By Caelyn O’Reilly
The British Academy Film Awards are somewhat of a black sheep in the trinity of lavish, self-indulgent film awards ceremonies in the early months of each new year. Their bizarre practice of pre-recording the ceremony – so the winners end up announced before it’s even televised – then editing out a bunch of the technical and ‘smaller’ awards, makes it a very lacklustre viewing experience. Though that being said, there’s a lot to say about the awards and the ceremony itself.
First, and most obvious, is the sweep of “1917”. Seven wins out of nine nominations, only losing Makeup and Hair to “Bombshell” and Original Score to “Joker”. Not unexpected given the film’s staggering momentum this awards season, plus the film being British which the BAFTAs highly favour. But it’s still telling. Expect “1917” to make a similar sweep of the upcoming Academy Awards, with a near-guaranteed shot at Best Picture and Best Director, winning both of its equivalents here.
Arguably its main competitor for the top prize at the Oscars is now “Parasite”. It took Film Not in the English Language to the surprise of exactly no one. But what did shock many, including Bong Joon-ho himself, was it nabbing Best Original Screenplay. In his acceptance speech, he admitted how surprised he was that a film written in Korean took this award. And a pleasant surprise it is, though I am a touch disheartened that this prevented “Knives Out” and “Booksmart” (my favourite and second fave films of 2019 respectively) from taking home any wins.
The British Academy Film Awards are somewhat of a black sheep in the trinity of lavish, self-indulgent film awards ceremonies in the early months of each new year. Their bizarre practice of pre-recording the ceremony – so the winners end up announced before it’s even televised.
The other three dominant forces in this year’s awards race saw mixed results at the Royal Albert Hall. Joker led the pack with eleven nominations, ultimately winning three: Best Actor (not surprised, but disappointed), Original Score (likewise), and the brand-new Casting award. This last one is particularly confusing to a layperson such as me who looks at a year full of flawless ensemble casts in “Little Women”, “Parasite”, “Knives Out” and many others not even get nominated, losing to a film with a comparably small cast with only its lead performance being seen as particularly noteworthy by the various awards bodies. It will take a few years for trends to emerge so we can begin to see what makes this award tick, but given this decision, it may hinge more on one particularly perfect casting choice as opposed to ensembles.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” were equal second with ten nominations each. “OUaTiH” received just one win for Brad Pitt, who took the opportunity that being absent provided to throw shade at the UK via Margot Robbie (who managed to find a way to give an acceptance speech despite not winning either of her two Supporting Actress nods). Too soon, Brad. Too Soon. Though Tarantino’s film still had a stronger showing than “The Irishman”, not taking home a single BAFTA.
This is particularly telling when it comes to how Netflix is being received by these awards groups. The streaming company led the nominations with twenty-three nods across six of its films (Sony trailed in second with sixteen, mostly for “OUaTiH”). Yet it only won two awards, Laura Dern for Supporting Actress – somehow for “Marriage Story” and not “Little Women” – and the delightfully surprising win for “Klaus” in the Animated Film category.
These groups have been clearly hesitant to get on board with awarding films primarily released on-demand, often altering their eligibility rules to make it even harder for such films to compete. This disastrous result for Netflix seems to prove they are not yet over their hesitancy. Will the familiar style of Scorsese bring it more success at the Oscars? We shall see, but it’s looking increasingly doubtful. Though the under-performance of these three contenders makes the inevitable “1917” Oscar sweep all the more certain.
But the BAFTAs aren’t just here to help us hyper-obsessed movie nerds predict the Oscars. The ceremony itself provided some noteworthy moments. There was an awkward Cirque du Soleil tribute to Judy Garland. Much like the film “Judy”, it was surprisingly underwhelming and boring given the amount of talent involved. Taika Waititi gave a comically biting speech that referenced Brexit and British imperialism. Nice. Jessie Buckley gave a tear-jerking performance of the song “Glasgow” from “Wild Rose”, a tragedy that it’s not even up for the Original Song Oscar.
Joaquin Phoenix handled the situation best in his Best Actor acceptance speech where he quite cathartically called out the “systemic racism” of the film industry while recognising his own place in furthering that system.
There was a lot of self-deprecating humour, particularly aimed at “Joker” and “The Irishman”, though it was that kind of feigned mockery that still supports what it’s joking about. Praising with faint damnation, if you will. Though “Cats” was roundly lampooned by all and sundry. Especially by star Rebel Wilson, who gave a truly cringe-worthy speech (or as the BAFTA YouTube channel would describe it: “iconic”, “funny” and “incredible”) which included a vaguely transphobic gag about audience members “not identifying” as distinguished guests. And while she did manage to squeeze in a joke about the overwhelming maleness of the directing nominees, it was by equating testicles with male.
*sighs in trans*
This makes a neat segue into talking about representation, that topic that now looms over every film awards show. Host Graham Norton and many others who took the stage that night referenced the issue directly, in a wide mix of jokes and sincere acknowledgement of the issues. Prince William, British royal and BAFTA’s president, gave what was essentially an apology speech for the overwhelming lack of diversity in the nominations. He stated there will be a “full and thorough review” of the awards process to ensure representation of “men and women from all backgrounds”.
*sighs in non-binary*
The closest the BAFTAs came to transgender representation this year was a clip from “The Crying Game” during the In Memoriam segment. But, of course, the more obvious signs of the problem came in the lack of any people of colour in the acting categories and the dominance of men in Best Director. The homogeneity was made all the more unmissable by the Year In Film montage including clips from notable snubs “Hustlers”, “Dolemite is My Name” and “Blinded by the Light”. The last of which is especially galling given the overwhelming Britishness of the film.
Joaquin Phoenix handled the situation best in his Best Actor acceptance speech where he quite cathartically called out the “systemic racism” of the film industry while recognising his own place in furthering that system, acknowledging that it was the job of him and the other wealthy, connected people in that room to change things. A very refreshing sentiment that made Renée Zellweger’s Best Actress speech, that was just a minute-long list of names to thank, frivolous by comparison.
The night ended with BAFTA Fellowship Award being awarded to Kathleen Kennedy, one of the most prolific and successful women in the film industry, who has produced dozens of the most beloved blockbusters of the past four decades. And also “The Rise of Skywalker” (yes I am still salty). Personal gripes aside, this was a lovely moment. But it seems with every shuffling step forward these shows make in terms of representation, the goal recedes further into the distance. It’s telling that the most consistently diverse nomination group is in the EE Rising Star Award (this year going to “Blue Story” star Michael Ward) is the one category voted on by the public.
To conclude, I’d like to point out an interesting trend of classicism in this year’s BAFTAs. “1917”, the long take WWI bromance film reminiscent of the first Best Picture winner, “Wings”, dominated the awards. Outstanding Debut went to a 16mm black and white drama. “Klaus” became the very first 2D animated film to win in that category. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into this. But I believe it’s telling that in this new decade, with all new possibilities and dozens of new, exciting and diverse films to choose from, the BAFTAs are looking back to far more classical filmmaking styles and genres. Perhaps if these awards bodies are to be brought into the future, they need to be dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 2020s.