Donald Clarke on the eve of the ‘most Irish’ Oscars

Saoirse Ronan, Lenny Abrahamson and Emma Donoghue talk academy fantasies

Construction workers were busy on Friday (February 26) preparing Los Angeles' Hollywood Boulevard for the biggest event in the entertainment calendar, the 88th Academy Awards. The Oscars ceremony, which will bring together the biggest names in the film industry, will take place at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday (February 28).

 

Joe Kennedy is supposed to have claimed, just before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, that he knew it was time to sell when his shoeshine boy began to give him stock-market advice. You experience something similar in some parts of Los Angeles in Oscar season.

The man who gave me this nice burrito has a view about whether Leo will finally get his best-actor statuette. (He will.) Walking up Sunset Boulevard, you pass through a swamp of complaints about the lack of black faces among the acting nominees. But are they talking about “the most Irish Oscars ever”. Has anybody outside the island noticed?

A month ago we saw our heated expectations for domestic nominations exceeded. Two Irish films, Lenny Abrahamson’s Room and John Crowley’s Brooklyn, were mentioned for best picture. Saoirse Ronan, the star of the latter, competes with Brie Larson, star of the former, for best actress. And so on.

Astonishingly, with seven nominations, the Irish Film Board scored better than Paramount or Universal Studios. There were nine home nominations in total. Hooray! For the first time since the early 1990s, when my late colleague Michael Dwyer celebrated the rise of Jim Sheridan and Neil Jordan, The Irish Times is attending the Oscar ceremony.

Accreditation was secured after some negotiation. Emails arrived informing me that photographing your credential badge is forbidden, on pain of expulsion.

Notice was given that a dinner jacket (what these people call a “tuxedo”) must be worn on the evening. Sadly, mine is 60 years old, woollen and better suited to November dinner dances in north Antrim.

John Kelleher, busy producer and former director of the Irish Film Classification Office, kindly passed a lighter one on to me. “In the twilight of a career that never saw me get to the Oscars, at least my suit did,” he poignantly remarked.

Trumpeting

“I would disagree with that,” says Lenny Abrahamson, a surprise nominee for best director, on his first morning back in Los Angeles. “I’ve had a few conversations over here where people were saying: ‘What’s going on? There are so many Irish here.’

“There is quite substantial awareness from some very prominent people – producers and so on. We could maybe do a little better back home. I’m not sure we managed to explain how unusual all this is.”

Ed Guiney, Abrahamson’s producer on Room and a director of Element Pictures, notes that, with its US setting, many people think that Room, a coproduction between Ireland and Canada, is actually an American film. “People then ask me why I live in Dublin,” he says, laughing.

Guy Lodge, who writes for Variety, the industry’s daily bible, says there is definitely some awareness of the Irish surge. But the knowledge has seeped in gradually.

“It doesn’t make much difference to your appreciation of a film whether it’s Irish, British or whatever,” he says. “But when you begin to notice that a country is creeping up more and more, that makes a difference. This year Ireland also had The Lobster, a coproduction. So it was an amazing year. People will say: there really is something happening over there. It’s a slow-burning build-up.”

Whereas Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel features American characters knocking about US suburbia, there is surely no mistaking the Irishness of Brooklyn. It begins in Enniscorthy and returns there after a spell in the titular New York borough.

Saoirse Ronan has been rehearsing for a production of The Crucible on Broadway, but she has still found time to jolly up a few chatshows on the west coast. Has she heard the locals talk about the Irish wave?

“I’m sure it’s something the industry has noticed, considering it is unusual for two Irish films to get such strong acclaim in the same year,” she says. “It’s our job, as members of the Irish film industry, to make this less unusual. I hope Irish film-makers will be given the opportunity and support to create the films that they want to make – films that allow them to tell a story as authentically and honestly as possible about themselves, our country and the people in it.”

Purple patch

Irish Film BoardIDA Ireland

“The Irish film sector is estimated to be worth in excess of half a billion in turnover annually,” Martin Shanahan, IDA Ireland’s chief executive, says. “We are working with the Irish Film Board to ensure that we maximise every opportunity presented by this unprecedented Irish showing at the Academy Awards. ”

PODCAST: Donald Clarke's predictions

A day later, by the sea in fashionable Santa Monica, the US-Ireland Alliance hosted the annual Oscar Wilde Honouring the Irish in Film event at the offices of Bad Robot, JJ Abrams’s production offices.

The organisation, dedicated to educating Americans about contemporary Ireland, has a good record of attracting stars, but this year there was, for obvious reasons, more pressure than ever.

Lenny Abrahamson and the actor Sarah Greene were among the domestic honourees. Daisy Ridley, star of Abrams’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and James Corden, star of everything else, also walked the “green carpet” (yeah, I know) and accepted honours for the less conspicuously Irish. Snow Patrol played a few tunes. There were black-pudding sandwiches and pints of Guinness. The vast building, decorated with vintage toys and priceless movie memorabilia, heaved with top-flight talent and business wizards.

