The Chaos of the 2001 BAFTA Best Supporting Actor Race, Explained

The 2001 Academy Awards came at a difficult time, as one would expect in the months immediately following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Rarely has a show revolving around wealthy, famous people giving each other gold statues felt less important than it did in March 2002. Of course, films provided a wonderful escape from the real world horrors that season, perhaps demonstrating why we need cinema more than ever. That year’s ceremony also entered the history books for awarding Oscars for the first and, sadly, only time to Black performers in each of the lead acting categories with Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball and Denzel Washington in Training Day. Naturally, the Oscars have to Oscar and gave the top prizes to the thoroughly unexciting choice of A Beautiful Mind, a stately drama from Hollywood stalwart Ron Howard.

Dramas have always been the Academy Awards’ bread and butter. Berry and Washington’s performances were each in highly charged dramas. A Beautiful Mind was nominated alongside the dramas Gosford Park and In the Bedroom. The big sensation that year was The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, and while it is a fantasy movie, its story is still dramatic. Rounding out the Best Picture slate is Moulin Rouge!, in which the first half is a zany musical comedy and the second half is high melodrama. All of the categories are filled with these serious movies, from Black Hawk Down to Iris to Ali. The film industry likes to celebrate the films that feel important and serious, probably as a defensive mechanism to believe they are not primarily in the business of entertaining people. That’s a sympathetic viewpoint as no one wants to feel like the work they do is frivolous, or at worst meaningless. However, so much excellent work occurs outside of the traditional Oscar fare.

In 2001, all you had to do was hop across the pond to see what was happening at the BAFTAs, where The Fellowship of the Ring indeed took home that top prize, to see exactly the kind of fun the Oscars miss out on a lot of the time. While the full slate of nominees does have some crossover with the Academy’s, this was a time for the BAFTAs where being a precursor awards show for the Oscars was not as much of a concern, often wanting to champion homegrown British films. No awards race showcased this proclivity more than the nominees for Best Supporting Actor. This category contained zero crossover performances with the Oscars, and only one of them would one classify as a traditional dramatic performance. One performance, in particular, is of a kind the Oscars have never nominated, and the BAFTAs hadn’t before or since. The nominees for Best Supporting Actor at that year’s BAFTAs were Hugh Bonneville for Iris, Jim Broadbent for Moulin Rouge! (the winner), Robbie Coltrane for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone for the BAFTAs), Colin Firth for Bridget Jones’s Diary, and finally Eddie Murphy for Shrek, to date the only voiceover performance ever nominated.

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Image via 20th Century Fox

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Coincidentally, Jim Broadbent took home the Best Supporting Actor trophies that year at both the Academy Awards and the BAFTAs. For the Oscars, he won for Iris, the biopic about novelist Iris Murdoch, in which he plays her husband John Bayley. Classic Oscar stuff, winning for a decently reviewed biopic that has essentially faded from the collective memory in the last twenty years. At the BAFTAs, Broadbent actually received double nominations, with his Iris performance in the lead category. The performance he won for was as the completely outrageous cabaret owner and emcee Harold Zidler in Moulin Rouge! No tearful monologues or scenes of quiet contemplation to be found here. Instead, this performances consists of moments like spinning around in circles, making “whoosh whoosh” sounds, and prancing around, singing Madonna‘s “Like a Virgin” with a parade of waiters in tow. It is the kind of hilarious, scene-stealing, scenery-chewing performance that never for a moment presents itself as portentous or important, perfectly complimenting the larger-than-life tone of Baz Luhrmann‘s jukebox musical (side note: Luhrmann was nominated for Best Director at the BAFTAs but not the Oscars). While probably perceived at the time as a way to honor Broadbent for his work in both Moulin Rouge! and Iris, they instead awarded him for a performance and film that has endured, even spawning a stage adaptation currently on Broadway, in which Danny Burstein won a long-overdue Tony for the same role.

