Notes On The Season: AFI Awards Brings Hopefuls Together; Palm Springs Turns Up The Heat As Voting Begins

Pete Hammond/Deadline

A column chronicling conversations and events on the awards circuit.


You can really tell it is Oscar nomination voting crunch time by the sheer number of For Your Consideration ads blanketing the airwaves, Internet and print outlets. With the voting period lasting only four more days through Tuesday, nearly every contender is out there with their best late-inning pitches. I counted several, in fact one after another, touting reviews labeling them “the Best Picture of the Year!”

In fact, it was quite comical seeing them in succession during Good Morning America on Friday. It seems every single movie this season is indeed the Best Picture of the Year! — 1917, Marriage Story, Joker, Ford v Ferrari,The Irishman,  Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, Knives Out, Parasite, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and who knows what else are all the Best Picture of the Year! if we are to believe the various TV and print ads, and the quotes therein, blanketing our lives right now. What this says to me is that this is still a very wide-open race at this point, and there is no true consensus as to which of these films ultimately will emerge as the actual the Best Picture of the Year!

Everyone seems to feel they still have a chance. Whether they feel this way by Tuesday — when Oscar balloting closes and we will have had Sunday’s Golden Globes in the rearview mirror and nominations all announced for, among others, the DGA, PGA and BAFTA awards — remains to be seen. At that point it will be just one month before the February 9 Oscar show, so it is hard to factor in how the shortened season affects the actual outcome. The next few days will see some films gaining the all-important Oscar momentum that can make all the difference, or we could have surprises and a relatively large number of movies with a conceivable path to victory.



Certainly the feel-good vibe was alive and well as the new year arrived and multiple contenders hit the circuit as the new phase of the campaign is beginning. Speeches were great at the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Gala, which drew numerous stars and filmmakers Thursday night at the cavernous Palm Springs Convention Center. And then Friday many of them rushed back to L.A. for the AFI Awards luncheon at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, where there were no speeches allowed by contenders or anyone from the 11 movies on the American Film Institute Top Films list or from the 11 on the Top Television Programs of the Year. They all got to sit in the ballroom, network with one another and applaud for the terrific sizzle reel that opened the show. Then there were some perfectly chosen clips from these films and programs that represent the best of the best for 2019, at least as far as the AFI selection juries are concerned.

Here is just a reminder of the chosen few: On the unranked AFI Top Movies list: 1917, The Farewell, The Irishman, Jojo Rabbit, Joker, Knives Out, Little Women, Marriage Story, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Richard Jewell, and Special Award to South Korea’s Parasite. On the AFI Top TV list: Chernobyl, The Crown, Fosse/Verdon, Game of Thrones, Pose, Succession, Unbelievable, Veep, Watchmen, When They See Us, and a Special Award to Fleabag. The AFI lists don’t always mirror eventual Oscar and Emmy nominees but comes pretty close. Last year, for instance, AFI and Oscar matched on six films, but the Oscars, which nominated only eight films for Best Picture, had Bohemian Rhapsody and Vice, two films AFI had passed over. So although it is a pretty good barometer, films that deserved but didn’t get an AFI slot like Ford v Ferrari should relax. There is rarely, if ever, 100% agreement.

Pete Hammond/Deadline

There is total agreement is this annual lunch is a very cool event where everyone is a winner — some even more than others (!) since when I ran into Sam Rockwell he was holding three AFI plaques commemorating three of the selected projects he was in: including Jojo Rabbit and Richard Jewell on the movie side, and Fosse/Verdon for TV. He clearly was running from table to table, as was producer David Heyman, who, as a producer of two Top Movie selectees — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Marriage Story — told me he was getting advice from his wife as to how to diplomatically join his colleagues at both tables. Quentin Tarantino was spotted chatting it up with Clint Eastwood, Don Johnson and others, while the paparazzi in the room couldn’t take enough shots of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.

Both were seated at one of Sony’s tables in the center of the room, right near studio chief Tom Rothman who, with Tarantino’s film and Little Women both on the list, told me he realized what a great year it has been for Sony. Both movies not only got unanimous acclaim but are also certified box office hits, the perfect storm for a studio head. Universal’s Ron Meyer was there with the 1917 contingent including director Sam Mendes, and was asking what I thought about where the season might be heading as we get into crunch time. He has the reigning Best Picture winner in Green Book and told me he is enormously proud of 1917 and is hopeful.


This room gives everyone hope, it seems, which is sort of the idea as AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale said in his opening remarks, saying this one day offers a respite from all the “selling,” the junkets, the red carpets. “This is not about selling but rather a celebration,” he said before introducing none other than Mel Brooks, who came to honor his late wife Anne Bancroft’s participation in the AFI’s Directing Workshop for Women, where she made her 1980 film, Fatso (everyone got a DVD as they left).


