The talent behind Hollywood’s 10 best films and 10 best TV shows — in the opinions of small juries of distinguished showbiz personalities — gathered on Friday for the 22nd AFI Awards luncheon, which is always a talent favorite because, in the words of AFI president and CEO Bob Gazzale, “the game here is that there is no game.”
Held for the first time at the Beverly Wilshire, the event attracted A-list actors Meryl Streep (Don’t Look Up) and Bradley Cooper (Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley); elite directors Steven Spielberg (West Side Story), Barry Jenkins (The Underground Railroad) and Jane Campion (The Power of the Dog); breakthrough stars Troy Kotsur (CODA), Nicholas Braun (Succession) and the Squid Game ensemble; top execs Netflix’s Ted Sarandos and Apple’s Tim Cook; and film academy president David Rubin and TV academy president Frank Scherma — as well as a handful of the 30 AFI alums who were involved with honored films and shows, including Mare of Easttown creator Brad Inglesby, West Side Story film editor Sarah Broshar and CODA writer/director Sian Heder.
Per tradition, the ceremony honoring the best work from 2021 kicked off with a montage assembled by AFI’s Chris Merrill highlighting great movies and TV shows from prior years ending in the same number — as in 1931 (Frankenstein), 1951 (A Streetcar Named Desire), 1971 (All in the Family) and 1991 (Daughters of the Dust). It culminated with clips of the current year’s honored work, this time unspooling to the accompaniment of the late Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.”
Then, TV jury chair Rich Frank was called onstage, acknowledged the blurred line between films and TV programs during the pandemic (“It was difficult to even separate the categories at this point”) and introduced a clip of each of the TV selections — Hacks, Maid, Mare of Easttown, Reservation Dogs, Schmigadoon! (the clip of which brought down the house), Succession, Ted Lasso, The Underground Railroad, WandaVision and The White Lotus — along with the jury’s rationale for picking them. The Korean drama Squid Game was acknowledged with a special honor.
Next up was film jury chair Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post, who introduced a clip of each of the film selections — CODA (this clip particularly wowed people, showcasing the different experiences of watching a musical performance for a hearing person and a deaf person), Don’t Look Up, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, Tick, Tick… Boom!, The Tragedy of Macbeth and West Side Story (the crowd went nuts for the “America” number) — as well as special honors for the Irish film Belfast and the documentary Summer of Soul.
It is notable that several people — Cooper, Ariana DeBose (Schmigadoon! and West Side Story), Timothee Chalamet (Don’t Look Up and Dune) and Cate Blanchett (Don’t Look Up and Nightmare Alley) — appeared in more than one of this year’s AFI Awards honorees.
The ceremony closed, as always, with a special benediction from an industry veteran. This year, Morgan Freeman spoke about his hero Sidney Poitier, who died in February. Poitier was a member of the AFI’s original board of trustees and was the 1992 recipient of the AFI life achievement award. Freeman likened Poitier to Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama and noted, “No Sidney, no me.”