Inside the New York Film Critics Awards ceremony: Plenty of highs (and one low)


It was entirely possible to get the bends at the 79th Annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards gala, held Jan. 6 at the Edison Hotel Ballroom on West 46th Street in Manhattan. The extreme high, and low, of the evening occurred almost simultaneously.

First and foremost, the high: Harry Belafonte, whom the organization voted Best Supporting Actor of 1996 for his performance of Seldom Seen, a gangland czar in Robert Altman’s Kansas City, took to the stage to present the next-to-last award, the Best Director prize to Steve McQueen, the Anglo-African who did 12 Years a Slave.

Now, Belafonte is far and away the frontrunner for the critics’ collective nod next year for Best Speechifying Ever Done at Their Ceremony. Using a cane, he moved slowly to the podium and, using no notes whatsoever, launched into an eloquent nine-minute ad-lib on how films informed him about his race over the years.

“At the age of five, in 1932, I had the great thrill of going to the cinema,” he said in that warm, raspy, “Day-O” tenor of his. “It was a great relief for those of us who were born into poverty and daily trying to get away from this misery that pursued us, so going to the films was a great thing for us. The first film I saw was Tarzan [the Ape Man]. In that film, with great anticipation, I looked to see the human beauty of Johnny Weissmuller swinging in the trees in the jungle.” But there was a dark, demeaning side to the spectacle, he remembered: “the lives of people who were depicted as grossly subhuman. They were ignorant. They did not know their way around. They had elephants living in the forests with live animals. Until Johnny Weissmuller stepped into the scene, we didn’t know who we were, according to cinema."

Throughout the rest of his life, he continued, people of color have been variously known as “colored,” then “Negro,” then “black” and, currently, “African-American.”

“I spent the better part of almost a century, seeking ‘Who am I?’ ‘What am I?’ ‘What am I to be called?’ ‘What do I sing?’ ‘What do I say?’ ‘Who do I appeal to?’ ‘Who should I be cautious of?’ In this life, when we walk into the world of cinema, we use the instrument to the best of our ability to try to give another impression as to who and what we were as a people and what we meant to this great nation we call America. I’m glad that Sidney Poitier stepped into this space right after the Second World War and put new images of who we were as a people, and suddenly I mattered.

“A lot is going on in Hollywood, a lot to be cynical about, but, at this moment, I think what is redeeming, what is transforming, is the fact that the genius of an artist who’s of African descent—though he’s not from America…made a film called 12 Years a Slave which, in its stunning and most interior way, sets the stage that answers the charge made by Birth of a Nation that we’re not a people who are bound to be rapists, abusers, absent of intelligence, absent of soul and art and desire. In this film, 12 Years a Slave, Steve steps in and shows us in a nobler way the depth and the power of cinema…to see us in another way.

“I was five when I saw Tarzan [the Ape Man], and the one thing I never wanted to be after seeing that film was an African. I didn’t want to be associated with anybody who could be depicted as so useless and meaningless. Life in New York led me to other horizons and other experiences. And now I can say, in my 87th year of life, that I am joyed and overjoyed that I should have lived long enough to see Steve McQueen step into our space and, for the first time in the history of cinema, give us a work—a piece of film coming from the depths of who we are as a people, coming from the depths of what America is as a country—that gives us a sense, an understanding, more deeply of what our past has been, how glorious our future will be and could be.”

Then, turning directly to McQueen (who, by this time, was dissolved in tears), he concluded, “I think that the Circle Award has made a wise decision in naming you as the director of the year. I think that we will look forward to what you do in the future. But, if you never did anything else, many in your tribe—many in the world—are deeply grateful that you found the genius to show us in a way for which we will be forever and eternally grateful to say we are of African descent.”

McQueen, regaining his composure somewhat, attempted to return the compliment in part by saying the actor he picked to play the lead role of a free man in New York who is dragooned into Southern slavery, Chiwetel Ejiofor, “possesses the inherent sense of grace and dignity which this man”—gesturing toward Belafonte—“has.”

Amid this flood of emotion, the evening’s low point—incredulously!—was struck. As McQueen approached the podium, expletives and derision were hurled at him from the back of the room—specifically from the table of one of the voting critics, CityArts’ Armond White, who famously (or infamously) detested the picture. In subsequent interviews, White claimed that he has been grossly misquoted by the press, but he didn’t rule out making a few “sotto voce” asides to his tablemates.

Otherwise, the award-giving was smoothly maneuvered by Time Out’s Joshua Rothkopf, who is concluding the second of his two terms as NYFCC Chairman.

The first award of the evening—for Best Cinematography—went to Bruno Delbonnel for Inside Llewyn Davis, The Coen Brothers’ wry, sad little comedy about an underachieving folk singer in the pre-Dylan ’60s. Neither Coen bro was in attendance, but F. Murray Abraham was. He did a memorable bit in the movie as a club owner who gives the performer a blunt, straight-from-the-shoulder critique.

