Inside the Hollywood Film Awards, where the stars come to rehearse for other, more important awards shows


Three cold shrimp on a plate, swimming in cocktail sauce. This was the meal served to stars like Tom Hanks, Nicole Kidman and Clint Eastwood on Sunday evening at the Hollywood Film Awards, the annual event that bills itself as “The Official Launch of the Award Season.”

In reality, no one quite knows what to make of the HFAs, which were founded in 1997 by Mozambique-born entrepreneur Carlos de Abreu and his wife, Janice Pennington, who once modeled on “The Price Is Right.” For years, top film stars and directors have shown up to accept prizes from the organization, even though it’s long been unclear who exactly votes on the awards. Executives at Dick Clark Productions, which puts together the event, have told The Times that winners are selected by De Abreu and a team of a dozen mysterious panelists.

On the surface, the HFAs resemble any other glitzy award season affair. They’re held at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, in the same ballroom where the Golden Globes take place. They typically have a recognizable host; this year it was James Corden, who also led the ceremony last year.

He spent most of the evening poking fun at the HFAs’ irrelevance, endlessly skewering the oddball event. “It’s basically just an evening to determine which screeners you’re going to watch, and which you’ll give away to your aunt in New Jersey,” he kidded.

James Corden hosts the 20th annual Hollywood Film Awards. (Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)
(Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

Indeed, half of the actors being honored are in movies that haven’t even hit theaters yet, including “Jackie,” “Lion” and “Manchester by the Sea.” Not that it really matters, since the HFAs don’t have to appeal to anyone outside of the movie business. The show doesn’t air on television. It did once, on CBS in 2014, but that stopped after the telecast received dismal ratings.

The lack of exposure freed Corden up considerably. In his opening monologue he went after plenty of A-listers. On Michael Bay: “A Hollywood Film Award sounds like something Michael Bay gives to himself on Christmas morning just to feel less alone.” On Robert De Niro: “It’s been an up and down year for Robert De Niro. ‘Dirty Grandpa’ did not do so well, but the good news for us is it made ‘The Intern’ look like ‘Raging Bull.’” And Susan Sarandon? “Susan recently endorsed Jill Stein for president. That’s it. That’s the joke. Susan could be appearing in public for the final time before she’s rounded up by Donald Trump and put in a prison camp.”

Another popular target? The food.

Before the event began at 5 p.m., guests mingled in the bar, noshing on crudités and cookies. Also in the bar area? A turkey carving station, which seemed an odd choice for a pre-dinner snack. Alas, there was no dinner to be served. Instead, every table had been decorated with platters of hors d'oeuvres: finger sandwiches, meat skewers, deviled eggs, macarons and the aforementioned shrimp.

Ah, yes, the shrimp. It was so memorable that Vince Vaughn, on hand to present the Hollywood Director Award to Mel Gibson, gave his compliments to the chef.

“Whoever designed that course of three pieces of shrimp‎? That was exquisite,” he joked onstage.

The evening had an odd tone -- part tongue-in-cheek, part earnest and somber. While Corden cracked dozens of jokes at the HFAs’ expense, most of the night’s awards recipients seemed to take the honor seriously, and many used the platform to share their liberal political views ahead of Tuesday’s election.

Leonardo DiCaprio, who won an award for his environmental documentary “Before the Flood,” lamented that not one question about global warming was asked during any of the presidential debates. He urged the crowd to vote “for people who believe in the science of climate change.”

DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who presented a career achievement prize to Eddie Murphy, informed the audience of early voting returns in Florida that seemed favorable for Hillary Clinton.

And De Niro -- recipient of the show’s comedy award -- compared Stanley Kubrick’s Jack D. Ripper in “Dr. Strangelove” to Donald J. Trump.

“I know we’re here to celebrate movies in Hollywood,” he said, “but it’s two days until a frightening election and the shadow of politics is hanging over us whether we like it or not and it’s hard for me to think about anything else. So let me just lay it out right here. We have the opportunity to prevent a comedy from turning into a tragedy. Vote for Hillary Tuesday.”

Natalie Portman, recipient of the Hollywood Actress Award for "Jackie," left, and presenter Susan Sarandon speak onstage at the 20th Hollywood Film Awards. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)
Natalie Portman, recipient of the Hollywood Actress Award for “Jackie,” left, and presenter Susan Sarandon speak onstage at the 20th Hollywood Film Awards. (Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)
(Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images)

Others used the show as an opportunity to test-drive potential Oscar acceptance speeches. Natalie Portman, who is already considered a front-runner in the lead actress category for her upcoming turn as Jackie Kennedy, told the room that she felt fortunate to play a complex woman on-screen.

“It’s an incredible opportunity -- and unfortunately a rare opportunity --  to get to portray a woman so complicated,” said the actress. “I salute the many men behind this film. We obviously need many female voices to tell stories, but it’s also essential that the men who are telling stories consider women as complete human beings and not just in relationship to other men in films.”

Not everyone took the evening that seriously, however. Hugh Grant, honored for his supporting performance in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” got more laughs than any other winner when he referred to himself as a scrotum.

After his “Four Weddings and a Funeral” costar Andie MacDowell introduced him, he complimented her on how well she had aged. “I’m just depressed at how much better preserved she is than I am after 22 years,” said the 56-year-old. “Do you use any special creams or anything like that? You’re still a Southern peach and I am, according to Twitter, a scrotum.”

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