Hollywood Film Awards: What Went Down and Why It Mattered

Benedict Cumberbatch Hollywood Film Awards P 2014
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP


Benedict Cumberbatch Hollywood Film Awards P 2014

The fashionable thing to do these days, at least in some journalistic circles, is to trash the Hollywood Film Awards, which bills itself as "the official launch of the awards season." Some do so because they don't like Carlos de Abreu, the man who founded the event 18 years ago. Some do so because they feel there should be more transparency about the way HFA winners are selected — according to their organizers, a committee of 12 people, whose names are kept private and whose motivations include not only merit but also ratings-appeal, make the choices. Some do so because they think it's weird to give out awards to movies that most of the public hasn't yet seen. And some do so because they just like to complain and snark from the sidelines.

My position has always been that, like them or not, the HFA are worthy of coverage by awards columnists/bloggers like myself — just like the Golden Globe Awards and the National Board of Review Awards, which aren't very transparent either — because most of the top Oscar contenders show up for them, and when they do anything en masse, especially in front of a massive audience (as was the case this year when HFA, which is now owned by Dick Clark Productions, which, in turn, is owned by The Hollywood Reporter's parent company, was nationally televised for the first time), then, well, it's news.

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Among those who were in attendance on Friday night were Unbroken's Angelina Jolie, The Imitation Game's Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, Gone Girl's Ben Affleck, Still Alice's Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart, The Theory of Everything's Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, The Judge's Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall, The Fault in Our Stars' Shailene Woodley, Birdman's Michael Keaton, Wild's Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, Top Five's Chris Rock, Foxcatcher's Steve Carell and Channing Tatum and Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon's Mike Myers. That list is pretty damn impressive — and doesn't even include presenters such as Johnny Depp, Jennifer Lopez and Robert Pattinson and studio chieftains like Harvey Weinstein, Nancy Utley, Michael Barker and Tom Bernard.

I think that the holier-than-thou crowd could use a reality check: Even the Oscars, that oldest and most revered of awards season institutions, was created as a promotional vehicle for the movies made by the studios whose leaders founded the Academy. (Moreover, over its first few years, the winners of the Oscars were determined by a Central Board of Judges of five people, overseen by MGM chief Louis B. Mayer.) In short, it's a tale as old as time. This is show business. And it's silly to act like Casablanca's Capt. Renault — "shocked, shocked" — to discover that anyone and everyone in this town will jump at the chance to improve their position.

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Does the fact that 12 people decided to give Gone Girl the top prize reflect how the Academy was thinking before the ceremony? Of course not. But giving it to Gone Girl makes sense for the the HFA and CBS (the film has been a blockbuster, increasing the likelihood that people know about it and won't change the station if they see it on the air). Accepting the award makes sense for the folks behind Gone Girl (for the price of getting Ben Affleck to show up and accept the award from Ron Howard, they got tons of free promotion for a movie that is still in theaters and that wants to be seen as an awards-type of movie). And the net result may be that yes, Gone Girl's Oscar position is strengthened by having been given a major award on national television in a room packed with industry insiders. (Haven't gotten around to the movie yet? Now you might prioritize doing so.) In other words, to some degree, it can all become a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is a big part of why the studios play along with the HFA.

For movies that have not yet been seen by the vast majority of moviegoers — i.e. Unbroken, Still Alice, Foxcatcher, The Imitation Game, etc. — the motivations and benefits of a HFA appearance are even clearer: the recipient of each award was introduced by a fawning celebrity; was featured in a flattering clip reel; and then got to give a speech — off of a teleprompter, for many — that enabled him or her to hit all of their major talking points. This was a great opportunity for a studio and its talent, especially now that the show is on CBS (regardless of the ratings) — essentially, a free ad for a movie that is about to be released. (The telecast itself told viewers right at the beginning that they would be getting a look at "the highly anticipated movies you are going to want to see" and that it would serve as "a guide to films that are going to be coming to theaters.")

The show also offered a boost to lesser-known talent seeking to establish themselves in the minds of industry insiders — provided a big-name presenter could be found to hand them their prize. Not many people have seen The Imitation Game or previously knew the name of its Norwegian director, Morten Tyldum, but tonight Tyldum was awarded the top directing prize (and was introduced by Robert Pattinson), perhaps in part as a tradeoff for The Weinstein Co. delivering Cumberbatch and Knightley for the top actor and supporting actress prizes. Suddenly, he looks like someone people need to know. To some extent the same is true for Gone Girl screenplay winner Gillian Flynn (introduced by Hilary Swank), breakthrough director winner Jean-Marc Vallee (introduced by his Wild star Witherspoon) and New Hollywood winner Jack O'Connell (introduced by his Unbroken director Jolie).

What else stood out to me during Friday night's festivities, aside from J-Lo's funny verbal flub introducing How to Drain — er, Train — Your Dragon and Johnny Depp's apparent inebriation introducing Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon?

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Duvall was very warmly received by the crowd — with a standing ovation — following a nice buildup from his Judge costar Downey, who said, a tad hyperbolically, that the 84-year-old's work in the film "matches his best roles to date" and that "there's never been anyone better and there likely never will be." Duvall is great — but he could use a speechwriter.

Still Alice's Julianne Moore is in for a fun season: she got a standing ovation for a performance that very few people have already seen, largely on the basis of a great clip reel — so just imagine what sort of a reception she'll get when people see that she actually gives a great performance.

Redmayne is ready for primetime. Accepting the breakthrough performance by an actor award (the same one that Jared Leto won last year en route to his Oscar win), the young Brit gave a self-deprecating, gracious, charming speech that only further endeared him to those in the room. People who haven't yet gotten around to seeing his film, The Theory of Everything, may now feel more motivated to do so.

A night after its AFI Fest screening, Foxcatcher got another nice profile-boost: Presenting the ensemble award, Jonah Hill, the 22 Jump Street costar of Tatum and Oscar nominee for director Bennett Miller's last film Moneyball, went off-script to declare, "Foxcatcher is the best movie in years — straight up, no bullshit... the winner for best actors ever: the cast of Foxcatcher." (Carell had a funny follow: "It is perhaps not the best film in history. Last 50 years? Perhaps.")

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Woodley may have won the breakthrough performance by an actress award for her portrayal of a 16-year-old on screen, but with that cleavage-baring dress she definitely doesn't want you to think of her anymore as just another pretty young thing, but rather as a sexy leading lady. Leading ladies regularly get nominated for Oscars; pretty young things rarely do.

A standing ovation greeted career achievement honoree Michael Keaton (Birdman) — but it did feel weird to see a man of just 63, who never really made a great movie until this year, getting that award. He gave a nice speech, though, emphasizing that he felt "grateful, thankful, appreciative, humbled and did I say grateful," while noting, "I'm gonna keep going for a long time."

And the song "What Is Love" from Rio 2 now has a much higher profile thanks to Janelle Monae's rousing rendition of it (accompanied by Vegas-style dancers) and her endearing acceptance speech ("The message in this song... special moments become more special when you share them with the people you love"). I would guess that most people in the room hadn't heard it before, since they didn't strike me as the sort who would have bought tickets to the animated Rio 2.

For a recap of the below-the-line and international prizes that were presented before the telecast and acknowledged on it via bumpers into commercials, click here.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg