March 13, 2017

Moving moments at this year’s Screenies

Norm Wilner / NOW Toronto

At two hours and 10 minutes, the 2017 Canadian Screen Awards gala telecast – Live! On CBC! – came in an hour and a half shorter than last month’s excruciating Academy Awards ceremonies.

Sure, they awarded best picture and best director to Xavier Dolan and his insufferable It’s Only The End Of The World, but the fix for that was in months ago – if not when Dolan was named best director at Cannes, then when his film was named Canada’s official submission for the foreign-language Oscar. If there’s one thing the Screenies responds to, it’s international recognition.

But a lot of deserving people won prizes too. So that was nice.

Daniel MacIvor won best original screenplay for Weirdos, and Molly Parker was named best supporting actress. The movie – which reunites them with director Bruce McDonald, with whom they made Trigger and Twitch City – opens in Toronto Friday.

And Tatiana Maslany won two acting prizes – best actress (film) for her devastating turn in The Other Half, and performance by an actress in a continuing leading dramatic role (television) for her star turn in Orphan Black, which was also named best dramatic series. The show is shooting its final episode this week, so the acceptance speeches were fairly emotional; the show’s co-creator Graeme Manson expressed as much while thanking his cast and crew, and even gave Maslany the show’s award during his speech – which she awkwardly tried to decline, because as a Canadian she is of course uncomfortable with praise. The show took nine awards in all, including best direction in a dramatic series, best writing and best performance by an actor in a supporting role (Kevin Hanchard).

Elsewhere in the TV section, Kim’s Convenience star Paul Sun-Hyung Lee was named best actor in a comedy, and gave a moving speech in which he pointed out that a show on a national broadcast network that portrays a family of immigrants “is so much more important now than ever before … and I’ve never been more proud to be a Canadian than right now.”

Jared Keeso’s eccentric comedy Letterkenny was named best comedy series, with Jacob Tierney winning best direction for comedy and Keeso and Tierney winning best writing. Keeso and Tierney seemed genuinely surprised by the win – I think they were expecting Kim’s to take it, while everyone else was betting on Schitt’s Creek – which made for a really nice moment.

Schitt’s didn’t go home empty-handed, though: Catherine O’Hara was named best supporting actress, and made the most of her second straight win in that category by accepting in character. The self-absorbed Moira Rose hogged every second of the spotlight, and it was delightful because O’Hara is (a) a pro and (b) knew exactly how far to push it.

Less clear on boundaries was the evening’s host, Howie Mandel, whose arsenal of hacky crowd work and even hackier bits – like a cheesy rehash of Billy Crystal’s old bit of inserting himself into Oscar clips, which amounted to Mandel green-screening himself into existing footage in a crappy Viking costume, or getting an audience member to switch seats with a trombonist in the orchestra – was just painful. I’m sure this stuff kills at Casino Rama, but when you’re supposed to be anchoring an awards show it just seems cheap and lazy.

That said, all of Mandel’s accumulated screen time was nowhere near as painful as Sean Cullen’s obnoxious riffing while he was supposed to be presenting the Fan’s Choice Award. Sure, it’s a made-up prize intended to attract millennials – and the evening’s winner, Camilla’s Natasha Negovanlis, gave a fantastic speech about her gay vampire web series being the vehicle for empowerment she badly needed when she was a misfit teenager – but Cullen’s pop-eyed, self-satisfied shtick was no way to set her up.

Classy acceptance speeches were the signature of the evening. Christopher Plummer was self-deprecating and classy in receiving his lifetime achievement award (presented by Atom Egoyan, whose name Mandel managed to mispronounce), and Tantoo Cardinal was stirring and inspiring in her acceptance of the Earle Grey award for contributions to the industry. Stephan James, named best actor for Race, honoured the memory of Jesse Owens by thanking Owens’s daughters for letting him get to know their father.

And there was one speech that brought the room to silence. Accepting The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration’s Screenie for best live entertainment special, Hip members Paul Langlois and Rob Baker looked considerably older and more haggard than they did on stage last summer, making the absence of frontman Gord Downie even more poignant.

“This past year has been a difficult and emotional one for all of us, but there’s been some joy and inspiration in it as well … we felt your support, and we felt the connection,” Langlois said.

In that moment, it was possible to ignore the hacky jokes and pandering. And the Canadian Screen Awards were so much better for it.

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