Everyone's British for a Night at BAFTA-LA's Britannia Awards, Even George Clooney

The group honored the "Gravity" actor -- as well as Kathryn Bigelow, Sacha Baron Cohen, Benedict Cumberbatch, Idris Elba and Ben Kingsley -- at its 22nd annual ceremony, where a hilarious stunt by Cohen stole the show.
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Left to right: Benedict Cumberbatch, Sacha Baron Cohen, Kathryn Bigelow, Sir Ben Kingsley, George Clooney, Idris Elba

The Beverly Hilton ballroom was jam-packed with stars -- many of them Oscar hopefuls -- on Saturday night for the 22nd annual BAFTA-LA Britannia Awards. The ceremony, an early stop on the annual awards circuit, recognizes Brits and non-Brits alike. This year's honorees -- all of whom were announced well in advance of the show and were in attendance -- included Benedict Cumberbatch with the Britannia Award for British Artist of the Year; Idris Elba with the BAFTA Los Angeles Britannia Humanitarian Award; Sacha Baron Cohen with the Charlie Chaplin Britannia Award for Excellence in Comedy; Kathryn Bigelow with the John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Excellence in Directing; Sir Ben Kingsley with the Albert R. Broccoli Britannia Award for Worldwide Contribution to Entertainment; and George Clooney with the Stanley Kubrick Britannia Award for Excellence in Film.

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The evening's host, British comedian Rob Brydon, kept the audience laughing between the presentations of the six awards with jokes, songs, stunts and impersonations. (Doing a spot-on imitation of Michael Caine, he said, "If George Clooney gets an Oscar for floating around in front of a green screen, I'll go down to the Batcave, get the Batmobile and run him over.") But the main focus was on the honorees.

Cumberbatch, best known as a villain in the Star Trek film franchise reboot and as the title character on the BBC's Sherlock, was the first up. The 37-year-old Brit is one of the hottest young actors in Hollywood -- even if one of his most recent big-screen vehicles, The Fifth Estate, in which he portrays WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, was a critical and commercial bomb. He was introduced by Chiwetel Ejiofor, his countryman and costar in a more successful recent release, 12 Years a Slave, and his Star Trek Into Darkness costar Alice Eve, with a video tribute in between the two in which his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) costar Gary Oldman recalled marveling of Cumberbatch, "Can an actor's name be longer than Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?!" Upon taking the stage, Cumberbatch dedicated his award to his parents and graciously said to Ejiofor, "Chiwetel, it feels bizarre that I'm standing here getting the British Artist of the Year Award after watching your performance in 12 Years a Slave."

Elba was up next, recognized with the Humanitarian Award -- which had been presented only twice before, to Colin Firth and Don Cheadle -- for his work with the Prince's Trust, an organization that aims to support youth from deprived upbringings to realize their dreams. Elba, the son of poor immigrants, was himself the beneficiary of a grant from the organization years ago, which helped him to start his career. He was introduced by Zindzi Mandela, a daughter of South African leader Nelson Mandela, who Elba plays in the forthcoming film Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. She said, "My family and I were very happy when Idris was cast to play my father, as he is one of the finest actors today.… Idris not only portrays my father brilliantly but shares his generous human spirit."

Elba was presented with his award by Sean Penn, America's ambassador-at-large to Haiti, who got laughs by opening with the line "Idris represents a unique dichotomy: he's manly and British," before turning serious and noting how awestruck he was by Elba's performance in Mandela: "I'm having a difficult time sitting next to Idris Elba tonight and thinking of him as a normal person." When Elba took the stage he quipped, "Zindzi, thank you so much for coming here tonight -- and you can stop calling me 'Dad' now." Then he said, "I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for the Prince's Trust.… Honestly, I feel a bit guilty standing up here because I know I could be doing a lot more." Looking at his award statuette, he said, "I'm gonna take it back to East London [where he grew up] and show them we can do it."

The mood shifted from serious to hilarious when Judd Apatow took the stage to introduce Chaplin Award recipient Cohen. "No man has ever deserved an award more than Sacha deserves this," the comedy producer said, "even though this year Sacha did not create any comedy work whatsoever." Apatow added, somewhat more seriously, "He is clearly the best, the funniest, the smartest, has the most balls, or, at least the largest balls … the most observant Jew I know … truly a groundbreaker," and emphasized, "I love him more than Sean Penn loves Idris Elba -- and Sacha does no charity work."

