One of the classier early events of award season went off without a hitch last night as BAFTA LA's 2009 Britannia Awards were held in Century City.  The West Coast chapter the British Academy of Film and Television Arts holds this annual dinner to give career achievement awards to deserving filmmakers and actors -- and happily, they don't all have to be British.

This prognosticator had been warned that even with regular host Stephen Fry's witty banter in the mix that the show could be somewhat of a bore.  Lord, that was hardly the case.  There were truly some Golden Globe worthy moments (perhaps due to the free flowing wine) from presenters such as Amy Adams, Ewan McGregor and Mini Driver.

The evening got off to an impressive start as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made a surprise appearance to present Kirk Douglas with the Britannia Award for Worldwide Contribution in Filmed Entertainment.  It turns out one of Schwarzenegger's first films, "The Villain,"  was alongside Douglas and the legendary actor took the Austrian under his wing teaching him tennis (or tried to) and attempted to out pump him with his own bicep curls. More recently, the Governor shared how when he first was elected into office, Douglas invited him to appear at a playground opening he'd funded.  As time went by, Schwarzenneger ended up appearing at one playground opening after another.  Finally, the Governor asked Douglas how many more playgrounds he was going to build.  Douglas replied, "I'm going to stop at 400."  Last spring, Douglas' 400th playground was finished and a proud Schwarzenneger was there.  On this night, Douglas received no less than three standing ovations and the 93-year-old icon whose speech is affected by a stroke won the crowd over when he hit the stage.  He recalled the last movie he shot in London, 1959's "The Devil's Disciple" with old buddy Burt Lancaster and Sir. Laurence Olivier.  Lancaster and Douglas were asked to appear at a charity event in the city where they did a song and dance number to a classic London song. At that point in his speech, Douglas proceeded to sing the song and he didn't embarrass himself.  It was a remarkable moment.

Up next was Danny Boyle who was introduced by his "Slumdog Millionaire" star Dev Patel and one of his most frequent early collaborators, Ewan McGregor.  McGregor praised Boyle, who was receiving the John Schlesinger Britannia Award for Artistic Excellence in Directing by noting "how safe I felt working with him."  Boyle, who has been accepting accolades for the better part of a year for "Slumdog," seemed honestly humbled by the award. He also joked he "wants to avoid scenes with toilets" (something he noticed as a common thread in his video montage) in the future.

One of the more forced moments of the night was the odd appearance of Benecio Del Toro who was the first presenter for Emily Blunt.  The up and coming actress was being honored (perhaps a tad early) with the Britannia Award for British Artist of the Year for her roles in "Sunshine Cleaning" and December's "The Young Victoria" which has already been released in Europe.  Del Toro and Blunt worked together on the upcoming "The Wolfman" (in fact, with all the reshoots they worked on it a lot) and he joked she gave him the nickname Bearnice during filming. And, um, that was about it. Thanks for showing Benecio.

On the other hand, Blunt's second presenter was her "Cleaning" co-star and, it turns out, good friend Amy Adams.  Adams recalled how they met on the set of "Charlie Wilson's War" where they bonded after she ogled Blunt's breasts.  Yeah, the audience didn't get it either, perhaps it's an inside joke, but it was nice fodder for Fry during the rest of the show.

One of the more serious moments of the night was the presentation of the BAFTA/LA Volvo Humanitarian Award to Colin Firth.  The Brit is getting raves for his work in "A Single Man" (in fact, I interviewed him earlier in the day about his role), but many of his fans will be surprised to discover he has a long history as a champion for the underprivileged working with Oxfam International, Survival International and Amnesty International.  He's also co-founded a coffee shop chain, Cafe Progresso, that guarantees a fair price to independent coffee growers around the world. Longtime friend Mini Driver (who looked stunning by the way) described Firth's passion for change, but she noted that like his acting style, "He's quiet about it.  He doesn't draw attention to himself."  Firth's final presenter was his "Single Man" director Tom Ford and it may not have been the best choice.  21 days of shooting and a few film festivals aside, Ford barely knows Firth and his mannered intro was delivered more like a business presentation than a personal salute.  Firth, as gracious as anyone in this industry can be, sheepishly accepted his award declaring he'd really done nothing, but if he could shine a light on the issues of fair trade he hoped it would help.  If Firth keeps this up, he may find himself battling Angelina Jolie for sainthood.

