Around early February, a certain phrase starts popping up in awards discussions: “They’re British, so they’ll win the BAFTA.” After the various critics’ circle, Golden Globe, and guild awards have all handed out their picks, the British Academy Film Awards are the last major stop on the Oscars race, and they certainly do have a preference for rewarding homegrown movies. (This year, The Favourite leads the field with 12 nominations.) But how much do U.K.-born actors enjoy an advantage at the BAFTAs? Can you really pencil in a Blighty-born contender to take home the trophy over an American frontrunner? We decided to find out, by looking at all the ceremony’s acting races since 2001, when the BAFTAs rescheduled themselves to come before the Oscars.
Of course, not all British winners are created equal. Gary Oldman won the Best Actor BAFTA last year, but Gary Oldman also won every other trophy last year, too. To get a sense of the ceremony’s true Anglophilic tendencies, we will be looking for three related phenomena:
— How often does BAFTA go with a Brit in open races with no established frontrunner?
— How often does BAFTA go with a Brit over an established Oscar frontrunner?
— How often does a British BAFTA winner go on to win the Oscar?
For the purposes of our research, we will be defining an “Oscar frontrunner” as an actor who has won the Golden Globe, Critics Choice, and SAG Awards. By that standard, Glenn Close and Mahershala Ali would be considered frontrunners in Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor this year, while the Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress races would be considered open. Got it? Let’s go:
We’ll start with a fairly boring year, as the BAFTAs went chalk, handing awards to the same quartet of actors who scored with Oscar and every other major precursor. As mentioned above, Gary Oldman of Darkest Hour was the only Brit of the bunch.
Though it feels in retrospect like Mahershala Ali was the frontrunner for the entirety of his Moonlight season, he lost the Globe to Nocturnal Animals’ Aaron Taylor-Johnson, making Supporting Actor an open race according to our methodology. And wouldn’t you know, the BAFTAs went with someone else as well, handing the award to a different Brit, Lion’s Dev Patel. Still, the Oscars didn’t care, handing Ali a well-deserved trophy.
Months before the Brexit vote, the BAFTAs gave us another surprise in the Supporting Actor race. Creed’s Sylvester Stallone had won the Golden Globe and Critics Choice, but Stallone was snubbed at the SAGs, who went with London’s own Idris Elba instead. Stallone was left off the ballot again at the BAFTAs, but instead of Elba, the Brits surprisingly chose another Englishman, Mark Rylance of Bridge of Spies, giving the low-key thespian a crucial momentum boost that helped him take home the Oscar weeks later.
This year saw a Best Actor race that came down to Birdman’s Michael Keaton, who’d had a career-redefining role in a Best Picture contender, and The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne, a nice young chap playing an iconic historical figure with medical issues. They both won Globes, and split the SAG and Critics Choice. BAFTA broke the tie in favor of the Brit, a result that would be mirrored at the Oscars.
Our first steal! These BAFTAs saw 12 Years a Slave’s Chiwetel Ejiofor beat out Best Actor frontrunner Matthew McConaughey of Dallas Buyers Club, who wasn’t even nominated. 2014 was an interesting year where the BAFTA winners only overlapped with the Oscars in Best Actress, as the Australian (British-adjacent) Cate Blanchett took home both trophies for Blue Jasmine. The other BAFTA winners were Captain Phillips’s Barkhad Abdi, who beat frontrunner Jared Leto of Dallas Buyers Club, and American Hustle’s Jennifer Lawrence, who won an open Supporting Actress race over the eventual Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave. None of these people are British, though Nyong’o is from Kenya, a Commonwealth nation.
The only British winner this year was Lincoln’s Daniel Day-Lewis, who continued his streak of Best Actor dominance at the BAFTAs.
No Brits won this year, which astonished me, since I swore Beginners’ Christopher Plummer was from England. (He’s actually Canadian.)
This was a big year for the King’s Speech. Frontrunner Colin Firth took home the Best Actor BAFTA on his path to Oscar glory, and the film also cleaned up in the Supporting categories, where two underdogs triumphed over the frontrunners from The Fighter: Helena Bonham Carter beat Melissa Leo, and Geoffrey Rush (an Australian in a British film) beat Christian Bale (a Brit in an American film).
This year saw two American frontrunners go down to Brits. In Best Actor, Colin Firth won his first BAFTA for Tom Ford’s A Single Man, over Jeff Bridges’s turn in Crazy Heart. And in Actress, Carey Mulligan’s breakout performance in An Education was enough to power her over The Blind Side’s Sandra Bullock. Supporting Actor went to Austrian Christoph Waltz of Inglourious Basterds, so the only American acting winner was Mo’Nique from Precious. A sad year at the BAFTAs for the US of A.
Another year with only one British winner, The Reader’s Kate Winslet, who was the supporting-actress frontrunner after the Globes, Critics Choice, and SAGs, but competed in lead at the BAFTAs and the Oscars. She won both!
