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Popwatch: BAFTA Awards

Popwatch: BAFTA Awards

An On-The-Scene account of a big night for The King's Speech

February 2011

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For the fifth year running, the BAFTAs were held at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London. They’re the British equivalent of the Oscars; fortunately, the TV awards were hived off years ago into a separate ceremony because, after all, would you want Annette Bening, Amy Adams and Mark Ruffalo to share a red carpet with the craggy, unfamiliar-with-botox-or-dentistry stars of Britain’s popular nighttime soap operas EastEnders and Coronation Street? (These shows have been running for decades.)

From my vantage point in “Print Pen 2” along the red carpet, (“Print Pen 1” is reserved for the UK’s tabloid newspapers, because, I’m told, “they ask all the embarrassing questions”), we glean two facts: One, the Opera House is a grand, imposing building that’s got a touch of British Empire about it, and Two, we are being shielded from the cold, pelting February rain by a clear plastic tarpaulin (the BAFTAs have a notorious legacy for attracting lousy weather). The hoi polloi across the red carpet divide aren’t so lucky; they look slightly forlorn holding placards that say things like “Accio J.K. Rowling!” (the Harry Potter franchise is getting the “Outstanding Contribution to British Cinema” award) and “Gerard Butler: We wanna train your dragon” (the lothario voice actor from How to Train Your Dragon is presenting the Best Actress prize) while a fleet of publicists occasionally attempt to rouse them into bouts of cheering in anticipation for the starry arrivals to come. The rain begins to fall harder, and the placards droop like wilted flowers towards the soggy pavement.

A rumour spreads that The Social Network crew are giving the BAFTAs a wide berth because The King’s Speech’s home-field advantage is so overwhelming, and while we’re waiting for someone, anyone, famous to appear on the red carpet, one wag decrees it “the night that no stars came out.” Which is unfair. Yes, BAFTA nominees like Natalie Portman (pregnant, can’t fly), James Franco (late for class, maybe?) and Jeff Bridges (genuflecting to Colin Firth) turn out to be no-shows, but there are plenty of  celebs who “show,” and not all of them Brits.

Squealing female chants of “Roo-putt! Roo-putt!” alert us to the fact that Rupert Grint, a.k.a. Harry Potter’s best friend Ron Weasley, is on the rug. The shrieking reaches fever pitch as Grint dashes dutifully back and forth from red-carpet press chatting to autograph signing and snapshot posing, but his appearance has unleashed the celebrity tsunami. Look! There’s Tim Burton with his unruly hair (but still dapper in black). And hey, here comes True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld (pictured, right), looking pretty darn stunning in a sparkling, jewel-encrusted sheer black top. And there’s Tom Ford, escorting Julianne Moore in a gorgeous, cobalt-blue number (designed by Tom Ford, natch).

And on and on: Bening, Adams, Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Aaron Sorkin, Emma Watson, Jessica Alba, Gemma Arterton, Dominic Cooper, Noomi Rapace (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo star – pictured left — making a tres bold statement in glittering gold) and Helena Bonham Carter, who looks fantastic in black Vivienne Westwood. Where’s that daffy, devil-may-care sartorial expressiveness? What does she think she’s doing being all… sensible on the red carpet?

In fact, this year’s BAFTAs are remarkable for their complete and utter lack of fashion disasters — it’s so impeccably tasteful, I get bored watching one drop-dead-gorgeous floor-length creation after another waft by, even if you can’t but admire their wearers’ willingness to go shoulder-bare in freezing temps. Minnie Driver sums it up best when she stops to say to me, “It is so astonishing that in one of the rainiest countries in the world we cannot have a fully-covered red carpet. I am wearing next to nothing and I’m going to go… but first I want to apologise for this precipitous, hilarious country.” Thandie Newton isn’t finding things nearly as amusing; her eyes blaze with annoyance when the train of her dress gets trod on. She even points out the offending culprit to her minder! The man will need to tread lightly, I think — Britain still has The Tower, you know.

As the ceremony is about to begin, instructions are barked over loudspeakers for attendees to take their seats now, and I rush to find mine, tripping up one flight of stairs then making a perilously steep descent down another to the front row of the opera house’s gilded, grandiose amphitheatre. Although I’m four balconies up, I spot Amy Adams, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton in a huddle by the stage. The show starts with a street dance/ballet mash-up which is fun and punchy but probably won’t have the Academy Awards’ production committee quaking in their boots. It’s not even that BAFTAs are like a scaled down version of the Oscars — this show is about doling out awards quickly, efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. I am liking the giant BAFTA masks on the stage though. It looks like they’ve been carved and left they’re by Easter islanders, with their giant reflections mirrored in a floor so smooth and shimmery I want to run down and rub my face on it.

The show’s regular emcee is Jonathan Ross, who was Britain biggest talk-show host until he and Russell Brand got canned by the BBC for leaving a lewd message on some British character actor’s voicemail during Brand’s radio program. He’s slick and funny, delivering an opening monologue in which he says “for our American friends, this is pretty much what all of Britain looks like,” while promising the crowd that security has been tightened so “Ricky Gervais cannot get into the building!” Ross has been known to give a mean tongue-lashing himself, but Gervais’ scorched-earth Golden Globes hosting has him on playing pussycat tonight.

Sir Paul McCartney strolls out to present the first award. Beat that! Okay, it’s only Original Music but it’s Sir Paul McCartney! And the winner is… Alexandre Desplat for The King’s Speech. Uh-oh, a sign that anyone not associated with that film is in for a long night? Not exactly. In fact, appearances are deceptive all evening. I’m convinced Annette Bening’s going to pull off the Best Actress upset because the seat planners have positioned her in the front row, ahead of her fellow nominees, a literal hop and skip from the stage and with her main rival Natalie Portman not even here. I’m wrong; Portman triumphs. And Speech’s initial dominance is quickly diluted when Inception, The Social Network and Alice In Wonderland run roughshod over it in “minor-league” categories like make-up and hair.

