The American Film Institute put the emphasis squarely on America at its annual AFI Awards Luncheon at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills on Friday.
The AFI’s annual salute to the 10 films and 10 television shows judged by AFI juries to be the best of the preceding 12 months was quite deliberately a state-of-the-union message of sorts, from a pointed jab at our new president-elect to a montage set to patriotic music.
And AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale’s opening line to the creative teams responsible for the best films and TV shows welcomed “the ladies and gentlemen who tell the story of America and beyond.”
The story they’re telling was clear from an opening film, which began with a montage of great films and television shows from years ending in 6, from 1916 through 2006. Peter Finch’s “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” speech from 1976’s “Network” drew big applause in the room, and the march through time ended with a clip from 2006’s “Borat” that drew a raucous response. That clip began by panning across a sign reading “Trump International Hotel and Tower,” the sight of which was met with boos in the room — only to show Sacha Baron Cohen’s character squatting in the bushes to defecate on Trump property, whereupon the boos turned to laughter and applause. (Watch the full video above.)
And when they got to a montage featuring the films and television shows of 2016, the entire sequence was set to “America the Beautiful,” turning clips from “Moonlight,” “Hell or High Water,” “Fences,” “La La Land,” “Arrival,” “Atlanta,” “This Is Us,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and others into a national portrait of inclusion, tolerance and acceptance.
Of course, politics wasn’t the real point of the AFI Awards luncheon. Now in its 16th year, which also happens to be the 50th anniversary of the creation of the American Film Institute by President Lyndon Johnson, the AFI lunch is one of the awards-season events that prides itself on being a stress-free, collegial gathering, where everyone in the room knows they’ve already won. “No competition — community,” Gazzale said.
So the “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” and “La La Land” tables could mingle without tension, and the folks from HBO’s “Game of Thrones” didn’t have to worry about those upstarts from FX’s “Atlanta” stealing their thunder with awards voters.
But the lunch does take place two days before the Golden Globes, on one of the biggest and most crowded weekends on the awards calendar. Everybody was essentially thinking the same thing, which was summed up by “Hacksaw Ridge” producer David Permut as he went to his table: “Gotta pace yourself for the weekend.”
Nearby, “Hacksaw” star Andrew Garfield surveyed the room. He also starred in Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” another of the honored films — so when TheWrap asked which table he’d be sitting at, he shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said with a grin. “I’m going to have to figure that out. It could get awkward.”
(The “Hacksaw” and “Silence” tables were next to each other, making Garfield’s table-hopping easy.)
The tables were identified not with table numbers, but with miniature posters of the honored films and TV shows. “That’s good,” said “Zootopia” director Rich Moore. “I don’t read. I work with pictures.”
The pre-ceremony mingling went on long past the scheduled noon start time for lunch, with lots of schmoozing: “Manchester” director Kenneth Lonergan hugged Scorsese, young actress Saniyya Sidney from “Fences” drew a crush of photographers in search of a super-cute shot when she went up to Emma Stone to say hello …
None of the honorees were asked to make acceptance speeches; instead, AFI trustee and television jury chair Richard Frank read laudatory paragraphs about the 10 TV honorees, while film historian Leonard Maltin did the same for the films being saluted (and for the documentary “O.J.: Made in America,” which received a special award).
Film clips from each honoree were also shown, but that aspect of the ceremony itself made one thing clear: Particularly during Oscar season, film clips are shown so often that they can get pretty stale, whereas TV clips feel much fresher.
“The Americans” and “Atlanta,” for example, started the TV honor roll with killer clips that probably sent a few people in the room to their video-on-demand menus, while “Better Call Saul” was extremely funny and “Veep” was simply impossible to follow, with a profane and hysterical riff that had the crowd laughing through much of Gazzale’s ensuing speech.
The film clips were well-chosen but just not as fresh or impactful, though “Silence” and “Zootopia” both provided scenes that hadn’t seen much in promotional materials — maybe because they both sort of gave away their films’ endings.
That’s not to say that the film clips weren’t effective. The ones from “Hacksaw Ridge,” “Moonlight” and “Sully” drew particularly strong reactions, and the “Manchester by the Sea” scene between Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams grows more wrenching every time you see it. (Not that Williams necessarily agrees: The actress told TheWrap afterward that she watched the clip while pinching Lonergan and thinking she didn’t do a very good job, which strikes us as a remarkable example of being way too hard on yourself.)
When it was over, most of the honorees didn’t say goodbye to each other — instead, they just compared notes on where they’d see each other next on this party-heavy awards weekend. Emma Stone was going to the Australian Academy of Film and Television Arts International Awards on Friday night in Hollywood; Jeff Bridges was off to put his hand and footprints in the forecourt of the Chinese Theatre; some “Moonlight” and “Manchester by the Sea” folks would be heading to Saturday morning’s Spirit Awards Nominees Brunch; “La La Land” composer Justin Hurwitz was playing the piano at a charity event (they asked him to do “City of Stars” in F-sharp, which he said is “the hardest key”); and almost everybody was going to be back at the Four Seasons for the BAFTA Awards Season Tea Party on Saturday afternoon.
“La La Land” director Damien Chazelle, who figures to be a major part of this circus until it comes to an end on February 26 at the Oscars, shrugged when TheWrap asked how he was holding up this awards season.
“Good question,” he said. “It ebbs and flows.”