'Mulholland' goes empty-handed

All the wackiness and uncertainty of the awards season crystallized on Jan. 5, when the inaugural AFI Awards were held and the National Society of Film Critics named its winners.

AFI tapped New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” as best pic, though pic has won no other major awards so far this season. While “Mulholland Drive” had received four AFI nominations — the second highest tally of any film — it went home empty-handed. But the NSFC tapped it as best film, with star Naomi Watts its best actress.

NSFC named Gene Hackman best actor for “The Royal Tenenbaums”; AFI named him best featured (i.e., supporting) actor for the same performance. In other words, it’s not clear this season who’s a serious Oscar contender. And if they are a serious contender, it’s not even clear for which category.

The dual pronouncements served as a reminder of one other fact: There is a whole lotta love being handed out to films this season — so much so that major awards announcements don’t even get a day to themselves to let showbiz revel in their careful choices.

Sissy Spacek won the AFI’s kudo for best actress, one of only three film winners present out of the 12 pic categories. Having already won awards from L.A. and New York crix, Spacek is the closest thing to a front-runner this year. Heck, in this season, when scads of orgs are saluting different films and performers, three wins constitutes a landslide.

At AFI, “Rings” also won for digital artist and production designer. Fox’s “Moulin Rouge” was the only other film to garner more than one prize, winning for editing and music. Otherwise, seven films earned one win apiece.

“AFI Awards 2001″ was the first kudocast of the season. Film mavens are always looking for Oscar bellwethers, but it’s hard to tell yet how accurate a gauge AFI will be, since this is the American Film Institute’s first such awards.

Like most newborns, the AFI Awards doesn’t yet have a fully definable personality. The red-carpet arrivals were subdued. In contrast to the frenzy of the Oscars or the party feeling of the Golden Globes, the mood in the BevHills Hotel Ballroom — seating only 670, so limited that some AFI judges could not be invited — was more wait-and-see.

As an example, studios and networks declined to throw the post-kudos parties that have become Hollywood fixtures after the Oscars, Emmys and Golden Globes.

Given AFI’s reputation and respect, the low turnout of marquee names surprised many onlookers. Out of 19 categories, only eight winners were on hand.

The turnout probably looked worse from the viewpoint of the TV audience: In many cases, three of the four nominees in a category were present, but the fourth one won.

Still, given the list of AFI trustees and past Lifetime Achievement Award winners, many celebs were notable by their absence.

Many speculated it was too early in the season, coming only a few days after the holidays. Others emphasized that the turnout reflected Hollywood’s reluctance to embrace a new awards show; many feel kudocasts have reached the saturation point.

In contrast, the National Board of Review event in Gotham two days later featured a lineup that would be the envy of any awards show, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols and Meryl Streep.

But at AFI, winners weren’t the only no-shows. Ratings for the event — which CBS was counting on to give it a kudocast to compete with the Golden Globe Awards on NBC and the mighty Oscars on ABC — were the Eye web’s lowest Saturday night all year, a night they usually dominate.

The telecast drew an average of just 5.5 million, far fewer than other January kudocasts: Last year, the People’s Choice Awards drew 14.6 million viewers, while the Golden Globes attracted upwards of 22 million viewers.

AFI has not announced whether its deal with CBS or with the BevHills Hotel extends beyond this inaugural event.

In the weeks leading up to AFI’s announcement, the film nominations got far more attention than the TV bids due to the awards’ timing — at this time of year, all roads lead to Oscar.

But it’s ironic that TV provided the biggest support and the biggest news. HBO nabbed six of the seven trophies, including the evening’s biggest surprise: second-season “Curb Your Enthusiasm” took comedy series honors. The show hasn’t been saluted by any major awards shows.

Backstage, “Curb” creator-star Larry David was asked about the importance of the new AFI Awards. “It’s very significant now!” he laughed.

There was only one win that kept HBO from a clean sweep: Judy Davis’ victory for ABC’s “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows.”

It’s also notable that the TV turnout was better than films at AFI: Winners were present in five of the seven TV categories.

“AFI Awards 2001″ was exec produced by Gary Smith and, for AFI, by Frederick S. Pierce. Dan Netter and Bob Gazzale produced. Gazzale also scripted and Allan Kartun directed the production from AFI Prods. in association with Smith-Hemion Prods.

Two 13-person panels made the nominations, for film and TV. Click here to see a list of the 100 voters for the winners.

(Rick Kissell contributed to this report.)

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