Presenting the award to Delbonnel was title player Oscar Isaac, who rather generously made his performance sound like a collaboration with his cameraman. “With Inside Llewyn Davis,” the actor said, “he not only had to capture the character of Llewyn but helped to create him. He had to show externally what’s happening in this very internal man—not just what his life looked like, but what his life felt like—a man in grief, and you can feel the cold air on his skin, and yet it’s very beautiful. Without embellishment, he gives the slush-colored sky the romance of memory.”

Critic David Fear, introduced perhaps jokingly by his Time Out colleague Rothkopf as an authority on Japanese cinema, was tapped to present the Best Animated Feature award to The Wind Rises, the announced last film of anime master Hayao Miyazaki. He called it “a very fanciful, somewhat official biography of Jiro Horikoshi, who dreamed of flying and ended up designing some aircraft used in World War II.

“It is pretty easy to see why [Miyazaki] might feel compelled to tell this story,” reasoned Fear. The Wind Rises is, he said, “a story of a boy who dreams of achieving the impossible and then achieves it. When he was a boy, he was obsessed with cartoons and drawings—and then he essentially went on to change the medium, to become of the few artists, I would argue, who warrants this award.”

The award was accepted by Frank Marshall, the Disney producer in charge of the English-language version of the film. “Mr. Miyazaki would have been here tonight, except that it was his 73rd birthday yesterday, and his family made him stay for the party,” he explained, lightly pricking Fear’s expertise. “For the past five years, I have been very fortunate to work with Studio Ghibli on the English translations and dubbing of their last four films. Working with Mr. Miyazaki on what would turn out to be his last film as a director has been one of the highpoints of my career.”

It was a big night for multi-taskers. Robert Redford, who directed the critics’ choice for Best Film of 1994 (Quiz Show), was the year’s Best Actor for his extremely solo performance in All Is Lost, and Canadian actress Sarah Polley won her second award as a writer-director from the critics. Her first was for Best First Film, 2006’s Away From Her, in which Julie Christie’s portrayal of an Alzheimer’s victim got the critics’ collective nod for Best Actress. Monday night she was honored for Best Non-Fiction Film, Stories We Tell, her third film where she explored her own illegitimacy.

Mark Ruffalo presented the prize to Polley. They met as screen lovers 12 years ago in My Life Without Me, and he remembered her telling him the story that motivated Stories We Tell. “It’s odd to hear someone talk about their mother that way,” he said.

And even odder to film. “It’s such a relief just to not have made a fool of myself with this film that actually to get an award for it is bewildering and great,” Polley laughed. “The inspiration to make this film was the memory of my warm, vibrant mother and my father’s grace and eloquence in the face of difficult news. I am very grateful to him for teaching me there are many different ways to respond to surprises and painful events in life and that it’s possible to be creative in the way you take life in and not to conform to the responses that people think you should have.”

The critics voted a special award to pioneer documentarian Frederick Wiseman, 83, who was otherwise engaged skiing in Switzerland with his granddaughter.  He sent a note of appreciation, which The New Yorker film critic, David Denby, read: “I am pleased and honored to receive The New York Film Critics’ Special Award. I’ve been making films for 48 years, and, excluding some minor irritations of raising money and dealing with cultural bureaucracies, I’ve had a really good time.”

This year’s Best First Film award went to Ryan Coogler, 27, for Fruitvale Station, and it was presented to him by the picture’s stars—Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer. The latter, 2011’s Oscar-winning Best Supporting Actress for The Help, said Coogler “was just a student on winter break from USC Film School when he learned of the senseless and tragic shooting of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station” in the Bay Area by police officers on Dec. 31, 2008. “So moved was Ryan by the parallels he saw between himself and Oscar that he took his pitch for a film to none other than Forest Whitaker and his producing partner.” The resulting film brought Coogler to the awards podium. “If I had it all my way,” he said, “I wouldn’t be here in front of you guys talking. Oscar would be 27 years old, just like I am.”

By way of introducing the group’s choice for Best Supporting Actor this year—Jared Leto for his from-the-ground-up transforming depiction of Rayon, a transgender druggie with AIDS in Texas of the 1980s in Dallas Buyers ClubRolling Stone’s Peter Travers pointed out that last year’s winner in that category was Magic Mike’s Matthew McConaughey, the star of Dallas Buyers Club, who couldn’t pass the torch to Leto because he was booked for the night, “advising” aspiring male strippers.

The critic rattled off some of Leto’s award-worthy work and said what caught his colleagues’ attention this time was “he did it in heels.” Leto’s reply: “It’s incredible what can happen when you put on the right pair of heels. Ladies, you know what I’m talking about out there—and so do some of you men. This is New York City.”

For all practical purposes, Leto had retired from acting and was perfectly content to make music, not movies, with his band, Thirty Seconds to Mars. “I haven’t made a film in about six years, and I didn’t know if I would ever make a film again—for a number of reasons, not just music,” he admitted, “but I’m really glad that I did.”

He followed that with a shout-out to the people his character represented—“a very special thank you to the Rayons out there for showing me what true bravery is. The Rayons out there make the world a much more fascinating and beautiful place.

“My mom is here tonight,” he announced to the gathering. “My mom is a shining example of the possibilities of life. She was someone who wasn’t born into luxury, someone who wrestled for her own dreams into reality. With two kids, probably 19 years old, [she] escaped from Louisiana—a place you never leave, you just escape—and she made a life for herself and, in turn, made a life for me and my brother.”

