After the two oddest years in the history of the red carpet, when Covid restrictions saw stars accepting gongs from their sofas via Zoom, glitzy prizegivings as we (used to) know them are back. Last night’s BAFTA ceremony, from the Royal Albert Hall, marked the opening salvo of a two-week run-in of the biggies, as the Oscars follows at the end of the month. It was, reassuringly for fans and teeth-grindingly for detractors, the customary heady cocktail of self-absorption and virtue-signalling, along with acknowledgment of some very fine pieces of cinema. As well as Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast.
In recent years, awards ceremonies have tied themselves in all sorts of knots over their hosts. Straight white men are most definitely out and women are the preferred dish of the day, with women of colour the equivalent of a triple-word score. Yet no one with a memory could possibly argue that Australian comedy actress Rebel Wilson, BAFTA’s MC this year, was an improvement on the suave and erudite elegance of previous long-time favourite Stephen Fry. Wilson was dreadful, crass and gurned endlessly at her own insipid jokes. It says everything that she talked about the vital subject of her own weight loss before the little matter of cinemas worldwide bouncing back after being shut for a large chunk of the past two years. Or indeed the fact that this year marked the BAFTAs’ stately 75th anniversary. Was there an elegant montage encapsulating eight decades of celluloid magnificence? There was not (on the BBC broadcast, at least). Was there an extended segment that involved Wilson flinging gold bras around the Albert Hall? There was.
The BAFTAs like to pride themselves on being a must-watch precursor to the Oscars, which has led in previous years to accusations of their being too accommodating of mediocre Hollywood fare. A recent rejig of the voting system means far less of this, a situation which gives with one hand while taking away with the other. Some decidedly left-field, albeit artistically deserving and pleasingly British, nominations in major categories resulted in a notable lack of star wattage among the attendees. The glitziest names in the audience were Benedict Cumberbatch and Lady Gaga, both of whom managed not to win in their respective categories.
Cumberbatch, cruelly magnificent in The Power of the Dog, lost to Will Smith (King Richard), who didn’t even bother to turn up. BAFTA must surely be concerned at the number of times ‘Unfortunately X can’t be here tonight’ was the line that greeted an announcement. With travel restrictions now largely lifted, there were too many no-shows for anyone’s liking. Lady Gaga lost to – and here is a line I never imagined typing – Joanna Scanlan, British comedy favourite turned leading lady of note in the splendid low-budget study of grief, After Love. Scanlan’s gracious response was a cheerfully incredulous ‘Come on?’ Will Gaga get her revenge at the Oscars? She will not, by dint of the fact that neither she nor Scanlan have been nominated. Nor, for that matter, have Alana Haim (Licorice Pizza), Emilia Jones (Coda), Tessa Thompson (Passing) and Renate Reinsve (The Worst Person in the World). Reinsve is a particular marvel in this Norwegian relationship drama. Over in Hollywood in two weeks’ time, American A-listers Jessica Chastain and Kristen Stewart will duke it out for the honour of best actress, while the actual best performer in the category, Olivia Colman, will wonder why Oscar saw fit to give her a nomination while her home academy did not.
No-one likes a shoo-in of an awards ceremony where one film stacks up gong after gong. At least Wilson’s grim presenting duties – a cake in the image of Cumberbatch was another low(er) point – were mitigated by a succession of surprise wins. There was a lot of love for Coda, that agreeable Sundance hit about a deaf family with just one hearing member (Jones, in fine form) who finds herself torn between staying loyal to her roots and following her dreams. When the shock Scanlan v Gaga result was announced, all bets were off for Best Film and Best Director, previously thought to be a shoo-in for Jane Campion’s austerely beautiful revisionist western The Power of the Dog (a film that richly merits a repeat viewing; I got on considerably better with it second time around). Here the BAFTAs’ upsetting of the apple cart ended, however, and both Dog and Campion triumphed. Campion’s victory follows Chloe Zhao’s (Nomadland) in the same category last year; let us not forget that two women winning Best Director in as many years is beyond remarkable, given that BAFTA and Oscar essentially only discovered that female directors existed three years ago.
Campion, like Smith, also did not turn up to accept her award. The Oscars must be fervently hoping that the pair will be in attendance at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on 27 March – and that Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes (three women! Take that, the patriarchy) will make for better comperes than Rebel Wilson. A reassuring fact for the trio is that they would struggle to be worse.
The Oscars are on Sunday 27 March.