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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Paging Meryl and Robert

We’re down to the home stretch. In a few days, the Oscars will have been handed out and we will no longer be obliged to keep talking about film awards. Of course, the obligation is self-induced. Nobody has put a gun to my head, for example, and insisted that I keep talking about movie awards. But it is hard not to. Especially when there is one or more sets of fresh movie awards doled out every week.

Last weekend it was the IFTAs. Now, that one may have you scratching your head, even if you consider yourself fairly in the know about these things. The IFTAs, following our well-established formulation from last time, can be best described as the Irish Oscars. The awards of the Irish Film & Television Academy simply don’t get the same attention as do the neighboring jurisdiction’s BAFTAs (the British Oscars). This is almost certainly due to the difference in sizes of the two countries.

The truly essential difference between the BAFTAs and the IFTAs can probably best be encapsulated by this comparison. At the BAFTAs, Meryl Streep was nominated for Best Actress, for Doubt, and at the award ceremony she was there front and center in the audience. But she did not win. Kate Winslet did, for The Reader. One week later at the IFTAs, Meryl Streep was nominated for the Pantene Best International Actress (People’s Choice) Award, for Mamma Mia! And she won. But she was not there to collect it. Then the audience scratched its collective head when the presenter, Gráinne Seoige (news anchor turned afternoon chat show host), explained, a bit too dead pan, that Ms. Streep could not be there because she was working on a musical version of Sophie’s Choice. (Ha, ha.) The corresponding International Actor award went to Robert Downey Jr. for Iron Man, pointing up succinctly the difference between popular taste and industry judgment. And, no, he wasn’t there either.

A while back I wondered how it was that the ordinary Irish man or woman on the street could be so witty and entertaining but their chat show hosts could be so un-entertaining. This conundrum carries over to Irish awards shows. The previous week English radio and TV personality Jonathan Ross was very amusing as he carried out the hosting chores on the BAFTAs. The entire ceremony had an air of friends and colleagues relaxing and enjoying themselves and generally being glad to be there. By contrast, the atmosphere at the IFTAs seemed to be somewhat uptight and nervous—despite the fact that, unlike at the BAFTAs, the participants were sitting around tables where the bottles of wine seemed to be flowing copiously. And maybe that is the problem. Maybe everyone was stressed out worrying about when the best time would be to run off to the loo. But no, I think it runs deeper than that. I think Ireland is simply a much more socially complex place than Britain or, especially, America. And in so many ways that I can’t begin to list them here.

The host for the IFTAs was the witty and pleasant Ryan Tubridy, who has a morning chat show on the radio and an evening chat show on the telly. He is an extremely slender man who has to have his tuxes custom made. I don’t want to say that he is so slim and angular that, when you see him in profile, he disappears altogether, but to view him the name Ichabod Crane immediately comes to mind. He is known for his unflappable manner and good sense of humor, but he is not really a comedian or a comic. On the night, his jokes seemed somewhat awkward and the audience’s reaction perfunctory. I don’t know if he was nervous or if it was a case that the dire state of the Irish economy had put everyone on edge. Anyway, it was quite a contrast with Ross’s breezy and confident turn, before an audience more than ready to laugh, the week before.

In fairness, I don’t know if any the attempts at humor by presenters or recipients really went down that well. Tubridy’s best zinger of the evening came after the second time Des Bishop had bounded to the mic. His “factual programme” (as it was categorized) In the Name of the Fada was honored twice. (Technically, in both cases the recipient was the producer Pat Comer.) When it got the Special Irish Language award, the New York-born Bishop gave his acceptance as Gaeilge (in the Irish language), which was totally appropriate since the program was about Bishop’s learning and love and promotion of Irish Gaelic. (A Fada is the diacritical mark used in Irish writing, over letters like á.) When it won in the Factual Programme category, Bishop spoke in English and his attempt at humor (which can’t be repeated on a family web site) came off looking more ungracious than funny. Tubridy had a quick comeback that played on the Irish phrase Cúpla Focal (a couple of words) that genuinely was funny.

The funniest moment of the night had to be when English actor/comedian/TV presenter Shane Richie stepped up to present the award for Actress in a Lead Role (Television). He rambled on and on, almost as if on flow-of-consciousness exercise, bringing up every memory he could about his Irish roots (his birth surname was Roche, we learned) before someone off camera pointedly told him to get on with it. Looking disgusted, he groused, “Six hours to get here and then it’s all over in two minutes. It’s like sex with a stranger.”

Another major difference between the IFTAs and the BAFTAs is that, in the case of the BAFTAs, the movies nominated are all ones that you have actually seen or at least have heard of. In contrast, at the IFTAs Eileen Walsh won for Best Actress in a Lead Role for Eden, which seems to have had the most limited of releases and I’m not even sure played in Ireland at all. Young Saoirse Ronan got the Actress in a Supporting Role prize for the British film on Houdini Death Defying Acts, which likewise not that many people saw. (She was also nominated for Lead Actress for City of Ember). In most of the other film categories, however, the winners were better known. Predictably, the Bobby Sands movie Hunger did well (Best Film, Best Lead Actor for Michael Fassbender and Best Supporting Actor for Liam Cunningham). Lance Daly got Best Director for Kisses, Martin McDonagh got Best Script for In Bruges and the surfing film Waveriders got the inaugural George Morrison Feature Documentary Award. Morrison himself was there to be honored. The 86-year-old director of the painstaking chronicle of the 1916 Easter Rising in the historically important Mise Éire really provided the only moments of the night that were genuinely moving and truly significant.

It seemed a bit unfair that, in the Supporting Actor category, Liam Cunningham edged out legendary Peter O’Toole, who was nominated for Dean Spanley. But O’Toole did win in the same category in the television section, for playing Pope Paul III in The Tudors. And, no, O’Toole was not there to collect the award. Perhaps he was working a musical version of Lawrence of Arabia?

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Housekeeping note: I have shifted my ruminations on the extraordinary resemblance between President Obama and certain extraterrestrials over to a political blog that I have started elsewhere. It seems to be more appropriate over there. But don’t go reading it. You probably won’t like it.

-S.L., 19 February 2009

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