Photo by Tristan Fewings
Artillery Row

What do the BAFTAs really stand for?

The awards used to be entertainingly eccentric

“Ladies, gentlemen and gender-fluid youth,” began the actress and comedian Rebel Wilson in her opening monologue at the 75th BAFTA awards. It was a typically fence-sitting moment in what has ended up being one of the oddest BAFTA awards in recent memory: it nodded to contemporary social concerns but refused to make any statement about them either way. Much the same could be said of Wilson’s subsequent joke that “As the first female 007, the Bond girls will obviously have to become Bond guys. And because of agenda pay gap, I actually won’t be called 007. I’ll be 004.5”. It wasn’t a bad gag per se, and contains just a hint of edginess, but the celebrity-packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall laughed complacently, without any sense of discomfort.

BAFTAs today operate essentially as a dress rehearsal for the Oscars

It is a long way from Ricky Gervais’s more outrageous statements at the Golden Globes in 2020, in the pre-lapsarian days before covid, Ukraine and Nadine Dorries’s elevation to the role of Culture Secretary. Still it speaks volumes about the way in which the BAFTAs today have shifted from the cheerily insane and almost absurdly Anglocentric operation of the 80s and 90s, into a blander and more homogenised event that operates essentially as a dress rehearsal for the Oscars in a fortnight’s time.

With the exception of Joanna Scanlan, who won Best Actress for her role in After Love as a Muslim convert who discovers that her late husband had a secret family, it is likely that most of the major awards will be replicated in Los Angeles. Expect to see repeated wins for Jane Campion’s film Power of the Dog, Campion herself and, in what is sure to be a crowd-pleasing moment, for Will Smith’s performance as the tennis coach Richard Williams in King Richard. Never mind that the film was a financial flop, which usually precludes awards recognition; Smith has been a mainstay of Hollywood now for decades. The Best Actor BAFTA that he received doubles up as a recognition of his considerable achievements, as well as a reminder of his more dubious ones. It is most amusing that two of the stars of Wild Wild West, Smith and Kenneth Branagh, were recipients of BAFTAs this year.

The suspicion remains that, for all the glitz and backslapping and couture, the British film industry has a severe identity crisis, which is expressed annually in its major awards ceremony. While the Césars unapologetically celebrate French cultural achievements — the last major winner, the comedy Adieu Les Cons, was denigrated by the Guardian as “a very peculiar and unfunny film”, despite or perhaps because of the “participation exceptionelle” of the ever-controversial Terry Gilliam — the BAFTAs seem frightened of going off-piste. Scanlan’s award was not just welcome recognition for a great character actress — beating Lady Gaga and Tessa Thompson — but one of the few signs that this was a British ceremony that was initially intended to reward British films, rather than yet another English-language awards-fest.

Did Alan Rickman really deserve a BAFTA nomination for Harry Potter?

Things were very different in its previous incarnations. The first BAFTA ceremony in 1947 consisted of only three awards: Best British Picture (won by Odd Man Out, a worthy winner then and now), Best Picture from any source (The Best Years of Our Lives) and a special award for the documentary The World is Rich. As time progressed, American cinema came to dominate the awards, perhaps reflecting the impossibility of giving formal recognition to a British film industry that became dominated by the Carry On and On The Buses series. In the 1979 BAFTAs, for instance, Woody Allen’s Manhattan took Best Film, Francis Ford Coppola won Best Director for Apocalypse Now and the only British award winner in any major category was Rachel Roberts for her appearance in Yanks. BAFTA’s tendency towards parochialism could still be detected in some of the stranger nominations, which tended to recognise leading British actors for relatively minor roles in Hollywood films; hence the presence of John Hurt, nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Alien — even Hurt would surely admit that he was upstaged by his spectacular death scene — and Denholm Elliott for the Paul Theroux adaptation Saint Jack. 

By the 80s, BAFTA had embraced a quiet mania. The 1982 ceremony simply omitted the award for Best Supporting Actress altogether, without explanation, and the institution’s indefatigable desire to honour Denholm Elliott for, essentially, being Denholm Elliott, saw him awarded the Best Supporting Actor role in three consecutive years, from 1984 to 1986. (He was nominated for a total of seven awards between 1973 and 1986.) An avowedly British bias to the nominations saw what now seems like some truly inexplicable points of recognition. Did Alan Rickman really deserve a BAFTA nomination for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, any more than Maria Aitken’s minor role as John Cleese’s oblivious wife in A Fish Called Wanda and Derek Jacobi’s absurd performance in Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again did?

Alas, things are now far less entertainingly eccentric. The BAFTAs sometimes right wrongs of the Oscars — recognising Colin Firth for his career-best performance in A Single Man, for instance — and the “Outstanding British Film” category is an elegant way of acknowledging British cinema without slavishly advancing the case of inferior films, although even here there has been some silliness. I am not entirely sure that The Bourne Ultimatum, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri or Gravity would strike most viewers as “British”, despite the circumstances of their funding.

BAFTA remains terrified of being accused of racism, sexism or transphobia

BAFTA, like most other awards bodies, remains terrified of being accused of racism, sexism or transphobia. A review in 2020, after that year’s ceremony was pilloried for a lack of diversity, ensured what the organisation called “a new longlisting round of voting in all categories to achieve greater diversity in nominations” in other words, the rules have now been changed to ensure that there can be no possibility of such an embarrassment ever taking place again. The words “stitch up” have been whispered.

Some might argue that only the best films should be given awards, and damn the consequences, but this is unlikely to gather much public support. Others might suggest that “diversity” is a cleverly amorphous description, and that a major film star like Will Smith winning Best Actor is in fact less “diverse” in many respects than the lesser-known likes of Stephen Graham or Adeel Akhtar being lauded. These are arguments for another time, and no doubt will continue both behind the scenes and publicly.

I’ll raise a glass to Scanlan, raise an eyebrow at the recognition for the apparently mediocre The Harder They Fall and raise my hopes that, sooner or later, Tom Hollander — the Denholm Elliott of our generation, as I’ve argued elsewhere — will be a regular visitor to the BAFTA podium, even if his acceptance speeches will hopefully be funnier than his previous one. If Wilson is indeed to be the next James Bond, all things in heaven and earth are surely possible. 

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