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Oscar Wilde Awards Honors Irish-Hollywood Connection

Variety logo Variety 2/23/2017 Will Thorne
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Oscar Wilde Awards honoree Martin Short, known for his zingers and stinging observations, was asked if anyone in the current presidential administration is ripe for satire. “Everyone is ripe for satire,” he says, “particularly in this administration. But it’s hard to satirize, hard to go broader than what we have seen.”

Asked if his talk-show character Jiminy Glick would have anything to say about the current Trump administration, Short demurs. “I’m not going there.”

Short feels a connection to the Wilde Awards. “My mother was half-Irish, my father was 100%,” he offers. Short, who has credits going back to 1972, says his father introduced him to film. They watched Ireland-set films such as “The Quiet Man” and “Shake Hands With the Devil.”

And while fans admire his wit, the performer freely admits, “I don’t know that if I could compare to Oscar Wilde.”

The comic actor is one of several honorees at the 12th annual Oscar Wilde Awards, put on by the U.S.-Ireland Alliance to celebrate Irish contributions to entertainment, and hosted by J.J. Abrams on Feb. 26 at his Bad Robot headquarters.

The class of 2017 consists of Short, “Outlander” star Caitriona Balfe, Zachary Quinto, Irish folk-rock singer Glen Hansard, and “Loving” actress Ruth Negga.

What is the common link for this cluster of actors, singers and comedians? They are all, at least in some part, Irish.

As a result, they have inherited a penchant for storytelling, which Balfe says is rooted deep in Irish culture.

“I grew up in the Irish countryside, but there’s such an amazing tradition in Ireland of storytelling, and even though my dad was a policeman, he and his friends used to put on plays and sketches, so it was something that I was surrounded by all my childhood, and it was always something that I wanted to do,” she says.

Although the star of Starz’s “Outlander,” filming its third season, grew up in a local theater milieu, she admits she took a less-trodden path for Irish actors in heading to the U.S.

Balfe’s first film role was in “The Devil Wears Prada,” where only her ankle was shown. The rest of her appeared in J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi thriller “Super 8.”

“J.J. gave me my first job in the U.S., so it’s quite a nice full circle event to be a part of,” Balfe says of the honor. “It was quite a small role, I played a mom in flashbacks, but for my first job it was such a big thing, and I remember going down to Virginia and meeting J.J. and we chatted for a few hours. He’s such an interesting guy, and he was telling me about how he started filmmaking when he was a kid.”

Balfe isn’t the only one on this year’s Oscar Wilde honorees list to get a first big film break in an Abrams movie.

Quinto’s star-making turn in 2009’s “Star Trek” and the subsequent franchise follow-ups have given him a large fan base and a powerful voice with which to advocate for gay rights and organizations. Quinto says the Oscar Wilde Awards are of extra importance to him because of Wilde’s homosexuality and the oppressed community he stood for.

“I got my Equity card while I was still in college doing a play called ‘The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,’ so I’ve had a long awareness and affinity for Oscar Wilde — not only his literary prowess and his incisive wit, but also what he represented in that time in the late 1800s,” he says. “He was persecuted and ultimately prosecuted and imprisoned for his homosexuality, and in many ways was ruined by the society of the time and their intolerance. Yet he maintained an integrity and an openness about who he was and how he lived his life that I have a tremendous respect for.”

The actor is so inspired by Wilde’s life and work that he named his company Wallpaper Goes. That’s a reference to a line that was attributed to Wilde. Legend says that as Wilde was on his deathbed, he said, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

“I always thought that was pretty humorous, the fact that he said it: a) to his wife, and b) that it was such a witty contemplation of his own mortality, and when I was naming my corporation I thought I’m not going anywhere, so wallpaper goes,” Quinto says.

As for Oscar-nominated Negga, U.S.-Ireland Alliance’s Trina Vargo says: “I watched the film [“Loving”] several times at our various screenings and found new subtleties with each viewing. The brilliance of Ruth’s performance lies in the nuances. It’s a role that requires the conveyance of emotion as much through a look as through dialogue.”

Hansard, who won the Oscar for song with “Falling Slowly” in 2007’s “Once Again,” gave an impromptu performance with Marketa Irglova at the 2008 event that made such an impression he is back as an honoree. He will perform again at this year’s event.

Abrams will emcee, and Chris Pine and Catherine O’Hara will be among the presenters.

Shalini Dore contributed to this report.

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