Al Pacino Steals the Show at AFI Awards With Off-the-Cuff Speech

Though most kudos events are competitive, the annual AFI Awards, honoring 21 film and TV works, proved communal. Sarah Polley chatted with Michelle Williams, Jerry Bruckheimer was deep in conversation with James Cameron, the “Better Call Saul” talent huddled with “Reservation Dogs” and Steven Spielberg enthused about “The Bear” to the show’s team and FX Networks chairman John Landgraf.

The luncheon Jan. 13 at the Four Seasons Beverly Hills was filled with 250 industry heavy-hitters, but the scene-stealer was someone who had no attachment to any of the honored works: Al Pacino, who closed the event with a 10-minute speech that seemed rambling and hilarious, but proved to be pointed and concluded with a bang.

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Before the event started, Universal Pictures chairwoman Donna Langley praised the annual gathering to Variety, saying: “It reminds us of the dignity and elegance of the industry as we gather here to celebrate artistry.”

In December, AFI announced its honorees for “notable achievements” in 2022. Films cited were “Avatar: The Way of Water,” “Elvis,” “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “The Fabelmans,” “Nope,” “She Said,” “Tar,” “Top Gun: Maverick,” “The Woman King” and “Women Talking.” For TV: “Abbott Elementary,” “The Bear,” “Better Call Saul,” “Hacks,” “Mo,” “Pachinko,” “Reservation Dogs,” “Severance,” “Somebody Somewhere” and “The White Lotus.” “The Banshees of Inisherin” received an AFI Special Award, since the traditional honors — chosen by two juries, for film and for TV — only go to American works.

After the salmon was served, the program began as AFI prez-CEO Bob Gazzale asked for a moment of silence for some of the honorees who had experienced a recent loss. He didn’t mention “Elvis” or the Jan. 12 death of Lisa Marie Presley; he didn’t have to. He said “This event was founded in community, not competition” and he wanted the team “to feel we are here for them.”

The format has been the same since 2003. One of the judges reads the “rationale” for each honoree (i.e., the reason it was selected) followed by a one-minute clip. Rationales on Friday were read by TV jury head Rich Frank and film jury member Ann Hornaday. Sometimes the crowd reactions offer a surprising insight into industry favorites in the Oscar race, but the applause seemed evenly split.

The event traditionally ends with a benediction — a solemn toast — but Pacino rewrote the rule book. He was there to observe the 50th anniversary of “The Godfather.” He said he had prepared remarks, but after watching all the clips and thinking about the great work, he was throwing those remarks out. “What I have to say is so weird … I’m shaking, look at my hands!” What followed were observations and anecdotes about being a nominee and going through “the stages of grief” when he was Oscar-nominated for “Serpico.” His speech seemed ad-libbed and formless, though consistently hilarious and entertaining, and he wrapped with the idea that artists are not hard-wired for competition.

Nick Meyer from Sierra/Infinity told Variety, “This is my favorite event of the year,” while Warner Bros. Pictures CEO Michael De Luca said “There’s no competition, just recognition of great work,” and that the event was a chance to “reconnect with people you haven’t seen in awhile.”

Among the notables in attendance were former AFI director-CEO Jean Picker Firstenberg, Robert Iger, Gail Berman, Todd Field (one of 30 AFI alums there), Vince Gilligan, Jon Landau, Martin McDonagh, Jordan Peele, Ben Stiller and Mike White. Among the execs were Pam Abdy, Bela Bajaria, Eddy Cue, Channing Dungey, Jamie Erlicht, Dan McDermott, Ted Sarandos, Zack Van Amburg, Dana Walden and David Zaslav.

Other guests included Paulina Alexis, Mohammad Amer, Patricia Arquette,Hannah Bos, Lionel Boyce, Quinta Brunson, Jessie Buckley, Patricia Clarkson, Kerry Condon, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Paul W. Downs, Ayo Edebiri, Dan Erickson, Bridget Everett, Lane Factor, Meghann Fahy, Claire Foy, Peter Gould, Hildur Guðnadóttir, Jin Ha, Sterlin Harjo, Stephanie Hsu, Theo James, Daniel Kaluuya, Theresa Kang, Zoe Kazan, Barry Keoghan, Minha Kim, Joseph Kosinski, Tony Kushner, Daniel Kwan, Gabriel LaBelle, Stephen Lang, David Linde, Britt Lower, Baz Luhrmann, Kristie Macosko Krieger, Leonard Maltin, Thuso Mbedu, Martin McDonagh, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Solvan “Slick” Naim, Bob Odenkirk, Keke Palmer, Jordan Peele, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Ke Huy Quan, Seth Rogen, Daniel Scheinert, Maria Schrader, Adam Scott, Rhea Seehorn, Chris Silbermann, Christopher Storer, Miles Teller, Sigourney Weaver, Jeremy Allen White, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Michelle Yeoh, Steven Yeun, Yuh-jung Youn and Ramy Youssef.

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