What’s it like being a member of a film award nominating committee? Our movie reviewer Georgina Young-Ellis reveals all about hanging with George, Ben, Jake, Ewan and more ……

georginayoungellisPrepare yourself for a boatload of name-dropping. I am having a very special autumn. The Screen Actors Guild, of which I’ve been a member for 20 years, has finally paid me back for all those dues. They chose me to be a member of the 2012 SAG Awards Nominating Committee. Me! They chose me! Though selected merely by lottery, I felt very honored, and immediately took the responsibility to heart. They asked me if I would make every effort to attend as many screenings as possible and stay for as many Q&As with the stars as I could. I screamed, yes! (Note: you must live in LA or NY for this privilege.)

I got my first invitation back in September for an indie film called Beasts of the Southern Wild. Of all the movies, big budget, star-packed or not, this was one the best I’ve seen so far. And the “star” who came to do the Q&A was completely unknown. Next on tap was On the Road, directed by Walter Salles who also did The Motorcycle Diaries, one of my favorite films. I was excited. Kristen Steward and Garrett Hedlund were to be at the Q&A along with Salles. I had both high and low expectations for the film. I wondered, how can you make a movie out of that book? The answer? You can’t, and no amount of explanation from the director helped. The performances by the actors were outstanding though, and I’m considering nominating Kristen Stewart for Best Actress though her Q&A was lackluster. What movie star sits there scowling and biting her nails? Oh, yeah, Kristen Stewart.

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The Master, starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams was next up, and a star-studded event it was. Taking place at the gigantic 1920s-era Ziegfeld Theater, my husband (always my plus one) and I lucked out with seats right by the aisle. Rosie Perez sauntered by, as did Gabourey Sidibe (Precious) and a bunch of lesser known but recognizable faces. I was agog. Then, THE Harvey Weinstein came out to introduce the pic, along with … Amy Adams! However, the night went downhill from there. The movie is plodding and pointless, though, again, the performances were exceptional. Maybe I’ll nominate Joaquin for Best Actor. There was no Q&A that night.

A few days later we saw End of Watch, Q&A with … hold on to your hats, ladies … Jake Gyllenhaal! And also Michael Pena, who in my opinion is no less cute. It was a great, great film and a great Q&A. Both actors were so funny and informative. Then, as hubby and I left the theater and wandered around the corner to 6th Ave, there was Pena with his date, looking for the subway. So we chatted with him as we walked along, then pointed him to the train. He was really happy to hear how much we’d enjoyed his performance, and to take our recommendation to see Beasts of the Southern Wild. I will nominate both he and Jake for Best Actor awards.

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The next week, we found ourselves in the theater, after the screening of Won’t Back Down, with Maggie Gyllenhaal, Rosie Perez (again) and Viola Davis (star of The Help). Wow. The film was OK, but the Q&A was quite illuminating – three powerful, passionate women discussing their views on unions and education. And Maggie was SO beautiful! My husband’s always had a thing for her. So, again, as we were leaving the theater, we ran into her! (I swear we weren’t stalking.) Though husband Jon was tongue tied, I thanked her, praised her performance, and she shook both our hands. It was really special, and I tell you, up close, she is flawless!

After that we saw Argo. This is a stupendous film starring and directed by Ben Affleck. For the Q&A we were promised him, John Goodman, Bryan Cranston and a few others. What we got was all of the above, plus … wait for it … George Clooney!!!!!! Oh yes, siree! (He’s one of the producers.) When they announced, before the film, that he’d be there, it was all I could do to concentrate on the movie, great as it was. And then suddenly, when the lights came up, there he was! In person, he’s a slight man, not short, but not tall either, and very, very handsome of course. John Goodman is an imposing presence on stage but doesn’t say much. Affleck was wonderful. Really forthcoming about his experience, and very eager to please the audience. Normally, he doesn’t do it for me, but I gained a lot of respect for him that night. Everyone else, including Clooney, joked around a lot, but it was fun to see that rapport among the actors, producers, etc. I came fairly close to speaking to George afterward; my husband was ushering me toward him, but I honestly just chickened out – could not think of what to say; and so he escaped into the night. I will nominate Argo for Outstanding Performance of Cast in a Motion Picture.

Seven Psychopaths was next up, Q&A with the writer, director, and stars Sam Rockwell and Abbie Cornish. Great film, superbly written, very violent, however. Definite best supporting actor nomination for Christopher Walken. We saw Flight a few days later. We were promised Denzel for the Q&A but he didn’t show. Crap! However, nearly everyone else in the cast was there including Don Cheadle, John Goodman (again), Melissa Leo, and director Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump). I didn’t love the film, though there’s a really well-done and harrowing plane crash at the beginning, and Denzel was certainly nomination-worthy. I just thought it was too preachy.