Speaking of hair, hasn’t the BAFTA statuette got a fine head of the stuff, unlike its bald American counterpart? It also has a coy smile and a winking eye. I think it’s coming onto me… Sorry, back to the show. We’re buzzing through in double quick time. There’s no funny business between presenters, no commercial breaks to contend with (it’s a BBC broadcast), it’s just get on and get off. When Jesse Eisenberg and Jennifer Lawrence do attempt some banter, perhaps in a dry run for the Oscars, they’re greeted with bemused silence. Inception takes art direction, and Christopher Nolan gets an awkward high five from one of his cohorts. And, oh surprise, Inception bags Visual Effects.

Just when I feel like shouting from the gods, “Come on already, give us a biggie!” James McAvoy arrives to ask us to take “a wee look” at the nominees for Best Supporting Actress, and gives the award to Helena Bonham Carter for King’s Speech. Handing her specs to Tim Burton, she mounts the stage and thanks the royal family “because they’ve done wonders for my career. I seem to be playing queens with ever-decreasing head sizes. Next year will be pinheaded queen.” She also thanks “the woman who does my vowels,” giving us four-minutes-plus of Bonham Carter wit. That would have sent the Oscar’s speech-killing orchestra into an apoplexy of musical fury.

When Kevin Spacey comes on next and impersonates Bill Clinton for reasons known only to himself, I want Ross to stage an intervention. But Spacey is followed on stage by the luminous Emma Watson, who presents Best British Film. The fact that BAFTA differentiates between Best British Film and Best Film leads me to wonder, What if The King’s Speech was anointed Best Film but not Best British Film? It’s up for both categories, after all. Wouldn’t that the defy the universe’s natural laws? Graciously, the universe it spared: The King’s Speech takes home the Best British Film prize.

Jessica Alba, resplendent in blue Versace but with what appears to be a coral snake wrapped around her neck, anoints yet another King’s Speech victor: Geoffrey Rush for Best Supporting Actor. He’s not on hand to accept. Fellow nominee Andrew Garfield — who has made the trip, albeit in Sony Pictures’ private jet straight from the LA set of Spider-Man — nods and claps emphatically at Rush’s win. As Alba offers a celebratory little “woo!” and sweeps off stage with Rush’s BAFTA, Ross throws out the slightly lascivious quip, “Beautiful, and she tidies up after herself.” Which perhaps throws off the rhythm of next presenter Rosamund Pike, who rips open the envelope to declare the Original Screenplay winner before the nominees have been announced. Ross dashes over to prevent her faux pas just in time.

And the winner is… King’s Speech, again. That’s followed by the Harry Potter franchise getting its big BAFTA backslap; Lee Unkrich accepting the Animated Film award for Toy Story 3; and Lee Unkrich making a joke about missing a cardio session that might have worked in health-conscious Los Angeles but gets the rictus-grin treatment from the Brits. Tom Ford looks incredibly youthful as he presents Rising Star to Tom Hardy, who’s also not here to accept (no excuse given). Once again, Rising Star nominee Garfield claps with unbridled enthusiasm, possibly spurred on by the camera right in front of his face. Garfield then leaps up alongside Jesse Eisenberg to congratulate Aaron Sorkin when he’s awarded Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network. The boys finally get up on stage themselves, but only to accept the award for Social Network‘s David Fincher, who scores a minor upset taking Best Director from the clutches of Tom Hooper for The King’s Speech. And Fincher does have an excuse for not being there: He’s in Sweden shooting The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Finally, we get Gerard Butler, who tries to lighten the mood by ribbing Pike’s earlier brush with presenting disaster before handing Portman’s Best Actress prize to her Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky, followed by Amy Adams, who announces Colin Firth’s inevitable coronation as Best Actor. The opera house erupts in loud applause. He’s the most popular winner of the night, hands down, even though he compares director Tom Hooper’s “thorough” working methods to getting a rectal examination, but in that polite, refined British way that makes anything sound utterly charming and delightful.

The King’s Speech wins the at-this-point-foreordained Best Film, and then it’s off to the dinner and after-party bash at the Grosvenor House hotel. The wife of a studio executive laughs as we all file out of the opera house and onto buses to get us there, but then has to admit that getting the bus beats waiting hours for lines of limos to snake by.

With the champagne and vodka cocktails flowing, publicists fend off my attempts to chat to their merry-making clients. By the time the witching hour passes, most are at the Weinstein/Momentum Pictures bash at London’s newly-opened W Hotel, where I pay witness to some peculiar celebrity pair-offs: Noomi Rapace locked in conversation for ages with Amy Adams; Emma Watson looking cute and cosy beside Darren Aronofsky; and Colin Firth and Mark Ruffalo laughing loud, long and hard right next to them. Nearly 12 hours after first touching foot on the red carpet I decide it’s time to call it a night, and find myself once again in the vicinity of Rupert Grint, who’s raising his own white flag to the evening. As we emerge into the night side by side, there are no cries of “Roo-putt!” merely a big bank of paparazzi flashing away as Grint is swiftly ushered into a waiting car and I’m jostled by a belligerent snapper who snarls, “Are you ‘is bruvver? Then get outta the way…”

And I do, catching a taxi round the corner away. But hey folks, this PopWatch does end on a happy note, because, at last, it stopped raining. On the British film industry’s biggest night, that was my big win: I manage to make it home without ever getting soaked.

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