A24’s Moonlight received a major awards boost Monday night when it won best feature at the 26th Annual Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about a young African-American man’s personal struggle with identity, love, addiction and masculinity in 1980’s Miami.
In front of a starry crowd of nominees and presenters, including Natalie Portman, Amy Adams, Kate Beckinsale, Annette Bening, Damian Lewis, Ethan Hawke, Winona Ryder, and surprise presenter Cate Blanchett, Moonlight also landed wins for best screenplay, best ensemble (named previously) and the audience award. Although no harbinger of Oscar glory since the Gotham Film Awards honor independent films, their last several feature-film wins – Spotlight and Birdman – went on to win little gold statuettes.
Other big wins were for Casey Affleck, who was named best actor for his role in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea.
And in a stunning upset, legendary French actress Isabelle Huppert bested Natalie Portman (Jackie) and Annette Bening (20th Century Women) to win best actress for her portrayal of a woman who stalks her rapist in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, a controversial film that premiered at Cannes.
David Oyelowo and Neve Campbell presented the award to the stunned actress. “Oh my God! I’m speechless,” said Huppert. “They told me it’s a very American award, it’s very New Yorker, and you are French… You’ll never get it. I feel so American tonight.”
Huppert added, “I’m just coming off a plane. I was very far away on a stage last night in Europe.” Known for playing cold, often emotionless women, she tearfully credited the director for his “little bit of an amoral film” and thanked the audience “for your independence, and that’s a quality that’s being rewarded tonight.”
Later in the press room, I spoke to the actress, who is tiny and was dressed in an elegant black pantsuit, and asked her if she was as surprised as she seemed. “I was, yes, I didn’t expect to win.” Huppert told me she performed in Phaedra last night in Paris and flew in early Monday morning. But she didn’t look tired. “Well I’m happy so it takes tiredness away,” she laughed.
Casey Affleck, like Huppert, didn’t prepare a speech. “I wish I’d brought something to say,” he said. “There’s really no acting award that doesn’t at least half belong to the director and then another big fraction to the writer, and both of those people are Kenneth Lonergan.” He noted then the rest of the credit goes to the cast and crew, so “there’s actually very little to the actor. I’m very honored to have this. It’s very nice… If I haven’t said thank you (to anyone I should), I’m a real asshole.”
Cate Blanchett presented Amy Adams with her honoree tribute, noting, “I have a “huge actor crush on her. It’s huge and I’m not alone.” Adams, who currently stars in Arrival and Nocturnal Animals, reciprocated the praise and went on to reminisce how 11 years ago she was honored with the Gotham breakthrough actor award for Junebug. “That has given me the opportunity and privilege to have this amazing career, which I’m so grateful to have.”
Other tributes were given to Ethan Hawke, Oliver Stone and producer Arnon Milchan. Danny DeVito presented billionaire producer Milchan with his prize and began with the colorful comment, “I’m freezing my balls off.”
An emotional Winona Ryder, who presented Hawke with his tribute, reminisced about her first role with the actor in Reality Bites 22 years ago. She praised his acting in a score of films, including recently in “Born to Be Blue,” and the two shared a warm embrace.
Hawke called Ryder a champion of the arts and went on to note the vagaries of his career. He said he felt washed up at least twice, beginning when he was 14 and appeared in a film that didn’t even last the weekend.
“I was reading one particular notice that said the only thing that’s clear about this vague mess of a movie is that he is not a movie star and the American public has thoroughly rejected him. Welcome to the arts, pal! I’ve been riding a roller coaster for 30 years. The only thing I know for certain is that I will be washed up again very soon. And I know that it is very, very difficult to make anything beautiful,” but movies “open up the depths of our vision and give us oxygen. Independent film is the church of my choice.”
In accepting the best ensemble award for Moonlight, actor Mahershala Ali said, “I can confidently speak for all of us when I say we are forever changed” since making the film. The tight-knit Moonlight bunch embraced, hugged and joked around the entire evening.
In accepting the best film prize, after three trips to the podium, Jenkins said, “I started writings things to say because I realized I was forgetting people (to thank).” He included his third grade English teacher, “The first person that told me my story was worth telling.”
Jenkins noted that these were “tough times” and that people who create stories and images have a responsibility to write about marginalized people. “Right now in the moment,” these stories “are needed more than they’ve ever been needed in the history of the world.”
The writer-director went on to thank his agency CAA for sticking with him for eight years between films, beginning when he made a $15,000 film “and they never cut me loose.” He added of A24, “They never said no. They just said, ‘Go do what you do and bring us back a good film.’ The only thing I can say about winning awards and all this other shit, is that I guess in some way we brought back a good film.”
Host Keegan-Michael Key, who got in some playful jabs at Donald Trump throughout the evening, got the final world. “Just so you know, three of these films are subject to a recount.” He added, “Please go out there and keep making provocative, captivating, interesting, touching and loving stories.”
Best Feature: Moonlight
Barry Jenkins, director; Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, producers (A24).
Best Documentary: O.J.: Made in America
Ezra Edelman, director; Caroline Waterlow, Ezra Edelman, Tamara Rosenberg, Nina Krstic, Deirdre Fenton, Erin Leyden, producers (ESPN Films).
Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award: Trey Edward Shults for Krisha (A24).
Best Screenplay: Moonlight, Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney; Screenplay by Barry Jenkins (A24).
Best Actor: Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (Amazon Studios).
Best Actress: Isabelle Huppert in Elle (Sony Pictures Classics).
Breakthrough Actor: Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch (A24)
*The 2016 Best Actor/Best Actress and Breakthrough Actor nominating panels also voted to award a special Gotham Jury Award for ensemble performance to Moonlight, “in which actors at all levels of experience give outstanding performances that speak eloquently to one another both within and across each chapter of the story.” The awards will go to actors Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Janelle Monáe, Jaden Piner, Trevante Rhodes, and Ashton Sanders.
Breakthrough Series – Long Form: My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Rachel Bloom & Aline Brosh McKenna, creators; Marc Webb, Rachel Bloom, Aline Brosh McKenna, Erin Ehrlich, executive producers (The CW).
Breakthrough Series: Short Form: Her Story, Jen Richards and Laura Zak, creators (herstoryshow.com).