Jennifer Lawrence, who finished first this year for Best Supporting Actress (for American Hustle) and second last year for Best Actress (for The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook), was toiling over the two-part conclusion of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay and didn’t attend the event, so picking up her prize was her co-star in David O. Russell’s American Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper, who confessed he wasn’t above hiding in a closet to see her camera magic.

Cooper read a note the 23-year-old sent about the miserably married woman she played in American Hustle. “The character of Rosalind is everything an actor could dream of playing. She’s complex, funny, hysterical, manipulative, and gets to sleep with Christian Bale and kiss Amy Adams. They said great actors make other actors good, and I share this with Christian, Amy, Bradley and the rest of the cast for being so extraordinary in their roles. I thought working with David was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with Silver Linings, but to work with him again was a gift.“

Kidding on the square, she said, “I feel very lucky to receive this award. The critics have been very kind to me thus far in my career, but I guess I’m not receiving this for The House at the End of the Street, so you guys must have missed that one, right?”

Ethan Hawke, whose Before Midnight just rounded off the romantic series he does with Julie Delpy and writer-director Richard Linklater every nine years, had the night off from his Macbeth at Lincoln Center and was thus free to award the Best Foreign Language Film prize to Blue Is the Warmest Color. It was accepted by the film’s star (Adèle Exarchopoulos) rather than its director (Abdellatif Kechiche). “I’m here representing Abdel,” the 19-year-old French actress explained, earning a laugh by adding, “It’s complicated”—an allusion to their public catfights.

Sally Hawkins proved to be a real sister to Cate Blanchett—which she plays, somewhat combatively, in Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine—by presenting her the Best Actress prize for that picture. “You’re fearless in every role you play,” she told her, “and that is not so much because of who you are as an artist but because of who you are as a human being. You instill confidence and love and respect in anyone who works with you. I would give anything to do it all over again—but perhaps with a slightly cheerier sister relationship.”

Blanchett was in a joshing mood, thanking first the New York Film Critics “for showing such great taste and discernment in giving me this award” and then Allen for casting her. Slipping into “seriously, folks” mode, she said, “Having never worked with Woody before, having long admired him, you did feel that this was an extraordinary, special project to him, that it meant so much to him. He is not here tonight. I don’t take that personally.

He says he just lets the actors go. That’s not true at all. He’s one of the world’s greatest dramatists [and] an extraordinary auteur. And every ounce of direction is in the script. Then, he just trusts you—it’s incredible trust—and we all set sail.”

Redford’s Best Actor award was presented to him by his Oscar-nominated co-star from The Natural 30 years ago, Glenn Close. She applauded him for putting his faith in a 31-page, almost completely mute script about a sailor struggling to survive—totally alone—at sea with the uncommercial, foreboding title of All Is Lost. “He put his talent and his time, his muscles and his heart, in the hands of someone who was making his second feature film,” she said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Redford’s acceptance speech was amiable and anecdotal, looking back over his 54-year screen career, but entering the homestretch he got around to thanking the writer-director of All Is Lost. “I don’t think I can be expressing my gratitude for this award without acknowledging the role of J.C. Chandor,” he said. “I would like to say just a word about what it meant to me, with this particular film, to go back to my roots. A lot has happened from my first years I began as an actor-for-hire. Many things have transpired—some of them very fortunate, some I’m not mad about—trying to improve my limelight, but it did take me further and further away from the very time where I began. J.C. had provided a framework that was well-documented and well-painted, so you could just step into it. The fact that there was no dialogue, no voiceover—the fact that it was so clean of any kind of interference between the viewer and the character—was taken as a pejorative. I love that challenge because it was pure. It was like pure cinema… This was something rare. It felt new. It is really going back further for me. The challenges it presented gave me a chance to get back to my roots and appreciate something.”

Redford signed off paraphrasing T.S. Eliot: “‘What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’ And I think that’s what happened to me on this film, really. I guess I had a chance to return to the purest moment of just being an actor again. I’m really, really grateful for that.”

The critics’ choice for Best Picture—to David O. Russell’s American Hustle—was presented by one of their number who turned into a filmmaker and actually won one of their awards in 1971 for co-authoring with Larry McMurtry The Last Picture ShowPeter Bogdanovich, who praised the winner: “He makes movies about people, and God! I love people who make movies about people. There’s nothing more interesting than this—what happens to people—and American Hustle is a perfect example of a movie about people that are interesting and fully dimensional.

“The great thing about it is that it is brilliantly acted and it’s brilliantly directed. The last three films of David’s that I’ve seen were all brilliantly acted. The whole ensemble is superb, and that means the guy that’s watching over them is pretty damn good.”

Russell, who had made an earlier trip to the podium to collect half an award for the American Hustle screenplay he wrote with Eric Singer, didn’t tarry. The 77-year-old Redford got the evening’s first standing ovation, and the 87-year-old Belafonte got the second. He wasn’t about to press his luck. “Harry Belafonte’s knocked my lights out,” he said, getting the hell offstage.