The Ebell of Los Angeles was the scene of the US-Ireland Alliance’s 16th annual Oscar Wilde Awards. Honored were Adam McKay, Jamie Dornan, up-and-coming Irish actor, Dónall Ó Héalai, and Kenneth Branagh.
The event is normally held at J.J. Abrams and Katie McGrath’s Bad Robot production company in Santa Monica. Due to COVID-19 concerns, it was decided to opt for a larger space to allow for more social distancing.
Abrams, named an “Honorary Irishman” at the 2010 awards, emceed the evening. Abrams said that he was fortunate enough to shoot some of STAR WARS in Ireland and joked that was “mostly because Trina Vargo (founder and president of the US-Ireland Alliance) wouldn’t stop threatening me, and so now we’re going to be shooting a series for HBO next fall in Northern Ireland.”
Hollywood veteran Mary Steenburgen was on hand to present Adam McKay with his Oscar Wilde Award. McKay’s DON’T LOOK UP, one of Netflix’s most successful films, has received four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Steenburgen talked about the fun she had working with Adam, her director, in STEP BROTHERS, saying, “I’ve made some films that scholars might respect more but, I’ve never made a film that made people laugh more and that is my joy and my honor. I got to work with Adam McKay in what is an absolutely beloved comedy.” Steenburgen went on “The fact that somebody can be so outrageously funny, and still have the heart and the passion to make films about the environment, about hypocrisy, who shine the light on the injustices in the world the fact that all of these things are in this’s man’s absolutely brilliant career makes him a rare, and Irish, and loud and sometimes obscene bird.”
McKay spoke of his family ancestry from Northern Ireland and Donegal and how a mold that infected the peat caused them to move to Nebraska. McKay now has a home in Ireland and noted the irony in the fact that all his family want to visit him in the place from which their ancestors fled. McKay also spoke of how Catholic shame, pain and dysfunction led him to want to write. He noted how much Ireland has changed for the better since his ancestors left: “I just love the Irish people. I’m going back there soon to write another script.”
Reinaldo Marcus Green presented the “Wilde Card” Award to Irish actor Dónall Ó Héalai. Green directed KING RICHARD, which earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. Green spoke of Ó Héalai’s total physical transformation for the Irish-language film ARRACHT. Green also said that when he was a struggling filmmaker in New York, with massive student debt, and he was close to giving up, it was Donall who encouraged him to keep going, telling him he was “so close.” Green said, “I could talk about his accolades and all of the things he’s accomplished in his career but there is so much more to this person, there is so much more to who he is as a man, as a friend, as a collaborator, what he gives to his directors, there’s very few people you meet in this industry who have the heart that this man has. His Irish roots are everything to him, his home country, and what he stands for and the projects he’s a part of, is a testament to who he is as a person. He is an incredible artist and an incredible talent.”
In accepting is award, Ó Héalai, talked about how he too almost gave up acting, and when he stopped chasing his dream, he was sent the script for ARRACHT, the first ever Irish language film to portray the Famine and how he felt that while shooting that film, “the dignity of our ancestors was with us the entire shoot.” The film changed his life.
Richard Curtis, the writer of classic romantic comedies NOTTING HILL, LOVE ACTUALLY, FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, presented to Jamie Dornan. The Belfast-born Dornan currently stars in Branagh’s BELFAST and in the HBO Max series, The Tourist. Curtis joked that Jamie couldn’t possibly be a nice person because “in my experience, good looking people normally haven’t got much to recommend them.” But then he checked out Jamie’s work and came to see that he was “another genuinely great Irish actor, subtle dangerous, charming, a chameleon.”
Dornan’s well-received speech was equal parts funny and poignant. He said he’d been asked a few times before to receive this award, but he didn’t feel that he has enough good work. He said that “fourteen years ago, I saw some unbelievably worthy work when they used to show a reel, and I thought one day.” But this year, he was disappointed because, “they didn’t do a f-ing reel.” He then joked that he would instead have to act out his entire career for the audience, and pulled out a set of handcuffs, saying “I’ll start with something you’re familiar with.” Dornan was emotional in speaking about his family and his once in a career experience of working with Kenneth Branagh in BELFAST, “the greatest honor of my career.” He also said he would “endeavor to tell stories from that complicated island as long as I’m allowed to” and “that if you’re lucky enough to be Irish, then you are lucky enough.”
Kenneth Branagh recently broke records by becoming the first person nominated in seven Oscar categories. Additionally, his film BELFAST received seven Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, and Best Director. While Branagh couldn’t be there personally, his wife, Lindsay Brunnock, and several of his family and friends enjoyed the party.