After a series of clips of Cohen's work, Salma Hayek and Grace Colington, introduced as the oldest living costar of Chaplin, greeted Cohen onstage with his award. Cohen accepted a kiss from Hayek and the gift of a Chaplin-esque cane from the frail Colington, with which he broke into a Chaplin-esque dance, only to trip and send the wheelchair containing Colington flying off the stage. The audience gasped in shock -- and then, eventually realizing that it was all a stunt, burst into laughter that lasted for several minutes, even as Cohen paid her fake tribute: "Grace Colington is the oldest -- sorry, was the oldest -- I dedicate this award to her. This is obviously a tragedy, but on the bright side what a great way to go: giving an award to me!" He added that her family better not threaten to sue him, because her wheelchair had injured him: "Seems like you've killed Ali G, too," he said, showing that he could no longer flap his hand in his character's trademark style. "Big ups, boo yakasha and good night," he said as he left the stage to massive applause.

That was a tough act to follow, but it was actress Jennifer Ehle's job to do so as she took the stage to speak about her Zero Dark Thirty director Bigelow. "I know almost nothing about Kathryn," Ehle said, "but I love her and I admire her. Everything you want to know is found in how and what she creates." Those sentiments were then echoed in a video clip of testimonials from others who have acted for Bigelow, the first woman to win a best director Oscar, including Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Willem Dafoe and Keanu Reeves. Then Ralph Fiennes, who starred in Bigelow's Strange Days (1995), stepped up to the mic, noting how, even after 77 days of grueling work, she would still show up on set "looking stunning … really beautiful … hot." Bigelow took the stage and said she was honored to receive an award "in the name of one of my greatest inspirations," Schlesinger, adding quietly, "I don't know how to process all of this, I have to admit."

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It was next Kingsley's moment in the spotlight, and he was first feted by his House of Sand and Fog (2003) costar Shohreh Aghdashloo. The Iranian actress called him "an incredible, amazing actor," noting that she first saw him 25 years ago in a play opposite John Gielgud and told the person with whom she attended, "I'll consider myself an actor when I can work with Ben Kingsley." 15 years later, she got her chance. A video tribute then played and included the aforementioned Caine -- no slouch of an actor himself -- telling Kingsley, "You're one of my favorite actors and one of the all-time greats" and Robert Downey Jr. adding, "You're one of the greats."

Then Sigourney Weaver, Kingsley's costar in the bizarre Death and the Maiden (1994), offered a few remarks, including "I can't think of an actor I would rather hog-tie," referring to an interaction between their characters in that film. When Kingsley stepped up to the microphone he remained silent for several seconds before saying, "I really am overwhelmed," and then paying "tribute to the extraordinary young actors I have worked with," calling them "the gladiators and poets of the 21st century" and advising them, "To tell a story is to heal someone somewhere."

The biggest star power was saved for last: Julia Roberts emerged from backstage in the same wheelchair used by "the late" Ms. Colington and then stood up, barefoot, to talk about her friend George Clooney -- or, "as my daughter calls him, 'George Looney.'" Roberts, who next will be seen in August: Osage County, a film on which Clooney served as one of the producers, read a note from another of the film's stars, Meryl Streep, that likened Clooney to a college boyfriend who seems just dreamy until you find out he has been cheating on you. Streep also cracked, "Now England thinks they can claim him? Wow, what's next? China?"

Clooney took the stage, offered heartfelt thanks to Roberts ("She's wonderful in August: Osage County") and then gave a characteristically humble and funny acceptance speech. "I rather famously don't have children -- yes, that I know of [in response to a comment from Roberts a few feet away] -- but I do have a family," he said, acknowledging his many industry collaborators. He recounted his pre-acting jobs back home in Kentucky as a tobacco cutter, a stockboy, a construction worker, a men's suits salesman and a women's shoe salesman, a job he particularly hated because sometimes he would have to deal with corns on women's feet. "And that's when I decided to move to Hollywood," he said to great laughter, before urging anyone with corns on their feet to find him after the show.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg