Gotham gala: New York Film Critics honor Day-Lewis, Weisz and Bigelow

“This is just like my bar mitzvah, except Steven Spielberg is here,” declared Time Out New York’s Joshua Rothkopf at the top of a long and talky, funny and moving night of award giving and taking—the 78th under the aegis of the New York Film Critics Circle—as he surveyed the star-stacked, prize-hungry assemblage at Crimson on Jan. 7.

Chairing the event, Rothkopf began the evening not with a bang but more like Margo leaving Shangri-La, underscoring a sad sign-of-the-times. “As vital as film criticism is,” he noted gravely, “the business of film criticism is in serious trouble. Jobs are being eliminated, the columns are shrinking, and writers who have spent years and years building a readership and establishing their authority are getting downsized and pushed out of these jobs. So, on behalf of my group, I have to say, if you’re an editor-in-chief or a publisher within the sound of my voice and you don’t have a full-time film critic on your staff with benefits, then you’re failing your readership.”

That was followed by the ceremonial roll call of the 35 of this endangered species still standing and voting. Two of their number were missing, and J. (Jim) Hoberman stepped up to sing the praises of Judith Crist and Andrew Sarris, who died in 2012.

Crist was such a formidable presence when he joined the group in 1982, Hoberman said, he could never quite bring himself to call her Judy—“Billy Wilder once said, ‘Inviting her to review your picture is like asking the Boston Strangler to massage your neck’”—but, having worked with Sarris over a decade at The Village Voice, he had no problem calling him Andy. “I wouldn’t say that Andy was the easiest colleague to get along with, but, at The Village Voice in those days, who the fuck was?

“Long before I came to The Voice, I was Andy’s reader, and, years before I met him, I was his student. When I was an undergraduate back in the day, programming movies for the Hartford College Film Society in Binghamton, New York, we used to refer to this simply as The Book.” He kissed and held high Sarris’ The American Cinema.

As if to second the formative influence of critics, a Sarris classmate of Hoberman’s wound up with the NYFCC’s Best Director award for helming the group’s pick for Best Picture, Zero Dark Thirty, and she capped the evening by accepting the award in honor of Sarris, “who inspired me greatly [and] who I considered a mentor.”

That’s right: she. Four years ago, Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director nod from these critics (and, eventually, from Oscar as well) for her grim and gritty film about a bomb disposal team in the Iraq War, The Hurt Locker.

With Zero Dark Thirty, she has moved on to more recent military maneuvers—so recent, in fact, that she and her writer and co-producer, Mark Boal, have come under fire from Washington bureaucrats and media pundits who contend that their film endorses torture or that torture led directly to the death of Osama bin Laden.

“I am extremely grateful for your thoughtfulness and energy and time that you put in to try to figure out what one does—especially when they don’t provide a lot of clues other than the material itself,” Bigelow told the critical gathering. “I apologize for not spelling it out all the time. I thankfully want to say that I’m standing in a room of people who understand that depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever depict inhumane practices, no author could ever write about them, and no filmmaker could ever delve into the naughty subjects of our time.

“So this film is the product of things that you guys have said about other work that I’ve done, and I would be lying if I stood up here and said that criticism of The Hurt Locker, both good and bad, did not inform me or influence this work. I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you that, whatever anxieties there might be about the influence of your writing on the culture, the influence and the reach of the film critic—versus, maybe, the reach of a political columnist—I’m not an expert, but I can tell you the things that you’ve written matter to the artist and they matter to me.”

Moments later, this was roundly seconded by Boal, stepping up to accept the Best Picture prize as one of its producers. He began in mock seriousness: “Tonight is a night of great celebration for all of us. Unfortunately, I stand before you with some bad news: My sources at the CIA tell me that the government inquiry into the arts is not stopping. Apparently, the French government will be investigating Les Miz.”

Responding to the criticisms of Senators John McCain, Carl Levin and Diane Feinstein, he pressed on sardonically. “Seriously, we are all proud of our elected officials in Washington. They do important work. And the people in this room do important work in terms of influencing the cultural conversation of this country. We are all very grateful for the way that you stuck up for this film and for keeping this film alive in conversation. Some of you may have wondered if we’d like to comment on that coverage. The answer is yes. If anyone’s asking, we stand by the film.”

Zero Dark Thirty is military parlance for 12:30 a.m., the time the Navy SEAL Team Six conducted its moonless raid on bin Laden’s compound and killed him on May 2, 2011.

Capturing that on film earned Greig Fraser the film’s third critics’ prize. “When I first met Greig Fraser, I said to him, ‘This is perhaps, arguably, at least in my mind, the story of a lifetime,” director Bigelow recalled. “The bad news is the whole last 40 minutes of the film needs to take place in pitch black.’ Of course, I knew I had an extraordinary cinematographer when he said, ‘Okay, what’s the challenge?’”

James Gandolfini, whom Fraser had photographed last year not only in Zero Dark Thirty but also Killing Them Softly, presented the prize to the cameraman, introducing him with a sheepish aside about his own self-absorption as an actor. “I’m pretty zeroed in on what I have to do,” the former Tony Soprano confessed, “so much so that I was talking to him for about five minutes [tonight] when I asked him who he was, and he said, ‘I’m Greig Fraser, the man you’re giving the award to.”

Lincoln—set at the conclusion of an earlier American war (the Civil)—matched Zero Dark Thirty three-for-three as the critics’ pet. Their choices for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actress grew quite sensibly and correctly out of their Best Screenplay pick. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln activated and animated Tony Kushner’s quill, gave him the prize.

An exuberant Kushner flew 90 mph through his acceptance speech, regaling the group with hit-and-miss humor. “I’m very grateful for this award—for those who voted to give it to me and for those who didn’t, I’m grateful to you as well—just not as grateful.” Then, he splashed lavish praise on his Lincoln co-workers, reserving the best for his title player: “All adjectives pale and tremble before you. You’re your own adjective now. Your performance in the film is Daniel Day-Lewisian.”

In the case of Best Actor, it was one, two, three strikes, you’re in. Day-Lewis nixed Lincoln twice before accepting the part that won him his third NYFCC award (and may win him his third Oscar)—but he turned it down in such an upbeat way it kept an inordinately patient Spielberg on the case. The director read one of DD-L’s valentine rejections to the crowd: “’As fascinated as I was by Abe, it was the fascination of a grateful spectator who longed to see a story told rather than that of a participant. That’s how I feel now in spite of myself and, though I can’t be sure this won’t change, I couldn’t dream of encouraging you to keep it open on a mere possibility.’”

Apparently, all Spielberg heard was “I can’t be sure this won’t change,” so he pressed on and lived to marvel at what he had wrought with a lot of patience and persistence: “The first time I watched Daniel, in the first shot on the first day of shooting, was the first shot of the movie. He comes into the room, and his son is asleep by the fireplace, and he lies down next to his son. That was the first time he actually performed Lincoln, and I cried when I saw that. And, on the last shot of the last day, with Lincoln on his death bed at the Petersen House—and only minutes later the film was done, we wrapped the company and all got together. And Daniel embraced me, and then he spoke to me for the first time in four months with his English accent and made me cry even harder. And it made me cry because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye to this warm and generous President who I had gotten to know better than all the history books I’ve ever read and all the research I ever did.”

Day-Lewis, who is still not comfortable receiving awards, seemed more than a little embarrassed by Spielberg’s emotional intro. “I do say yes from time to time,” he shrugged, darting his eyes over to his wife, Rebecca Miller, the daughter of Arthur Miller. Sixteen years ago, I said yes to Rebecca. That was the best yes I ever said.”

His cinematic wife he also acknowledged. “Of course, I owe so much of this to so many people, but I owe everything to two people in this room. One is Tony Kushner, and the other is Steven Spielberg. I owe you everything, and that’s the way it is.”

Sally Field’s performance of Mary Todd Lincoln won the Best Supporting Actress award, and Katie Couric spent her (56th) birthday presenting it to Field, who then proceeded to say seven times—in a funny, ditzy, Billie Burke sort of way—that she doesn’t read reviews but was grateful to get this, her second NYFCC award.

Couric noted that Field practically had to beg Spielberg to play the part and then gamely gained 25 pounds in order to do it (which she has conspicuously shed).

In contrast, Matthew McConaughey, who won the Best Supporting Actor nod for two films (Bernie and Magic Mike). said yes over the phone to playing a sleazy male strip-joint proprietor (and performer) in the latter before a screenplay had been completed. And, in the weight department, he recently lost nearly 50 pounds to play an AIDS victim in Dallas Buyers Club but said he has gained back 25 of that since filming wrapped. He also gained, two weeks ago, a new son—named Livingston.

Respectively, and resplendently, decked out in Prada and Oscar de la Renta, Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain looked (spectacularly!) like they were headed for a beauty pageant and not an Oscar contest. Because Zero Dark Thirty’s Chastain kept tying with Silver Linings Playbook’s Jennifer Lawrence in the critics’ voting, dark horse Weisz sprinted to the winner’s circle for an underseen The Deep Blue Sea.

Even Weisz was startled. “I never, ever, ever thought in a million years that I would be standing here for this role,” she said. “I thought maybe, being optimistic, maybe 30 people, if that, had seen this movie—and it turns out that definitely 35 people saw it—and not only did you see it, you gave it this honor, so ‘Blow me down with a feather,’ as I said to my English husband over a cup of tea and a digestive biscuit.” Her Heineken-swigging hubby, Daniel Craig (aka 007), smiled from the sidelines.

“From the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you so much to the critics for shining a light on this little film,” she continued. “It was a 25-day shoot. It was very intense, very low-budget. It was a complete outpouring of passion from Terence, from my fellow actors, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale.” (Terence could be either adapter-director Terence Davies or original playwright Terence Rattigan.)

Weisz was introduced by her co-star in The Whistleblower, David Strathairn, who is currently playing Chastain’s domineering father in The Heiress on Broadway. Should any friction result from the divided loyalty, the two actors are smart enough to use it for the good of the play. Chastain, who was the critics’ choice for Best Supporting Actress for three of her six films last year, stuck around to introduce Bigelow.

France’s 85-year-old Emmanuelle Riva—54 years removed from Hiroshima, Mon Amour—brought her own special glamour to the party. She said through a translator that she was there to pick up the Foreign-Language Film Award for Amour and her director, Michael Haneke, while he was in L.A. picking up her Best Actress prize.

“We gave a great deal to the film while we were making it, and it meant a great deal,” she said. “We didn’t know what the course of the film would be—what kind of path it would take—so it’s quite an honor for me to be here tonight and accept this.”

Director Tim Burton was the only honoree not in attendance. His award for Best Animated Film—Frankenweenie—was accepted by his producer, Allison Abbate. “This was a very personal story to [Tim],” she told the audience. “This was a film that literally came out of his head when he was a ten-year-old boy and he lost his dog, so for us to have the opportunity to make the movie and to realize his vision of the film—and to have you guys really like it—it’s very thrilling for us.”

Amy Heller and Dennis Doros of Milestone Films, previously honored for their work restoring classic movies, were specifically honored this year for the work they have done restoring the films of the late independent documentarian, Shirley Clarke.

A drive-by presentation was made by Chris Rock, who gave the Best Non-Fiction Film prize to Sarah Burns, David McMahon and Ken Burns for The Central Park Five. “You can’t do a bunch of jokes about a movie with a rape in it, so I’m just going to keep going,” Rock wisely reasoned—although he had a little fun with Spielberg in the room. “Freed the slaves. I can’t wait for Lincoln 2.” Then he was out the door.

With two NYFCC awards under his industrial-strength belt, Michael Moore seemed the right person to introduce the documentarian who won the Best First Film award—David France for How to Survive a Plague—but when he sat down too hard on the Catholic apathy in the AIDS crisis, one of the 35 card-carrying critics took exception and threw him an expletive in the Best John Simon Bad Manners fashion.

Interestingly, France first covered the AIDS years as a journalist, so he had some sage, soothing “Come on in, the water’s fine” advice for a room full of critics confronting extinction and downsizing. “As a print journalist myself,” France remarked, “to be given a Best First Film award at my age means there is life after print, so I want to be encouraging to you all. It’s certainly encouraging to me.”