Astoundingly, this year saw a British frontrunner lose, as Away From Her’s Julie Christie got beat at the BAFTAs by eventual Oscar winner Marion Cotillard of La Vie en Rose. But the Brits still did okay. There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Day-Lewis powered his way to another win, as he tends to do. And in a season where Supporting Actress was incredibly open (there were three different winners at the Globes, Critics Choice, and SAG), the BAFTA went to Scotland’s Tilda Swinton, who picked up her first big trophy of the season for Michael Clayton on her way to an Oscar win.
This was the infamous Norbit year, in which Supporting Actor frontrunner Eddie Murphy of Dreamgirls saw his momentum dissipate when he released a terrible comedy about a dweeb with a fat wife. What you maybe don’t remember is that the BAFTAs got there first: The ceremony took place two days after Norbit’s release, and British voters decided to go with Little Miss Sunshine’s Alan Arkin instead. Then the Oscars copied them, and got all the headlines! Anyway, the only British winner this year was Helen Mirren for The Queen, and you know there was no way in hell she was not winning this BAFTA.
Another year with only one British winner: Crash’s Thandie Newton, who triumphed in a weird Supporting Actress race. Fellow Brit Rachel Weisz had won the Globe and the SAG, and eventually the Oscar for The Constant Gardener, but she competed in lead at the BAFTAs, losing to the American frontrunner, Reese Witherspoon of Walk the Line. Like I said, weird.
Two Brits won this year, both underdogs. In Best Actress, Vera Drake’s Imelda Staunton triumphed over Million Dollar Baby frontrunner Hillary Swank, while in Supporting Actor, Closer’s Clive Owen followed up his Globe win with a BAFTA, too. Neither won the Academy Award, as Swank and SAG winner Morgan Freeman rode the Million Dollar Baby wave to Oscar victories.
In an absolutely delightful twist, 2004 saw Bill Nighy take home the Best Supporting Actor BAFTA for Love, Actually, a performance that wasn’t nominated anywhere else.
Neither of our British winners this year were technically frontrunners, but it was close. Gangs of New York’s Daniel Day-Lewis was battling About Schmidt’s Jack Nicholson for the lead spot in this Best Actor race when he took home the BAFTA for Gangs of New York. (Both men would wind up losing the Oscar to Adrien Brody of The Pianist.) And Swansea native Catherine Zeta-Jones had been the subject of category confusion, losing when her Chicago performance competed as a Lead, as at the Globes, but winning whenever she competed in Supporting, as she did at the BAFTAs and Oscars.
Two more unexpected British winners here. This Best Actress race ultimately came down to Sissy Spacek of In the Bedroom vs. Halle Berry of Monster’s Ball, but both lost the BAFTA to Iris’s Judi Dench. (As part of BAFTA’s inglorious tradition of overlooking black actors, Berry wasn’t even nominated.) Jim Broadbent, who’d been getting in all season long for Iris (he won the Globe and the Oscar), took home the Supporting Actor BAFTA for Moulin Rouge instead.
In the BAFTAs’ first year as an Oscar precursor they went with two eventual Academy Award winners, Julia Roberts from Erin Brockovich, and Benicio Del Toro from Traffic, and two homegrown underdogs, Jamie Bell and Julie Walters, both of Billy Elliot. Both won in “open” races; neither went on to win the Oscar.
So, after looking at all these years of BAFTA results, what have we learned?
Of the 72 acting winners in this sample, 24 were British.
Over the same time span, 13 of the equivalent Oscar winners were British. So, the BAFTAs are almost twice as likely to hand an acting trophy to a Brit as the Oscars are. Not a huge surprise, but nice to work out the math anyway.
There are usually only one or two British winners every year.
Four British winners has never happened in the pre-Oscar era, a warning sign to those predicting Christian Bale, Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Richard E. Grant to walk away with trophies this weekend.
Half of the British winners triumphed in “open” categories.
While frontrunner wins and steals each made up about a quarter of the Brit wins. In other words, if you’re going to put money on any of the above quartet, Bale and Weisz are safer bets than Colman and Grant.
All of the British frontrunners who won the BAFTA went on to win the Oscar.
While that percentage drops to around a third if you’re a Brit who wins an “open” race. If you’re already ahead, the BAFTA win serves as a coronation; if you’re in the mix, it’s a helpful but not sufficient boost.
While only two British frontrunners lost the BAFTA.
Christian Bale went on to win the Oscar, Julie Christie didn’t.
Most interestingly, no British BAFTA winner who beat an established frontrunner went on to win the Oscar.
It seems in these cases that Hollywood chalks the win up to “the BAFTAs being the BAFTAs” and goes ahead and votes for who they were going to vote for anyway. That’s bad news for Colman and Grant, who are both hoping for big wins this weekend to power them to a surprise Oscar. It’s a sticky wicket, innit?