Book, If Beale Street Could Talk, Mary Poppins Returns, A Quiet Place, and A Star Is Born.

Pete Hammond/Deadline

Among the studio heads in attendance, to give you an idea of the importance of this gathering, were Disney’s Bob Iger (who stopped Gazzale on his way out to effusively praise the event), and Alan Horn, Warner Bros. Kevin Tsujihara (seated between Bradley Cooper and Sam Elliott), Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos, who told me he was also thrilled with the PGA nomination for A Quiet Place, Universal’s  Donna Langley, sitting with the Green Book bunch, while Ron Meyer sat in with the studio specialty division, Focus Features’ BlacKkKlansman table  including Spike Lee, Adam Driver, John David Washington and Focus head Peter Kujawski, Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley, A24’s David Fenkel and Daniel Katz, and Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, who was beaming while talking with Cuaron, and heading for what looks like a banner breakthrough year, awards-wise. By the way, Fenkel was also beaming, since this is the second year in a row the upstart indie-centric A24 has had two films on the list, this year with the wonderful Eighth Grade (with Golden Globe nominated young star Elsie Fisher in attendance), and First Reformed. AMPAS President John Bailey was spotted too, taking a break from the host search, no doubt.

On the TV side, there was just as impressive a turnout with the likes of small screen heavyweights like Ryan Murphy (with two shows on

Pete Hammond/Deadline

the list) and Chuck Lorre, there for Netflix’s newbie The Kominsky Method. “I never usually get invited to this kind of room,” laughed Lorre, who was thrilled to be there, but also told me he is trying to figure out how to deal with the final season of The Big Bang Theory, something he knows is going to be highly emotional when it comes later this season. “We will just try to do right by it…It’s hard to believe we had a show that had guest appearances by Nobel Laureates,” he said, referencing Stephen Hawking, among other major names who have appeared over the 12-season run.

It was an afternoon of delights all around, but one of the highlights was definitely provided by Lee, who stood up when AFI’s Gazzale called him out for wearing an NYU hat to the luncheon. “I tried to get into the AFI Conservatory but I was rejected,” yelled Lee, to big laughs. Special day, as always, and something to look forward to every year.



Lee was among many at the AFI gathering who headed there straight from Thursday night’s big Palm Springs Awards Gala, where Oscar

hopefuls come out to try out their speeches early in the season.  Cooper and Blunt flew directly this morning after more Palm Springs honors at our sister site Variety’s brunch. The PSIFF gala is a huge affair, raising $2.5 million and held at the Palm Springs Convention Center , complete with the biggest stage outside of a political convention, a full orchestra opening the show with a film and musical tribute to Ennio Morricone, host Mary Hart (for the 16th year), six armored trucks to augment the large security contingent, flowers flown in from Europe, and red Buddha statues that light up each place setting, plus 12 billion media impressions, according to chairman Harold Matzner.

I was pleased to sit at the Roma table between Sonny Bono Visionary Honoree Alfonso Cuaron,  and Roma co-star Marina de Tavira, with presenter and reigning Best Actor Oscar winner Gary Oldman, and another Roma star Yalitza Aparacio joining us as well. I can only imagine what this first-time actress thought of this dressed-up, glitzy gathering, unlike any other the whole season.

Palm Springs gives it their all each year. This time around, honorees were Timothee Chalamet, moving up to the Spotlight Award (and an added protein bar from presenter Laura Dern) after getting Rising Star last year; Rami Malek for Breakthrough Performance; Regina King getting the Chairman’s Award; Emily Blunt and the kids from Mary Poppins Returns representing the film’s Ensemble Performance honor; Melissa McCarthy, another Spotlight winner, for her sensational Can You Ever Forgive Me? turn; Bradley Cooper getting


the Director of the Year award; Spike Lee landing the Career award; Peter Farrelly and cast and writers of Green Book taking the Vanguard Award; Glenn Close getting the Icon Award; and Olivia Colman winning the Palm Desert Achievement Award for Actress. The latter wins my award for Best Speech of the night, hands down, and if this was more widely seen, would be thrust into instant front runner Oscar position. That is what a good speech can do at these precursor events, and Palm Springs provided the platform for a lot of good ones from Chalamet’s intensity and recitation of classic cinematic influences, all the way to Close musing on whether she likes to be referred to using the term actor or actress after 45 years in the business (“You don’t hear male actors wanting to be called actresses”), and just what the word “icon” really means. It was great to hear Colman talking about being allowed to stuff her face with cake and discovering “women are normal people” when doing The Favourite. Lee, who said, “I didn’t choose film, film chose me”, promised he is gonna keep doing it for another 20 years. From Mary Hart trying to figure the correct way to say Timothee Chalamet’s first name ( “Timo-tay” ?), to Farrelly saying Green Book is a movie that is a uniter, “and this is the first time I have ever had a movie that is a uniter,” it was a fun way to spend three hours before hitting the 10 freeway home by midnight and ready for yet another day in awardsland.




This article was printed from