"Argo," the story of a stealth mission to rescue a group of U.S. hostages from Iran in 1980, was voted best film at the British Academy Film Awards, or Baftas, last night. Its director Ben Affleck also won.
"Argo" had picked up prizes in the exact same categories at the Golden Globes in January. It is now one of nine contenders for best picture at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards, or Oscars, in Los Angeles on Feb. 24.
"I wanted to get as far away from Boston as I could, and ended up in Iran," joked the bearded Affleck as he walked up the red carpet at London's Royal Opera House. Flanking him all evening was George Clooney, also sporting a full beard, who, as "Argo" coproducer, won his first-ever Bafta.
The four runners-up for best film were "Les Miserables," an adaptation of the hit stage musical; "Life of Pi," the story of a man stuck on a lifeboat with a tiger; "Lincoln," Steven Spielberg's saga about the 16th president's abolition of slavery; and "Zero Dark Thirty," on the hunt for and killing of Osama Bin Laden.
Last night's other big victors were Daniel Day-Lewis, for his role as President Abraham Lincoln in Spielberg's 150-minute "Lincoln;" and the 85-year-old French actress Emmanuelle Riva -- who won in absentia -- for her part as the bed-ridden stroke victim in Michael Haneke's "Amour."
"Argo" is the true story of six U.S. diplomats who manage to escape captivity in post-revolutionary Tehran by posing as a Canadian film crew. It's based on the memoirs of CIA officer Tony Mendez (played by Affleck), who masterminded the mission.
Affleck said he initially went searching for Persian- speaking actors in Turkey until Clooney told him about the "massive" community of first- and second-generation Iranians in L.A.
"There were people who were doing theater, people who were doing films, people who stepped in ready to go," Affleck told reporters backstage, as coproducers Clooney and Grant Heslov stood by. "We didn't have to explain anything to them."
"Even more important and more profound was, so many people who were part of this movie had gone through the experience of fleeing Iran," he said.
Affleck, who was also on the best-actor Bafta shortlist for "Argo," said the odds of any actor beating Day-Lewis were "400,000 to one."
On the podium moments earlier, Day-Lewis said he initially turned away Spielberg because he didn't feel compelled to impersonate the 16th U.S. president.
"At the time when he first presented it to me, not only did I not feel that need, but I thought quite positively that that would be a wonderful thing for somebody else to do," said Day-Lewis, his thinning salt-and-pepper hair styled in a crew cut.
He eventually said yes because "there's a need in you to express something of yourself through the life of another human being."
Director Quentin Tarantino, who was a best-director nominee for his slavery-themed "Django Unchained," scored a win for best original screenplay, while cast member Christoph Waltz bagged the best-supporting-actor prize.
Tarantino was asked whether, having attacked Nazis in "Inglourious Basterds" and slave owners in "Django," he planned another movie that would visit vengeance on history's bad guys.
"I think there's something about this that begs a trilogy," said Tarantino, his black tie loosened over a wrinkled white shirt. "I don't know what the third one's going to be yet, but I wouldn't be surprised."
The best-supporting actress Bafta went to Anne Hathaway -- also a Golden Globe winner in the same category -- for her part as the impoverished Fantine in "Les Miserables."
As ever at the Baftas, the weather was uncooperative. Non- stop rain left the red carpet soggy and paved with see-through umbrellas. One red-carpet TV reporter apologized for the climate as best-actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence headed in.
"It's okay, it's London!" cheered the now-blonde Lawrence, a dark coat bundled over her Dior gown. "The summers are wonderful, but February..."
Lawrence's co-star in "Silver Linings Playbook," best- actor nominee Bradley Cooper, appeared in the mandatory tuxedo - - a change from his sloppy look on screen.
"To be able to act in sweat pants and sneakers and a trash bag the whole movie was fantastic: It was very comfortable," said Cooper, who was greeted with shrieks of "Bradley, Bradley" from drenched groupies.
Started in 1947 and honoring films produced worldwide and shown in U.K. cinemas, the Baftas are now held before the Oscars and get more attention as a gauge of the year's standout titles.