BAFTA, whose last link with the film industry stalwarts that lent it its prestige, Richard Attenborough, died last year, put itself on the map when it moved its award ceremony to a position between the Golden Globes and The Academy Awards. The move, however, only heightened its sobriquet of ‘Oscar’s Little Helper’, in the words of the late Alexander Walker. Awards for ‘Best British Film’ and ‘Rising Star’ notwithstanding, there is little to distinguish the BAFTA’s safe voting ‘across the board’ from the big Hollywood bash just two weeks away.
Whatever buzz and importance might have been injected into the staid ceremony by the presence of Wes Anderson and Richard Linklater was steamrolled by the Director’s Guild Awards. BAFTA showered seven awards on The Grand Budapest Hotel (including Best Screenplay, music, costume and production design), but Anderson was over 3,000 miles away. And while BAFTA was crowning Richard Linklater Best Director for his masterpiece, Boyhood, which also won Best Film, Linklater himself was in Los Angeles, where, in a rare upset, he lost to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu (also absent) for Birdman.
As for the rest, the result was so tiresome that it took Mike Leigh, who came away empty handed for Mr Turner, to spice up the event with his spirited BAFTA Fellowship Award speech. He began by telling the audience that those who expected him to be rude were in for a disappointment, as he was truly honoured with his award. But, like Marc Anthony’s funeral elegy to the discredited Julius Caesar, his promise turned subversive in an unmistakable diatribe against all the financiers who turn down truly independent films (like his).
He said that, in retrospect, he was grateful ‘to those boneheads, philistines and uninspired skinflints who said no,’ as they would have insisted on the kind of heavy-handed editorial control that makes ‘a pig’s ear of the whole thing.’ If Leigh’s argument was diminished somewhat by his output over the years which found funding without so much as a script, his fiery rebellion made everyone feel better about themselves. He ended his acceptance speech with a ‘may they rot in hell’ wish to the skinflints and marched out to polite applause.
But what were the BAFTA members present applauding if not their own lack of creative or original thinking? The same five films were, once again, nominated over and over for every award category, as though these were the only films the BAFTA voters had bothered to see or could remember.
Usually, it is the foreign film category that shows some independence from Hollywood, but this year, Ida, a contrived and exploitative, if beautifully shot and acted drama was voted Best Film Not in the English Language, rather than the hard-hitting anti-Putin saga Leviathan or the 3-hour Palme D’Or winner, Winter Sleep (not even nominated). Citizenfour predictably won Best Documentary (off camera), but it is sad that the remarkable Dinosaur 13 escaped BAFTA’s radar. The one show of independence was the award to the Lego movie for Best Animated Film.
You cannot fault BAFTA voters for acknowledging British actor Eddie Redmayne’s talent with the Best Actor Award in the Theory of Everything. He turned a typical British biopic into an acting master class with his uncanny portrayal of living legend Stephen Hawking. Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s revelatory memoir, the film also took the ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ prize. Whatever the merit of this award, it was not Jane, but Stephen who presented an award alongside the wonderful actress who plays Jane, Felicity Jones.
Happily, actresses over 40 fared better. Seldom has anyone deserved a Best Supporting Actress Award more than Patricia Arquette for Boyhood (even if she is the film’s main actress). The 54-year-old, five-times-Oscar nominated star Julianne Moore was crowned Best Actress for her role in Still Alice, which, unfortunately, British audiences have not yet seen. The euphoria over a 50-something actress taking the prize was somewhat diminished by this fact, and the Award’s predictability: Moore is the favourite for Best Actress at the Academy Awards.
If you go back over the critical reviews for 2014, you will see a dozen or so films that received equal or higher praise than The Imitation Game or The Theory of Everything, but were not nominated in any category. Among these was Blue Ruin, a terrific, truly independent film, shot on a shoestring budget by an unknown Writer/Director (Jeremy Saulnier) with an unknown lead actor (Malcolm Blair). Blue Ruin, called ‘an exhilarating astonishment’ by the Washington Post, received a score of 96% on the film critic’s website Rotten Tomatoes, compared to 80% for The Theory of Everything and 89% for the Imitation Game, a score that owed more to Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role than to the film itself.
The BAFTA’s are, like the Academy Awards, dependent on television audiences for their existence. For this reason they need to parade popular choices and big stars on the red carpet so that people will tune in and advertisers or sponsors will support them. The BBC, which broadcasts the BAFTAs, is less dependent on advertising revenue than the Academy Awards, but you’d never know it from the timid choices.
There is still, however, a fear that no one will tune in to see unknown actors on the Red Carpet or a celebration of the kind of film Mike Leigh was celebrating. The bigger fear, however, is that the 6,000 BAFTA voters, only about half of whom actually work in the film industry, did not bother to see Blue Ruin, or Steven Knight’s tense, experimental film Locke – or Viggo Mortensen’s brilliantly subtle performance in the Two Faces of January. Or, if they did, how many forgot about these possible choices as they were swept away by the tide of awards ceremonies, like the Golden Globes, and the bombardment of advertising for big five?
We’d be interested to hear your views on these awards? Ed.