The most fun the Oscars had that year for Best Supporting Actor was nominating Ian McKellan for his performance as Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring. Like Broadbent in Iris, he ended up in the Lead Actor category at the BAFTAs, which is outrageous category fraud but certainly makes for a more interesting slate of nominees. This made room for another screen adaptation of a beloved fantasy character, Rubeus Hagrid. Robbie Coltrane’s first outing as the Hogwarts groundskeeper contains so much warmth and a light touch equal to his large frame. His line reading of “You’re a wizard, Harry,” has become an indelible part of pop culture and will be featured in film montages for years to come. For as big a phenomenon the Harry Potter film series was, they never performed well at the Academy Awards, where the first and last films garnered the most nominations each of the series with just three. In fact, no film in the series ever won a single Oscar. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at the BAFTAs received seven nominations on its own. Coltrane holds the distinction of being the only cast member of the entire eight-film saga to get a nomination, and only the BAFTAs would stick their neck out for that performance.

Hugh Bonneville, playing the younger version of Jim Broadbent’s character in Iris, is probably the most traditional nomination of the bunch. Although thanks to Downton Abbey and the Paddington films, Bonneville is much more of a known name and face to American audiences, but back in 2001, he had not even been acting on screen for a decade. This is a case of the Brits fighting for their guys. After all, four of the five nominees were from the U.K. The same goes for Colin Firth’s performance in Bridget Jones’s Diary, a hit film, but as an actor, he was a little-known commodity for Americans at that time. This had the added meta perception of him playing a modernized version of Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, a role that skyrocketed him to British stardom thanks to a beloved BBC miniseries. Bridget Jones’s Diary garnered attention for the already famous Renée Zellweger, but the Academy rarely looks at journeymen actors for nominations, especially for comedies, unless there is a sense of career achievement involved or someone being overdue. A comedic performance, in order to receive an Oscar nomination, has to be this titanic, overwhelming feat of hilarity to even be in the conversation, let alone actually end up on the list. A performance like Firth’s, which is comparatively low-key, would never even come to mind for so many voters.

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Image via DreamWorks Animation

The lone American in the group of nominees was Eddie Murphy. While the reputation of Shrek today seems to exist solely in ironic memes and confusing, abstract YouTube videos, it’s a bit difficult to remember what a seismic event it was. It won the first-ever Best Animated Feature Oscar and was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. The BAFTAs took it even further with a straight-up Best Pciture nomination and breaking the taboo of actually nominating a voiceover performance. Every so often, a vocal performance comes around that receives chatter for awards consideration, like Scarlett Johansson in Her or Jennifer Jason Leigh in Anomalisa, but no major awards body has ever pulled the trigger on them–except for Eddie Murphy as the motomouthed Donkey. At the time, Murphy’s performance was seen as the titanic, overwhelming feat of hilarity mentioned earlier, but because he is in a recording booth, so many do not perceive this work as proper acting, immediately dismissing a voiceover performance as lesser than. Andy Serkis and other motion capture performers can’t even get the benefit of the doubt, and they are on set every day. What chance does someone not even doing that have? And yet, the BAFTAs could not deny the sheer power of what Eddie Murphy was doing and recognized it. They have not gone out on the limb and nominated another voiceover performance again, but this shows it is indeed possible.

Rarely is a group of nominees for a major film awards category look this eclectic. No, they are not the most diverse in terms of representation, but in the diversity of the kinds of performances worth highlighting, almost no other category covers as broad a spectrum. Yes, you have your required stately drama, but from there, you go from comedy to musical to fantasy to animation, showing that the need to be respectable or seem important does not need to govern what gets nominated. Excellent work in film can be found in any genre, on any scale, and from any place, and determining only a certain kind of cinema can be considered great creates a self-perpetuating system that will continue to only award that same kind of movie. Laughter, thrills, and joy can be just as powerful as tears and challenging issues. The Academy Awards and other awards shows should look to the 2001 Best Supporting Actor BAFTA nominees and think about finding excellence in film in places they did not expect, because there is plenty of it.

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