Pete Hammond

If you had any doubt that Oscar season is upon us, the flurry of events and openings this week prove it. The AFI Film Fest  opened last night at Mann’s Chinese with Ed Zwick’s Love And Other Drugs and continues all week with a slew of major contenders getting their official (and unofficial) Los Angeles premieres, including Rabbit Hole, Blue Valentine, Black Swan, Barney’s Version, Casino Jack, Made In Dagenham, and Friday night’s red carpet gala for The Weinstein Company’s The King’s Speech. And across town Thursday night at the Hyatt in Century City, Harvey Weinstein and The King’s Speech director Tom Hooper were hearing lots of praise from the Brits gathered for their black tie Brittania Awards, an annual show put on by BAFTA-LA this year honoring Jeff Bridges, Christopher Nolan, Ridley and Tony Scott, Michael Sheen, and Betty White. Receiving the Charlie Chaplin Britannia for Excellence in Comedy, she teased that she’d never slept with Chaplin, then added, “Well, maybe just once.” 

Hooper had appeared at a BAFTA screening of his film the night before which reportedly played like gangbusters with the understandably partial crowd. Weinstein told me he is “fighting” mad about the MPAA decisions to give his Blue Valentine an NC 17 and King’s Speech a PG 13, the latter for one expletive-laden speech in which Colin Firth’s King George VI tries to lose his stutter through a vocal exercise requiring him to recite a series of bad words. As far as the MPAA is concerned, one “fuck” gets you a PG-13 but two “fucks” get you an R. Harvey pledged to take on the MPAA, at least with Valentine, but has no plans to make cuts in either film. Hooper told me he even refused to put bleeps in the airline version. Speech producer Gareth Unwin, also at the Britannias, told me the version of the scene in the finished film is positively tame compared to a couple of other takes where the King’s language really got down and dirty. If they had known the scene was going to get them an R anyway, Unwin said they might have really gone for the jugular. (Bonus extras on the DVD?) 

Chris Nolan has been picking up a number of awards season precursor honors for Inception, and received the John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Excellence in Directing. He said in his acceptance speech: “It’s extraordinary as an Englishman to get this from an English organization,” albeit one he is not a member of as he admitted to me at the pre-reception. He said that, when he came to LA, he never got around to joining but now that he’s got this award he’s rethinking that. (Maybe BAFTA-LA will waive the dues.) Inception co-stars Cillian Murphy and Marion Cotillard presented him with the trophy, with Cotillard telling him, “I’m honored to be part of your dream.”

Bridges is expected to be back in the Best Actor hunt with the still unseen Coen Brothers version of True Grit, and received the Stanley Kubrick Britainnia Award for Excellence in Film. That may have partially made up for losing the BAFTA award last season to Colin Firth, the only detour on the road to his first Oscar for Crazy Heart. The two are likely to face off again this year in both Oscar and BAFTA races.

In addition to True Grit (Dec 22), Bridges also has Disney’s Tron: Legacy (Dec 17), the reboot of his 1982 sci-fi hit where now, as presenter Kevin Spacey mentioned, ”he becomes the first actor in history to play opposite a younger version of himself” – which Spacey quipped was an intriguing development that could send older actors racing to their plastic surgeons. Bridges called the experience of doing Tron again “advanced pretend” and also informed the crowd that his grandfather would be proud because he was a “Liverpudlian.”

However, it was Bridges’s Tron co-star Michael Sheen who brought the house down with his hilarious acceptance of the Britannia Award for British Artist of the Year. With host Stephen Fry standing nearby, Sheen admitted he got his “first screen kiss” from Fry (Bright Young Things) and the thought still brings “the odd rectal quiver”. Both Fry and Sheen were reunited, in a way, as voices in Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland (Fry was the Cheshire Cat and Sheen was the White Rabbit), and Walt Disney Studios Chairman Rich Ross was front and center showing his support for the Tron and Alice contingent at the Britannias. Ross inherited a full slate of contenders and before the show started told me that he is proud to put the full support of the studio behind all of them.

Meanwhile this weekend marks the box office launch of a number of hopefuls, including limited runs for Summit’s Fair Game starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn,  and Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours which is building Best Picture and Best Actor (for James Franco) heat almost weekly. It’s now standing with a strong 94% positive rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes, and an impressive — and rare — 100% among top critics. 

On the other side of the scale is Tyler Perry whose first real awards hopeful, For Colored Girls, goes wide today on over 2100 screens but currently has mustered only a 35% positive (29% among top critics) on RT. Perry’s films usually have never been critical favorites, and in fact Lionsgate almost never invites critics to see advance screenings. In this case they did and predictably a lot of Perry-dissers are out in force — but will it matter? His films almost always find a strong ethnic box office groove, and this movie boasts a stellar line up of actresses including Thandie Newton, Whoopi Goldberg, Kimberly Elise, Phylicia Rashad, Janet Jackson, Loretta Devine, Anika Noni Rose,, and Kerry Washington. Each is given a great opportunity to shine here, particularly when reciting the poetic monologues of original playwright, Ntozake Shange, which Perry has skillfully weaved in and out of his own scripted highly dramatic scenes. Particularly considering Lionsgate’s  awards success with last season’s Precious (Perry lent his name as executive producer), the question is whether For Colored Girls is also For Oscar voters?

There has been talk that, for the first time in many a season, there are no major African Americans being buzzed about in the Oscar race. Halle Berry is trying to jump in with her indie, Frankie And Alice. But considering the level of performance in the Perry film, why is no one whispering awards here, particularly for Kimberly Elise who delivers a heartbreaking and powerful turn as Crystal, a young mother forced to face unimaginable tragedy? In the wide open supporting actress field, Elise seems ripe to become a player if Academy actors branch members see the film. I caught up with her after a special screening of the movie at West L.A.’s Landmark Theatre this week and she told me it was difficult to go to the places she had to go in her scenes. She worked for weeks developing a backstory for the character and then simply let loose when the cameras were finally rolling. The experience was so intense she said that she still can’t watch the film. “My art is in there and it might destroy the whole experience for me to revisit it right now,” she says. Although it is a fine ensemble cast, and all are being pitched in the supporting race, Lionsgate would be wise to focus on Elise. A strong showing at the box office this weekend certainly isn’t going to hurt those chances either.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.