In honoring Branagh, Abrams said that the BELFAST director had said that he found that the COVID lockdown triggered something in him that reminded him of the fragility of our lives, and he thus felt compelled to revisit that time in his childhood. Abrams said, “There is much talk about the Irish and immigration – some of it forced, some of it chosen. The need to leave Belfast perhaps allowed Ken to become the actor, writer, director he has become. Maybe he was meant to tell this story at this time. Hopefully it will remind everyone, particularly political leaders in London and Stormont, to deliver on the promise of the Good Friday Agreement so that any further immigration from Northern Ireland is a choice and not necessity.”
Via a taped acceptance, Branagh recalled what great fun the Oscar Wilde Awards are – he attended in 2012 to present to writer John Logan. In speaking about BELFAST, he said there were only a few ways this 9-year-old boy “could see some light through the dark cloud that was the onset of the Troubles.” One light that was that of “the super bright light coming from the projection booth” at the local cinema that “threw out all those beams of dreams all the way from Hollywood. Another was the light in the eyes of those incredible wise warrior women, amazingly embodied by Caitriona Balfe in our film, who would step in front of any obstacles rather than see their family harmed. And, finally, the light that was the songs, the dances, the music, and the jokes. In short, the humanity, and the humor, that is part of the spirit of the Irish people.”
Lead sponsor of this year’s event was Hackman Capital Partners and The MBS Group. Founder and Chairman Michael Hackman owns numerous studios and recently acquired Irish studios, Troy and Ardmore, and is building a new studio in Greystones. Abrams announced from the stage that Hackman generously just committed to sponsoring two of the US-Ireland Alliance’s Mitchell Scholarships, with a gift of $100,000.
Hackman Capital and The MBS Group executives, along with Desiree Finnegan, the CEO of Screen Ireland, and Northern Ireland’s Screen CEO, Richard Williams, could be seen speaking with the numerous guests about production opportunities on the island. Bad Robot, Warner Bros/WarnerMedia/HBO, Netflix, AMC, FX Networks, Lucasfilm, Apple TV, Paramount, Disney, Anonymous Content were all represented, including Daria Cercek and Mike Ireland, Co-Heads of Paramount Motion Pictures Group; Michael Burns, former Oscar Wilde Award honoree and Vice Chairman of Lionsgate; and Brett Paul, President of Warner Bros TV. CAA President Richard Lovett; Prem Akkaraju, CEO of wetaFX; Brian Carmody, co-founder of Smuggler; and Des Carey, Global Head of Cinematic Innovation for Samsung were also seen in the crowd.
Directors Justin Benson, Terry George, and Rick Famuyiwa, along with producers Pat Crowley and Lisa Joy, and actor Elisabeth Shue made an appearance. The always eclectic guest list included Nicolas Berggruen, CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan, and Lew Wolff, the former owner of the Oakland A’s.
Music has always been a popular part of the casual party and the event is always peppered with players in the music industry. Performing this year were Irish band True Tides and duo Loah & Bantum. Legendary songwriter Billy Steinberg and his Belfast-born wife, Caitriona McKillen, were on hand, as were music producer Wayne Jobson; Disney film music exec, John Houlihan; Spotify execs Jeremy Erlich and Ned Monahan.
There were many Irish in attendance including actress and former “Wilde Card” honoree, Sarah Bolger; Benjamin Cleary & Rebecca Bourke, the director and producer SWAN SONG; director Kate Dolan; actor Glenn Keough; singer and actress Samantha Mumba; actress Nora-Jane Noone; Fig O’Reilly, former Miss Ireland, and correspondent on CBS’ Mission Possible; and Eimear Noone, the first female conductor of the orchestra at the Academy Awards in 2020.
Several alumni of the US-Ireland Alliance’s Mitchell Scholarship program are in the film and related entertainment industries. Anise Vance, a Mitchell Scholar whose book, Hush Harbor has been optioned by Disney’s Onyx Collective, enjoyed his first Oscar Wilde Awards. Alliance board members Eoin Egan, Una Fox, Kesav Mohan, and Sean O’Sullivan were present.
Abrams noted that the Alliance is seeking to endow the scholarship and encourage anyone who might want to add their name to one of the country’s most prestigious scholarships to talk to Trina.
In addition to Hackman Capital/The MBS Group, Screen Ireland and Northern Ireland Screen, other sponsors of the event included Netflix, Samsung, WarnerMedia, and ScreenScene.
Kensington caterers always serve up a delicious menu of Irish favorites with a contemporary twist. Irish cheese, Kerrygold, is always popular. Guests sipped Guinness, Writers Tears Irish Whiskey, Five Farms Irish Cream, and 1849 Wine. The honorees were presented with Hawke + Axel awards -- hand blown eternal flames with a green ribbon running through it.