“As an honorary Irishman I will say the following,” JJ told me. “I am representing my people! It’s just an incredibly fun night. Having been to Ireland only a few times, I think I can say that, wherever you’re from, you can land in Ireland and feel at home.”

At this point a polite lady leaned forward and extended a diplomatic hand.

“Can I just say that I am the Irish Ambassador?” she said.

“I didn’t know that was you,” Abrams replied, laughing.

“Thank you. You sound like the Irish Ambassador. You do the job better than I do.”

It was, indeed, Her Excellency Anne Anderson.

“I do many interesting things, but I am not in the Hollywood scene very often,” she says.

What does she make of the surge in Irish film?

“Some people think it’s an overnight success. I read the article in The Irish Times, and I agree that it didn’t happen overnight. It’s been steadily built up. This has given us a terrific platform to go forward.

“I was in with the film board and the IDA and Disney yesterday. We are here to affirm and to celebrate. But it’s really about using this moment to see how we can go further.”

This is no Mickey Mouse affair.

Inner cash registers

“The weekend before the announcement we had reduced down to about 80 screens in the US,” Abrahamson says. “We then went straight back up to 900. The box office is heading towards treble what it was. And it’s been out for a few months. It’s hard to know what we would have done in the UK and Ireland if the announcement had not come before release. But it’s been extremely healthy. The nominations still carry enormous weight.”

Of all the nominations received by Irish films and Irish talent, Abrahamson’s (though entirely deserved) was the most surprising. Virtually no punter had called it. We can thus reasonably assume that his career will be the most dramatically affected.

Almost anything could happen. Hollywood has recently taken to hiring talented indie directors to helm its superhero projects. So I am not being entirely facetious when I ask if Marvel has been on the phone.

“Well, it wasn’t Marvel, but I actually was asked about another franchise,” he says. “That was a couple of months ago – based just on the buzz around the Oscars. I have been asked: ‘Would you be the ambassador for the following brand?’ That’s a very peculiar notion. I can’t see how I would be any use to them. But the nomination is recognised as having commercial value. That’s how you’re referred to for ever more.”

Let us not get ahead of ourselves. At the start of the year, after the Golden Globes, some publications (not this one) actually ran “disappointing night for the Irish” headlines when our nominations failed to convert into wins. That raft of Oscar nods counts as one of the greatest cultural coups in the nation’s history. Whatever happens next, nothing about this season can reasonably be dubbed disappointing.

In fact there is unlikely to be more than one quasi-domestic winner on Sunday night. Our only representative who looks like a favourite is Brie Larson. When Room won the People’s Choice award at Toronto International Film Festival, the American actor almost immediately found herself odds-on at most turf accountants. The odds have shortened further.

We have a few second favourites. Saoirse Ronan is the only plausible alternative to Larson. Emma Donoghue is lurking behind the writers of The Big Short in the race for best adapted screenplay. Ben Cleary, director of the excellent Stutterer, could steal the headlines and win the Oscar for best live-action short.

“It’s a childhood fantasy of mine to get to the Oscars,” Donoghue says. “I used to fantasise about winning the Booker Prize. When I was nominated that became a real thing, even though I didn’t win. So the Oscars replaced that. I don’t know what I’ll fantasise about now.”

Mystery removed

Gold Derby

We know Leonardo DiCaprio is going to win best actor for The Revenant. We are fairly sure Larson is going to triumph. Ennio Morricone, the great composer, should finally win a competitive Oscar (he has an honorary statuette) for his work on Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.

Do we have any hope of an upset?

“I could see Mark Rylance coming up ahead of Sylvester Stallone for best supporting actor,” Guy Lodge says. “That’s been a very peculiar race. Stallone has been regarded as a favourite for months, but he missed out on important nominations like Bafta and the Screen Actors Guild. That sentimental narrative has kept him up. I could just about see that happening.”

Happily, the race for best picture is more exciting than at any stage in the past 20 years. Having recently won at Bafta, Alejandro G Iñárritu’s The Revenant, a searing tale of revenge, looks to be only marginally ahead of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, a study of the Boston Globe’s investigation of clerical sexual abuse in Boston, and Adam McKay’s financial-sector comedy The Big Short. There’s a reason to stay to the end.

Nobody sane thinks that the Oscars are an infallible measure of quality. It’s partly an eccentric sporting event (call it movieball). It’s partly a nostalgic pageant that pretends golden-age glamour survived the 1960s. This year, as its host, Chris Rock, considers ways to address the #oscarssowhite backlash, the ceremony will take on a sociopolitical battleground.

For all that, everybody wants to win an Oscar. Ronan is now having her second crack. It’s nine years since, as a gifted child, she was nominated for Atonement.

“It is completely different,” she says. “I know that I need to have a four-course meal before I go to the Oscars this year. We didn’t eat anything before we went last time, and it was roughly seven hours until we were fed again.”

Eat well. And, if you do pull off an upset, take a question from the man in the borrowed suit.

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