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How BAFTA’s Quirky Voting System Delivers Surprises

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Three years ago, in an awards season narrowed and clouded by the global pandemic, the BAFTA awards acted as an unprecedentedly accurate Oscar bellwether, matching the U.S. Academy’s eventual selections in all but one of 19 feature-film categories — from “Nomadland’s” best film victory to acting wins for Anthony Hopkins and Frances McDormand. (In the one exception, David Fincher’s “Mank” eventually trumped BAFTA winner “Nomadland” for best cinematography.)

If awards pundits welcomed the foresight, others — particularly within the British industry — wondered if the U.K.’s most prestigious film awards had aligned a little too closely with their transatlantic equivalent. Ever since the BAFTAs shifted their place in the calendar to precede the Academy Awards back in 2001, the tension between anticipating the Oscars and asserting their own identity has been a constant one. Oscar-precursor status has earned the BAFTAs a massive jump in public awareness and media coverage, but at what cost to their individuality, and to local industry representation?

Last year, however, was a different story, as BAFTA voters diverged from AMPAS ones in a majority of categories, including all top eight above-the-line races. Where “Everything Everywhere All at Once” ran the table at the Oscars with seven wins, it earned a single trophy for editing at the BAFTAs — where German war epic “All Quiet on the Western Front,” with seven wins, was vastly the preferred candidate. (“The Banshees of Inisherin” and “Elvis,” both ultimately blanked at the Oscars, took four BAFTAs each.) BAFTA had certainly made its mark, but not everyone was happy with that either: the uniform whiteness and European bent of its winners list was noted and criticized in various quarters, fuelling an ongoing discussion regarding diversity within BAFTA itself, and in its choices.

To be fair, it’s been more than just a discussion. Following the #BAFTASoWhite controversy of their 2019 awards, where no actors of color were nominated and Sam Mendes’ “1917” ruled over Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite,” BAFTA took quick and dramatic action, significantly changing the nominating procedure in the acting and directing categories to allow for diversity-minded jury interventions. We’re in the fourth year of this new voting system — with the structure having evolved to three jury selections joining the top three branch vote-getters in those categories. If things have stabilized somewhat, it still makes for a surprising, somewhat inconsistent slate of nominations, in which the disparity between general voting-body sentiment and the more idiosyncratic favoritism of small juries is quite apparent.

It’s obviously in the best film category — the only one where nominees are determined by all BAFTA members, this writer included — that you see which films have the broadest spectrum of support.

Unsurprisingly, as at the Oscars, Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster biopic “Oppenheimer” and Yorgos Lanthimos’ adult Victorian fantasy “Poor Things” lead the field with 13 and 11 nominations respectively. Martin Scorsese’s gargantuan historical drama “Killers of the Flower Moon” follows with nine, while Justine Triet’s hit arthouse courtroom thriller “Anatomy of a Fall” and Alexander Payne’s feegood Christmas comedy “The Holdovers” round out the field with seven apiece.

The juries, however, evidently aren’t as enamored of all these frontrunners. Despite its sizable total of nominations, Scorsese’s film endured the year’s two most surprising omissions: the veteran filmmaker himself was left out of the best director category, while leading lady Lily Gladstone, a critics’ favorite and Golden Globe winner, failed to make the cut for best actress. Lanthimos, despite “Poor Things’” otherwise robust showing, joined Scorsese on the best director sidelines. In their place, British filmmakers Andrew Haigh (for his queer heartbreaker “All of Us Strangers”) and Jonathan Glazer (for his austere Holocaust drama “The Zone of Interest”) showed up despite missing the cut for best film; of the presumed jury saves, the most unexpected is multihyphenate Bradley Cooper, who made the grade for his divisive passion project “Maestro.”

This all-white, predominantly male (save Triet) field is a surprising outcome of a hybrid voting system specifically engineered to diversify matters — particularly given a complex procedure designed to create a gender-equal pre-nomination longlist of 16 directors. (The seven other longlisted women run the gamut from “Barbie’s” Greta Gerwig to British indie breakouts Molly Manning Walker and Raine Allen-Miller.) Some would argue that the jury is entitled to consider their artistic preferences above any representative considerations; others may wonder if all this tweaking and meddling is worth it to culminate in a list not notably more progressive than one the directors’ branch might assemble unassisted.

In the acting categories — whittled down from 10-wide shortlists determined by the whole actors’ branch — BAFTA was mostly spared a repeat of 2019’s embarrassment, though the jury couldn’t do much to diversify an all-white best supporting actor longlist. The exclusion of Gladstone, an Indigenous American, from the best actress list may have raised eyebrows for several reasons, though the jury most likely opted to save two Black performers in the category: “The Color Purple” star Fantasia Barrino and “Rye Lane” breakout Vivian Oparah, both of whom had been pegged as longshots for a nomination, joined Emma Stone, Carey Mulligan, Sandra Hüller and Margot Robbie, all of whose films enjoyed broader BAFTA support. The nomination for Oparah, so effervescent in Allen-Miller’s youthful South London romcom, was a particularly welcome surprise from an institution that doesn’t always give British independent films their due — and made up for her omission from BAFTA’s Rising Star category, itself determined by an entirely separate jury.

But there was no corresponding love for local indies over in best actor, where Teo Yoo (“Past Lives”), Colman Domingo (“Rustin”) and last year’s BAFTA winner Barry Keoghan (“Saltburn”) joined frontrunners Cooper, Cillian Murphy and Paul Giamatti — but Andrew Scott, star of British indie darling “All of Us Strangers,” was left out for one of the year’s most celebrated performances, an omission all the more pointed given the film’s haul of six nominations, including bids for co-stars Paul Mescal and Claire Foy. It seems an odd omission on the jury’s part, though you can’t account for individual quirks or bugbears throwing a spanner in the works for even the strongest contender. Just ask the many high-profile names left out of the year’s biggest curveball of a category, the fully jury-determined best British debut, where the likes of “Rye Lane,” “Scrapper,” “Polite Society” and “The End We Start From” made way for such under-the-radar documentaries as “Blue Bag Life” and “Is There Anyone Out There?”

These aren’t all bad decisions: many of them are even pleasingly inspired. But they do point to a British Academy at odds with itself, not trusting some of its own professional branches to vote unencumbered, and delegating many key decisions to a selection of panels with separate tastes and agendas. It makes for a lively, unpredictable list of nominees — a not-inconsiderable virtue in a season given to copy-pasting between various awards bodies and guilds — but one that may be only partially reflective of what its own members collectively think. That we’ll find out in the winners’ vote, where everyone finally gets a say.

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