Hyde Park on Hudson was next. Excellent film. Very soothing after all the high-energy, big Hollywood pictures we’d been seeing. Q&A was with Bill Murray, who played Franklin Roosevelt, Olivia Williams who played Eleanor, and Laura Linney who played Daisy, a mistress of Roosevelt’s. It was an intimate theater and the actors were very generous with their responses. Having been mostly a theater actress myself for many years, though I did some film and TV – hence the SAG membership – I asked Laura an acting question. She answered it so thoroughly and thoughfully. That was a thrill. And my husband said hello and shook her hand later while I was in the bathroom.

theimpossibleThen we went to see The Impossible. I had no idea what this film was about going in, and, had I known, I may have opted out if it hadn’t been for the fact that Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts were going to be at the Q&A. As it turns out, it was about a family surviving the tsunami in Asia in 2004. Talk about wrenching. All the actors were just exceptional – definite nominations here, but it was hard to watch. The cast and director gave a very detailed Q&A and hung around taking pictures and signing autographs for we SAG people afterward. I ducked into the bathroom, thinking, if I’m going meet Ewan, I’d better freshen up. Good thing I did. I managed to be standing there when he walked by, and so I got to speak with him. He thanked me and gave me a huge smile. Though he was sporting a beard, he was so gorgeous!!!! I was atwitter for days after that one. (Do you think I should have handed him the screenplay for my novel, The Time Baroness? I have him in mind for the hero.)

Shortly after, we saw Ginger and Rosa, Cloud Atlas, This is 40, and Life of Pi in the spate of just a few days. How cool is it we get to see all these films in the theaters for free! Normally, I would never get to see anywhere close to all of these in one season, and that doesn’t count all the films they’ve also sent us on DVD! Anyway, the director of Ginger and Rosa, Sally Potter, was there, plus two stars, Elle Fanning and Alessandro Nivola, who played her father. Elle was a delight, such a sweet, poised young woman, and I got to ask her a question, which she answered really intelligently. She’s only fourteen, after all. This film is excellent, but a hard one.

There was no Q&A with Tom Hanks and Halle Berry for Cloud Atlas but I can’t recommend the film highly enough. The Q&A for This is 40, “Kind of a Sequel to Knocked Up,” as it’s billed, was almost more entertaining than the film, which was very good. Paul Rudd was at the Q&A, whom I just love, plus director Judd Apatow and his wife and star Leslie Mann. Seth Meyers of Saturday Night Live was the moderator, so it was a real free-for-all. What a bunch of extremely funny people! Finally came Life of Pi; I’d say up there with Beasts of the Southern Wild. It was directed by Ang Lee who surprised us and came to the Q&A along with the stars, the younger of which is completely unknown. The fellow who plays the older Pi is Irrfan Khan, known best I think for the role of the police inspector in Slumdog Millionaire. Though not so good looking on screen, in person, the man absolutely smolders! He reminded me of an ex-boyfriend of mine from the West Indies who exuded sexuality. Anyway, that was a really moving Q&A – to hear how much the film meant to the actors and the brilliant, totally self-effacing Ang Lee.

Finally, we saw two in one day this last Sunday – Lincoln, and Hitchcock. The former is a sheer work of genius in every way, the latter is wonderfully fun. When we popped up at the Hitchcock screening, at the Zeigfeld again, I was surprised to find it was the NY premiere, complete with all the stars! No Q&A but lots of stargazing including Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette and Jessica Biel. My husband was in heaven.

Though the season is now wrapping up, we are still looking forward to Les Miserables, with, possibly, Anne Hathaway, Hugh Jackman (!!!!) or Russell Crowe in attendance, and The Promised Land, which promises to be excellent, with Matt Damon attending the Q&A. Don’t hate me for not going to see Arbitrage, with a Q&A by Richard Gere, because I already saw the film on DVD and didn’t love it.

It’s been an honor and a privilege to get to see all these films and meet or hear personally from all these stars. It’s easy to get star-struck, but I’m actually coming away from the experience with a clear recognition of how famous actors are just people … with really cool jobs. We must turn in our nominations on December 10, and I still have a lot of DVDs to watch before then. Did the Q&As and all the special treatment sway me? Maybe a little, but I’ll try to be objective. I think you now know who and what I’ve like best. Try to get out and see some of these wonderful films – this is an amazing season to be a film lover!

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