As the night progressed, the cameras would occasionally cut to the night's final honoree Robert De Niro.  Needless to say, the Oscar winner did not look like he was having a good time.  Fry and numerous presenters would reference him either seriously or jokingly and he'd remain pretty stone faced every time the cameras caught him.  In fact, all this writer could imagine is that De Niro was over receiving yet another life time achievement award and just wanted to get out of there.  That all changed when Ben Stiller took the stage.

To be fair, De Niro's "Stardust" co-star Claire Danes appeared first and perhaps it was just that point in the show for everyone in the room, but what was meant to be funny just fell completely flat. Still, she gave it the old college try describing what appears to be a true friendship with her fellow New Yorker.  Stiller, on the other hand, stole the show and that's hard to do when the Governator has magically appeared to honor Kirk "freakin'" Douglas.

It's no secret in Hollywood that Stiller can be a major pain to work with, but there's a reason he keeps getting considered to host the Oscars.  When he kills.  He kills.  He first noted he was overwhelmed by all the "prestigiousness" in the room.  Stiller mocked himself in regards to his own resume compared to his "Meet the Parents" and upcoming "Little Fockers" co-star.   During one night shoot, De Niro stunned Stiller by saying, "Yeah, this reminds me of shooting 'Mean Streets' at night." Stiller admits all he could nervously come up with in reply was, "Yeah, this reminds me of shooting 'Mystery Men'" Oh, and who is dying at his seat of laughter?  De Niro.  There's also the fact De Niro has two Academy Awardsa and Stiller has a collection of Teen Choice, Nickelodeon Kid's Choice and MTV Movie Awards, "Maybe this Kubrick Award will even things up, huh Bobby?"

Stiller continues that once the legend fell asleep during a scene because of jet lag, but he was still be better sleeping in the shot than any other actor on the planet would be.  The comedian also said that after ten years he has such a close relationship with De Niro now that he's been able to "pull his ear, grab his cheek, kiss him in drag in a wedding dress and shoot a needle in his penis.  And we haven't even started shooting yet." [Insert shot of De Niro dying of laughter].  Stiller continued for a bit more joking that when the man of few words gets on stage, "We know he'll just go on and on and on."  It may be hard to convey in print, but Stiller eclipsed the man of the hour.

But, after a long standing ovation, De Niro did make it to the podium to accept the Stanley Kubrick Excellence in Film Award and pulled out some notecards before speaking.  What was this?  De Niro had prepared an acceptance speech?  It was certainly hard to follow a great act like Stiller, but it appeared De Niro wasn't just going to be run over by his friendly colleague. 

De Niro was a little wobbly at first.  He went down the predictable road of apologizing to the Brits for "overreacting" a bit with wasting all that tea during our tea party.   But then he noted how he always loves re-recording his roles for British audiences and while again you sort of had to be there he proceeded to reinterpret his famous "Are you talkin' to me?" scene from "Taxi Driver" in the most stiff upper lip and polite way ever. Yep, even the quiet auteur seems to have a sense of humor about himself.  Then his speech took a somewhat strange turn.  De Niro, who earlier in the week was at the gala opening of his new movie "Everybody's Fine" at AFI Fest, noted that there were too many people to thank. "They know who they are but, I want to thank what's left of Miramax.  I called them the other day and got the answering machine.  It said they would call back after the holiday."

The room is in stunned silence.

"They'd be back after Easter," De Niro quipped.  A couple of uncomfortable laughs and a few "Oh, my's" met that zinger.  Yes, one of America's greatest thespians delivered a 2 minute acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award where he devoted a quarter of it to dissing Disney for ripping up Miramax.  Could Disney chief Bob Iger hear that blast from across town?  Ouch.

And with that, De Niro was done and so was the show.  No musical numbers, no commercial breaks, but a ton memorable moments from a truly classy organization. 

And awards season rolls on...
 

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