Vanessa Redgrave accepts the lifetime achievement award. (Photo: BAFTA/Brian Ritchie)
By Lee Pfeiffer
Just because the BAFTA awards was the social event of the season in London doesn't mean British ex-pats were willing to let their countrymen have a monopoly on partying. On Sunday night, members of BAFTA's American east coast contingency gathered to watch a simulcast of the awards show. The venue was a strange one for people from a nation that is generally immune to the joys of baseball: Mickey Mantle's restaurant on Central Park South, founded by the late New York Yankees legend. Indeed, it was not a love of baseball that led BAFTA officials to rent the venue for the second year in a row. Rather, it was the abundance of TV screens strategically placed around the restaurant that affords virtually every diner a prime viewing spot. I was the guest of Lisa Harrison of BBC America, and a member of BAFTA's east coast office. Thus, I had to 'suffer' being the only male at a table of charming British ladies, each of whom had some very interesting takes on how they wanted the awards to turn out. Understandably, they were rooting for the home team and were pleased when a British film won a significant award.
Host Jonathan Ross (Photo: BAFTA/Brian Ritchie)
Although the show's host Jonathan Ross is largely unknown to Americans, he's an iconic figure on British TV (imagine someone with the clout of Jay Leno and David Letterman). Ross's monologue was not as razor-sharp as we might have expected, but the refreshing thing about the BAFTA telecast is that it is actually about the films and filmmakers, not the comedic timing of the host. I also like the fact that there is virtually no padding to the ceremonies. Ross did a good job of moving the show forward at a rapid pace, with nary a second wasted. The acceptance speeches were all dignified and classy and the awards themselves were generally regarded by the New York contingent as well-deserved. (Interestingly, it seemed virtually no one was cheering for Avatar to win any major award except for the category of special effects. This led me to believe I am not alone in my view that the film is supremely over-rated.) The choices of director Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker as the top winners gained cheers from the crowd.
My dinner companions filled me in on the merits of a number of British films that have received scant attention in the States. Everyone recommended director Duncan Jones' Moon, a sci-fi film starring the very under-rated Sam Rockwell. (The film is available on DVD through Amazon). Another winner I have to finally catch up with is the acclaimed An Education. There was great enthusiasm with the announcement that Prince William will now be the Academy President, taking over from Lord Attenborough. The popular royal will undoubtedly bring an even higher profile to the organization. A highlight of the evening was the lifetime achievement award to Vanessa Redgrave. It's been quite a long time since Redgrave stunned the Oscars with a firebrand political speech she made in accepting her award for the 1978 film Julia. However, there were no such fireworks this night. Redgrave was gracious and genuinely touched and the presentation was clearly the highlight of the evening.
Yanks among the Yankees: Cinema Retro editor-in-chief Lee Pfeiffer with film critics Shirley Sealy and Harry Haun at Mickey Mantle's restaurant.
Nobody does high profile film events like the Brits. Hollywood long ago ceded the glamor to London. Take movie premieres, for example. In America, these now generally consist of a bunch of scroungy looking people gathering in converted airline hangars for a few beers before taking off into the night. However, the red carpet, tuxedos, gowns and genuine luster are still the order-of-the-day in England. Similarly, the BAFTA awards were classy, elegant and happily devoid of the Barbie and Ken teams of actors and actresses who engage in awkward "spontaneous" conversation before presenting Oscars. With Mickey Mantle's providing an endless array of tempting food as well as a liberally-utilized open bar for the evening, the event was great fun to attend. However, it was still a strange experience watching the ultimate British film event amidst memorabilia relating to Mickey Mantle and Joe Dimaggio...
For photos, video and a complete list of the awards, click here for the BAFTA web site.