Gazzale admitted that Brooks’ praise of one of the films being honored, Jojo Rabbit, was not scripted and that Brooks just decided to give the movie an endorsement, especially since he famously had made a film satire about Adolf Hitler in The Producers. “Taika Waititi did not ask my permission to use Hitler, and neither did Quentin in Inglourious Basterds,” he joked before calling Waititi’s (who also played the imaginary Hitler in the film) movie “terrific, eloquent and beautiful.” Count that all as a big plus for the Fox Searchlight contender. Brooks, it was noted, was one of four past AFI Life Achievement Award honorees in the room including Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Eastwood.


Before the lunch, Little Women director Greta Gerwig told me she was thrilled with the response to her film, but with its December 25th opening day admits she was too nervous to have much of a relaxing Christmas. She still was talking about her appearance on stage at the Palm Springs event the night before when she presented Director of the Year to Tarantino, even though she admitted she is terrified of public speaking. She is a huge fan of his films and was thrilled to do it even as she worried her speech was twice as long as other presenters’. Tarantino was genuinely speechless at the praise she threw his way, but that is all just part of the good feelings during award season, when these contenders keep running into each other at one event or another. “In my wildest, self-possessed dreams, I always hope people will speak about me as if I were dead and they never do,” Tarantino said about Gerwig’s generous remarks. He then made an impassioned speech about the future of movies, wondering if seven years from now we will still be watching them the same way we do in 2020.


In terms of scale, Thursday night’s Palm Springs soiree was the opposite of AFI’s laid-back lunch. It just seems to get bigger and bigger every year and had a sterling lineup of awards winners including Cynthia Erivo, Antonio Banderas, Zack Gottsagen, Jennifer Lopez, Jamie Foxx, Charlize Theron, Renee Zellweger, Joaquin Phoenix, Laura Dern, Adam Driver, Tarantino and Scorsese. The latter six, by the way, had to hightail it back to Beverly Hills (like I did) to make it in time for AFI today. No rest for the weary during awards season. In fact, Scorsese was presenting an award in Palm Springs for our sister site Variety this morning to De Niro (who in turn presented to Scorsese last night). Joker director Todd Phillips also got an award from Variety, so that group literally showed up from the desert just as the AFI presentation was starting. That was a relief for Gazzale who didn’t want to start without any of them.


Palm Springs, like other precursor events, is ideally timed — with Oscar nomination voting starting the same day. It is a great place to try out your Oscar acceptance speech on that massive stage with full orchestra playing you on. And there some very good speeches indeed, not only from the recipients but also the presenters (yes, that means you, Greta Gerwig). Harriet star Erivo was eloquent and classy. Phillips described Phoenix as the “tunnel at the end of the light” before being interrupted by the man himself, who said: “I should have prepared something. I had plenty of time. My mom said, ‘Just be your authentic self,'” and indeed he was.

International Male Star of the Year Antonio Banderas talked about being spaced out since just 17 hours earlier he had been onstage at his new theater company in Spain doing A Chorus Line. “I have been a nominee for many years, and I never get here. Being a nominee is important, but you want to get up here, ” he said with complete honesty you don’t often hear during these kudos affairs. Laura Dern’s parents, Bruce Dern and Diane Ladd, were charming in the film clip package that led to her presentation, and then she brought down the house full of desert locals by revealing she was actually conceived in nearby Idyllwild, where her parents were making the 1966 biker flick, The Wild Angels. Rising Star winner Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome and proved it was not an impediment to giving a great performance in The Peanut Butter Falcon, won a rousing standing ovation as he admitted, “My dream came true right now.”


Lopez, who is new to getting awards recognition for her films, was emotional, genuine and pointed about what her role as Ramona in Hustlers has done for her, playing as she says “a female character of depth usually reserved for men in Hollywood.” She said it was a film by women, about women, starring women and it was turned down everywhere before STX’s Adam Fogelson and Robert Simonds gave it the green light. Foxx, there because of his role in the death row drama Just Mercy, praised the real-life lawyer who came to his character’s defense, Bryan Stevenson, who introduced him. He told a very personal and compelling story of his relationship with his father who was jailed for seven years just for possessing an illegal substance.


Theron, Zellweger and Driver all showed they were worthy honorees before De Niro, at whose Netflix table where I was seated came out to give Scorsese the Sonny Bono Visionary Award. In typical fashion he got off some good digs at the GOP, a favorite target of his, saying it is a different time now than when Bono — who was a Republican mayor of Palm Springs and later a U.S. congressman — actually supported and believed in the arts and created this festival. Scorsese profusely thanked Netflix for getting his film, The Irishman, made but also made some potent points about the future of film, just as Tarantino had. “You can’t have an art form without knowing its past,” the master filmmaker said before launching into criticism of the algorithms that streamers like Netflix covet. “They are dangerous and take away from your own creative viewing experience. … Art can’t survive without the business, and the business can’t survive without the art, without people who have something to say”.

At both the AFI Awards and Palm Springs, a lot of those people with “something to say” were duly honored, and even in this mad rush of a final month of the movie awards season it was a nice way to start the new year.

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