Why is this night different from all other nights? It is a question that Jews ask every Passover, and it's a question worth asking about the annual — and annually controversial — Hollywood Film Awards, which might be nicknamed Pass Over No Contender.
The 21st edition of the gathering that bills itself as "the official launch of the awards season" took place on Sunday night at the Beverly Hilton, and it was as packed as ever with Oscar hopefuls. I'm not here to debate the ethics of an awards show that has a less-than-transparent selection process and that only recognizes people who promise to collect their award in person — you can find that elsewhere. The fact of the matter is a hell of a lot of boldfaced-name Oscar hopefuls did show up — this year, Harrison Ford, Angelina Jolie and Gary Oldman, among many others — which, in my opinion, makes the event worth covering.
Why do they show up for the event, which is produced by Dick Clark Productions? That's where things get interesting: they do so at the urging of their publicists, because their publicists know that the event holds value for an awards hopeful — 110 past honorees went on to an Oscar nomination or a win — even if it's no longer televised (CBS bought and then dropped the show) and it takes place before virtually anyone in the room has even seen any of the work being recognized (the price the event must pay in order to be first).
In terms of what the value is, Corden actually hit the nail on the head with a comedic aside: "Look at tonight as a way to determine which screener you're going to watch first." I would submit that most Academy members watch only a dozen to two dozen of the eligible Oscar hopefuls before nomination voting, and presumably do not vote for things they haven't seen, making it pivotal to convince them that a film is worth checking out. Many Hollywood Film Awards attendees are Academy members, and so a gushing introduction, a powerful clip or an impressive acceptance speech that hits key talking points can have that effect. And, in order to reach those who aren't in the audience, there's value in being photographed posing on a red carpet, holding an award and giving an acceptance speech — it reinforces the notion, accurate or not, that the person has done award-worthy work.
So, all of this being the case, who may have moved the needle on Sunday night? Well...
This was the first big awards show of Hollywood's post-Harvey Weinstein era. He, Kevin Spacey and a handful of others who were staples at events like these weren't present. But Dustin Hoffman, who faced some allegations of his own last week (he was accused by one person of sexual harassment), showed up. The best supporting actor hopeful for The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) received very warm applause as he took the stage to present his costar Adam Sandler with the Hollywood Comedy Award. Additionally, Sandler gushed over him in his acceptance speech ("one of the greatest guys I ever met in my life") and, later, so did Oldman in his ("a hero of mine for so many years"). So it seems like Hoffman may be able to weather this storm.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth Olsen introduced Taylor Sheridan, her director on the Weinstein Co.-distributed Wind River, a film that directly deals with sexual assault. During Sheridan's acceptance of the Breakthrough Director Award, he spoke about the "epidemic" of sexual assault in the real world, noting that it has been spreading nowhere faster than in our own backyard, and saying, "Silence must not be tolerated anymore." The clip from his film, more than anything else, may pique people's interest in Wind River, but who knows if The Weinstein Co. — or whatever the company may be renamed in the near future — can even afford to mail screeners to voters.
Kate Winslet, accepting the Actress Award for Wonder Wheel, didn't avoid thanking that film's controversial director, Woody Allen — but thanked him specifically for writing great roles for women, which was an interesting way of walking a tightrope. The popular veteran also made headlines by kissing an actress she had just spoken glowingly of, Allison Janney — something that Sandra Bullock did with Meryl Streep while accepting an award en route to her Oscar for The Blind Side — which was funny. But there seems to be little momentum for her film in a year in which the best actress category is hugely competitive.
That brings me to Margot Robbie and I, Tonya, which had a very nice night. Not many seemed familiar with Noomi Rapace, the Swedish actress who, somewhat randomly, presented Robbie and her costars with the Ensemble Award. But the teaser for the film played very well. And Robbie, costar Sebastian Stan and later Allison Janney (accepting the Supporting Actress Award, after effusive praise from Winslet and Melissa McCarthy) all made endearing remarks. Now the big question is whether novice distributor Neon has the money and know-how to mount an effective campaign. If they do, I could see Robbie and Janney going the distance in their respective categories.
Jake Gyllenhaal, upon being presented with the Actor Award by Amy Adams, gave a very powerful and emotional speech — read from a teleprompter, but you would never know it if you didn't glance at the back of the room. Much of it was about how much he admires the real person he portrays in the already-released-but-little-seen Stronger, Jeff Bauman, a survivor of the Boston Marathon bombing. (Bowman, Gyllenhaal noted, planned to be at the event but couldn't because he was being fitted for new prosthetic legs.) My takeaway from the moment? Gyllenhaal and his team see an opening for a best actor win, particularly if Oldman stumbles, and they may well be right, as that category is pretty thin this year. Either way, I suspect a lot more people are looking forward to their Stronger screener after Gyllenhaal's clip and remarks.
On a lighter note, The Big Sick's cowriter and lead actor Kumail Nanjiani improvised a hilarious speech while accepting the Comedy Ensemble Award on behalf of himself and his costars, and that, along with the clip from the film, probably boosted its standing. Similarly, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri's Sam Rockwell, accepting the Supporting Actor Award on his birthday, scored points with his self-deprecating remarks, including: "It was either this or Benihana. I think I made the right choice."
Dee Rees' Mudbound got a lot of love. Sandler, out of the blue, proclaimed in his speech, "Mudbound is the best." Later, Viola Davis warmly introduced Mary J. Blige, the popular singer, as the recipient of this year's Breakthrough Actress Award, and, following a clip of Blige's work in the film as a poor housewife in the Jim Crow South, Blige came out on stage looking very glamorous — emphasizing the transformation she had undertaken, which tends to impress voters — and gave a very gracious and humble speech. Later still, Janelle Monae presented the film with the Breakout Ensemble Award — although it was a bit awkward for her to volunteer that she had only seen the film a few hours earlier.
Jacqueline Bisset handed the Foreign Language Film Award to First They Killed My Father cowriter/director Angelina Jolie and cowriter Loung Ung — after noting that Jolie is a Cambodian citizen, cowrote the script, shot the film in Khmer and with local talent, all key talking points for the film, which Bisset also called "extraordinary."
Timothee Chalamet, the third of the big three best actor hopefuls (along with Oldman and Gyllenhaal), was endearingly nervous in accepting the Breakthrough Actor Performance Award — although people who haven't yet seen his film, Call Me By Your Name, might have been confounded when he referenced Michael Stuhlbarg's speech of a lifetime, Armie Hammer dancing to eighties music and, above all, he himself "having sex with a peach."
And then there were the three standing ovations. The audience gave an enthusiastic one after Andra Day and Common's performance of "Stand Up for Something," the Song Award winner featured in Marshall, which seems to be the sole element of that film that is still being pushed for awards consideration. (It remains to be seen how its campaign will be impacted by current changes at its distributor, Open Road, whose CEO Tom Ortenberg is leaving the company.) Harrison Ford got a similar reception when he came out to present the Producer Award to his Blade Runner 2049 producers. And, at the end of the night, following a montage of his body of work and remarks from Corden, Oldman got one of his own. It was a long but special night for the presumptive best actor Oscar frontrunner, whose Darkest Hour director Joe Wright, in accepting the Director Award, described their work together as "the closest and most wonderful collaboration with an actor that I've ever experienced."