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Retooled BAFTA Awards Are More Relevant Than Ever to Americans

Way back in the 20th century, the BAFTAs, which take place Feb. 10, occupied a shifting, uncertain place in the film awards calendar. For much of the 1990s, they acted as a kind of after-party to the long, strenuous haul of Oscar season: taking place a few weeks after the big day in L.A., they were cheerfully divorced from the pressures and rigors of Academy Awards campaigning. And while they preceded the Oscars for years before then, they were seen as very much their own ball game — prestigious, yes, but hardly an essential red-carpet pit stop for Oscar contenders with their eyes on the American prize.

There was occasional overlap between the British Academy and the Oscars, of course, not least when a U.K. film became a crossover hit: It’s hardly a surprise that tony productions from “Lawrence of Arabia” to “Chariots of Fire” to “Shakespeare in Love” proved equally popular with voters on both sides of the Atlantic. But more often than not, the BAFTA membership marched to its own drumbeat, as films including “The Commitments” and “Educating Rita” took top honors without snagging even a best picture nomination stateside.

The beneficiaries of their idiosyncratic taste weren’t exclusively British, either: BAFTA handed its best film prize to such American films as “The Purple Rose of Cairo” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” and French ones including “Jean de Florette” and “Day for Night,” that the Academy recognized with secondary trophies, if any. Correspondingly, such Oscar favorites as “Ordinary People” and “Terms of Endearment” met with a chilly response from BAFTA voters. The Brits, furthermore, had slightly more of a sense of humor than their American counterparts, albeit a slightly self-serving one: broad comedies including “Four Weddings and a Funeral” or “The Full Monty” could sweep the board, where the Oscars sought greater gravitas.

For decades, then, the two institutions carried on in a spirit of amused mutual respect — occasionally intersecting, but accepting of the fact that they do things a bit differently “over there.” BAFTA’s eccentricities were undercut by a very British sense of self-deprecation: if they could afford to be a bit more playful than the Oscars, that’s because they knew they were taken a little less seriously.

“The American Oscar is the only award that carries any weight,” quipped actress Sarah Miles, nominated for both in the 1970s. “Ours is just a lot of shit.”
In 2000, however, the powers that be at BAFTA decided they would no longer be regarded as an awards-season sideshow — embarking on a series of changes to model their ceremony more on the Academy Awards themselves, and to announce themselves as an Oscar precursor of substance and influence. The ceremony’s place in the calendar was moved to February; the number of nominees per category was raised in all categories from four to an Oscar-mirroring five.

If the goal was to seem as a springboard to Oscar glory, the changes worked: in a tightly competitive season that saw the guild awards scattered every which way, BAFTA handed its top prize to “Gladiator,” just as the Academy did weeks later. Subsequent years wouldn’t always match up as neatly: the 2004 Oscar champ “Million Dollar Baby” was entirely blanked by BAFTA voters, for example. Still, BAFTA quietly developed an intriguing knack for “calling” Oscar surprises: Roman Polanski’s stunning director win in 2003 was prefigured by the Brits, as was Marion Cotillard’s underdog upset of season-long lead actress frontrunner Julie Christie in 2007.

In below-the-line categories, too, BAFTA became a more prescient bellwether, particularly after another crucial rule change a decade ago that brought its voting process more in line with the Academy. Where winners had previously been voted on only by members of the relevant branch, with nominees determined by the entire membership, that order was reversed; categories once famed for their discerning unpredictability (“Mulholland Drive” for editing in 2001, “Vera Drake” for costume design in 2005) fell more in line with the consensus across the pond.

A glance at this year’s BAFTA and Oscar nominee slates emphasizes just how sleekly aligned these once- disparate institutions have become. All five of BAFTA’s best film nominees (it has yet to adopt AMPAS’ wavering five-to-10 model) also landed a best pic nom. Yorgos Lanthimos’ British-produced historical comedy “The Favourite” inevitably led the BAFTA nominees, with 12 bids; more surprisingly to many, it also landed jointly at the top of the Oscar pile, with 10.

Meanwhile, certain left-field Oscar nominations that weren’t widely predicted by pundits were nonetheless foretold by the BAFTA slate: Pawel Pawlikowski’s director nom for the Polish sensation “Cold War,” for example, or “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’” plucky showing in the costume design race. Such offbeat calls have come to make the BAFTAs as telling a precursor event, in its own way, as Hollywood’s surfeit of guild awards, long regarded as the industry’s most reliable Oscar forecast. As with the guilds, there is a degree of overlap between the memberships of BAFTA and AMPAS; as the latter grows into an ever-more internationally minded organization, the BAFTAs provide the only hint of what the Academy’s significant non-Hollywood division might be thinking.

Of course, discrepancies between the two bodies and their selections per sist. Steve Coogan’s lead actor BAFTA nomination for “Stan & Ollie” is a classic example of British voters maintaining home-turf loyalty, even when the candidate in question doesn’t have much Oscar heat; over in the U.S., it was John C. Reilly’s more flamboyant half of that film’s double act that gained traction from critics’ groups and Golden Globe voters. BAFTA plumped for Viola Davis’ fierce turn in the British co-production “Widows,” where Oscar voters overlooked the film entirely. On the flip side, while Marvel’s all-conquering blockbuster “Black Panther” made history by becoming the first superhero film to land in the best picture Oscar race, with seven nominations overall, it proved altogether too Hollywood for BAFTA — getting a lone nom for visual effects, ironically one category in which AMPAS passed it over.

Yet such aberrations seem to get rarer by the year, leading some in the British film industry to question whether BAFTA could be doing more to support local product and talent. 2019’s strong showing for “The Favourite” aside, last year’s acclaimed British titles are mostly conspicuous by their absence from the nominations. Despite hopes that revered Scottish helmer Lynne Ramsay could break up the all-male director race, her Cannes sensation “You Were Never Really Here” showed up only as a presumed jury pick in the British Film lineup, alongside buzzy fest-launched indies “Beast” and “Apostasy” — both also left out of BAFTA’s general categories. They at least went one better than Bart Layton’s striking, Sundance-approved true-crime thriller “American Animals,” which scored a BAFTA donut after racking up 11 nominations for December’s British Independent Film Awards.

That event — at which “The Favourite” also cleaned up — has come to be seen as the British film industry’s premier night of recognition, a more intimate affair in which U.K. indies with no shot at awards glory across the pond get to be king for a day.

Olivia Colman may be the BAFTA frontrunner for her indelible Queen Anne in Lanthimos’ film, but she herself won four BIFAs before landing her first BAFTA nomination for her film work — once the rest of the world had taken note of her, too. As canny a job as BAFTA is doing of understudying the Oscars, it’s fair to ask why Britain’s brightest talents should have to wait their turn for quite so long.

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