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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Bits from Brits

“How come the Americans get to be in the BAFTAs?” the Missus wanted to know after we had watched the awards telecast on Sunday evening.

I had to confess that I didn’t rightly know. A quick internet search would probably sort me out as to the rules for eligibility and consideration for these—as they inevitably must be dubbed—British Oscars. Every award given anywhere in the world, by decree of all media style kits, must be described as being that field’s equivalent to the Oscars. The Genies are always referred to as the Canadian Oscars. The Césars are always referred to as the French Oscars. And the BAFTAs (for British Academy of Film and Television Arts) are always referred as the British Oscars. And this coming weekend we will have the somewhat less known 10-year-old IFTAs (for Irish Film and Television Awards), which I personally like to think of as the Irish Golden Globes. But it doesn’t stop there. Some people even refer to, say, the Nobel Prize for Science as the Science Oscar. Clearly, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka the American Oscars) have a lock on the preeminent awards franchise, and the press keep leveraging it to bring excitement to all the other awards.

And, by the way, if you are in America and wondering how you missed the BAFTAs on your TV, it is probably because you spent Sunday evening watching the Grammys, which are also known as (you guessed it) the music Oscars.

Now logically we would expect the BAFTAs to be exclusively or primarily about British filmmaking talent. And it’s true that some Brits were not only among the nominees but even among the winners. But then you had categories like, say, Best Actor, in which three of the four (Frank Langella, Sean Penn and Brad Pitt) were Yanks. (Dev Patel of Slumdog Millionaire was the only Brit in the group.) And there was no actor who could rightly be considered British among the Best Supporting Actor nominees: Robert Downey Jr. (for Tropic Thunder!), Brendan Gleeson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brad Pitt (for Burn After Reading!)

But never mind the actors, what about the films that were nominated in different categories? Were any of them truly British? Now there we have a problem because, as we have discussed here before, attaching a nationality to a movie has gotten quite tricky because, in the case of major productions, the talent and the money for each of them tend to come from a lot of different countries. But you could go by the nationality of the director, couldn’t you? Well, by that criterion, the winner of the Best Film award, Slumdog Millionaire (directed by Englishman Danny Boyle), qualifies, as well as one other nominee, The Reader (directed by Englishman Stephen Daldry). But Slumdog was filmed entirely in India with the participation of mostly Indian talent on and off camera. And The Reader is a U.S.-German production filmed in Germany, albeit with British stars. But the other nominees (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon and Milk) can make no particular claim that I can discern to British-ness, although Frost/Nixon was written by Englishman Peter Morgan and features several fine British actors, led by Welshman Michael Sheen as David Frost.

Maybe this liberal inclusion of non-British talent in the BAFTAs explains why, in addition to the Best Film award, there is also the Alexander Korda Award for Outstanding British Film of the Year. Surely, all of the nominees in this category were kitchen sink domestic dramas about boozy blue-collar types in London’s East End, no? In a word, no.

Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for this award as well as in the Best Film category, but it did not win. Because it was not quite British enough? Well, you be the judge. Instead of Slumdog, which as we noted was set in India, the winner was a documentary about, uh, a Frenchman that mostly divided its filming between France and New York City. Still Man on Wire, directed by Cornish filmmaker James Marsh, was a stunning movie that was not undeserving. And, anyway, none of the films nominated for this award were actually set in Great Britain. Steve McQueen’s Hunger was set in Northern Ireland (technically in the UK but definitely not in Britain, which as a resident of Eire I am obliged to emphasize). Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! was filmed on some Greek island. And London-born Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges was filmed, well, the title completes this sentence. And it starred two Irishmen, which gets us into the tricky area of the Irish being up for British awards. That can be a bit of a sore point for historical reasons. Just last Friday Irish Times film critic Donald Clarke pointedly questioned how County Tipperary man Pat Shortt managed to tie (with Michael Sheen) for Best Actor in the Evening Standard British Film Awards for his performance in the very Irish film Garage.

If you are starting to worry that U.S. imperialism is inexorably extending its hegemony over the BAFTAs, maybe it would be safe to assume that the Academy Fellowship that was handed out Sunday night went to a dyed-in-the-wool Brit. This is, after all, a prestigious honor that has previously gone to such film luminaries as Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Charlie Chaplin, Alec Guinness, John Gielgud, Stanley Kubrick and many others. But wait, the list also includes Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty and Steven Bochco and even some French people like Jacques Cousteau, Louis Malle and Jeanne Moreau. And sure enough, this year’s new fellow was Minnesotan Terry Gilliam. But in fairness, Gilliam (the untamed genius behind such masterpieces as Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King, Twelve Monkeys and the upcoming The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Heath Ledger’s final film) has fairly good bona fides for being considered a genuine member of the British film and television community. He is after all a charter member of the immortal Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Despite the confusion (on my part anyway) about what exactly the BAFTAs signify, I have to say that watching the BAFTA award ceremony is much nicer to watch than the Oscars. For one thing, it is in the right time zone for me. For another, it is much shorter, although the BBC does confuse things by requiring viewers to change channels part way through. The atmosphere is more relaxed and convivial. The acceptance speeches don’t go on and on, even though they are not time-limited by an orchestra that starts playing loudly after 30 seconds. And (with the possible exception of years in which Billy Crystal hosts the Oscars) the British host is funnier. Radio/TV personality Jonathan Ross got off some really good zingers, particularly one about Mickey Rourke being suspended after his liberal use of the F word. (Ross, along with Russell Brand, was suspended from the BBC in October over a prank phone call, broadcast on the radio, to actor Andrew Sachs, aka Manuel on Fawlty Towers, in which the duo made lewd remarks about the actor’s granddaughter.)

One of the best moments of the evening was the Orange (as in cell phone company) Rising Star Award. The front-runners were supposedly Canadian Michael Cera, who has specialized in playing geeky teens in movies like Superbad and Juno and Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, and Englishwoman Rebecca Hall, of Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Frost/Nixon. Also nominated were German-born/Ireland-raised Michael Fassbender (300, Hunger, Eden Lake) and Toby Kebbell (Control, RocknRolla). But the winner turned out to be Londoner Noel Clarke. And that seems right to me. Of the field, he is the only one not only to have acted in numerous movies and TV shows but also to have written and directed a feature film, Adulthood, a sequel to Kidulthood, which he also wrote. He also wrote a rather intense episode of the Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood, called “Combat,” which was a sort of an extraterrestrial riff on Fight Club. But, as fans know, he has a much more integral connection to the good Doctor than that. Since the beginning of the revised Doctor Who series, Clarke has made regular appearances as Mickey Smith, a character who grew from timid boyfriend of the Doctor’s companion Rose Tyler to a confident and intrepid inter-dimensional freedom fighter.

But how to explain the inclusion of so many Americans in what are nominally British awards? My personal theory: President Obama’s new emphasis on diplomacy is already paying dividends. Speaking of which, in perusing the betting web sites (purely for research purposes, of course), I have learned that, among the things that one can wager on regarding the Oscars, is the number of acceptance speeches that will mention Barack Obama. Noel Clarke made the only speech at the BAFTAs (that I heard anyway; I didn’t see the whole thing) that referenced the new U.S. president—although he did not do so by name. Clarke finished his acceptance by simply raising his arm and exclaiming, “Yes, we can!”

-S.L., 12 February 2009

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