At the New York Film Critics Circle Awards at the Edison Ballroom last night, the evening belonged to legendary actor, social activist, songwriter and humanitarian Harry Belafonte.
The 87-year-old Mr. Belafonte presented British director Steve McQueen with the best director prize for his masterful film “12 Years a Slave” and gave the most elegant and passionate speech of the very special evening.
David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” picked up the award for best film, and the director and his co-writing partner Eric Singer also picked up honors for the best screenplay for their movie about the 1970’s Abscam con.
Both Russell and McQueen were wowed and overcome by Mr. Belafonte’s passionate and elegant nine-minute speech.
But not everyone was a fan of Steve McQueen’s film. New York Film Critics Circle member Armond White, the testy critic of CityArts, heckled McQueen from the back of the theater as he was making his thank-you speech to the critics who gave him the directing prize. Read more about my report of the incident over at Showbiz411.
The NYFCC Awards are a glamorous and glitzy night where big celebrity wattage rubs shoulders with the critics who may pan their films and performances the rest of the year, but play nice on this night, except for the aforementioned Mr. White.
The big names who collected or presented prizes last night included Cate Blanchett, Jared Leto, Sarah Polley, Ethan Hawke, Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Redford, Glenn Close, Bradley Cooper and Ryan Coogler.
Before the ceremonies, I spoke to David O. Russell, who told me that as a New Yorker, this award had special meaning to him. “This is my home town. These are my people. These are the movies I’ve been making about these people even when it’s Boston or Philadelphia, it’s all to me related to my families that are spread out from Upstate Ogdensburg, New York, where some of them worked in the prison system up there, to down to Jersey and Long Island. I have relatives all over this place. And this is my home turf and that’s the music that’s in my head, the way these people talk and live.”
He added, “It’s very meaningful to me, and I never expect to get recognized by these critics, and I don’t read them because it’s not good for the feng shui of my head.”
The he turned to Cynthia Swartz, the terrific and charming head of Strategy PR, and said he relied on her to tell him if reaction was favorable to his films or not. “She tells me if someone writes something smart or nice.” Russell added, “I smell which way the wind is going, and Cynthia has a nice way of guiding me. She’ll say, ‘That one’s maybe not so nice. Let’s focus on this. This one looks very nice.’”
It looks like he’s picking up honors at the rate of one a year for his films; last year it was for “Silver Linings Playbook.” I asked him, what’s up for next year?
“It’s a hard pace to keep up,” he said. “I wish I had another one in the pipeline. I’m writing it right now.” Then he pecked me on the cheek and was off to greet his co-writing partner Eric Singer, a charming and talented man whose only previous feature film was “The International.”
Other highlights of the evening included the presentation of the best first film award, which went to 27-year-old Ryan Coogler for “Fruitvale Station” and was awarded to him by the stars of his film, Octavia Spencer, Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz.
“It’s an incredible honor to receive this award from the critics, from you guys, who watch films and respond with emotion,” Coogler said. “You help decide whether audiences want to see a film or not.” And then he humorously joked about how he and his fiancé, Zinzi, lived out of boxes in his “grandmother’s house, my friends’ houses.”
Best documentary went to Sarah Polley for “Stories We Tell,” about her enigmatic and fascinating mother, and was presented to her by her longtime friend, actor Mark Ruffalo. The talented Canadian director-actor Polley said of her award, “It’s just a relief to not have made a fool of myself with this film. Just to be here is bewildering and great.”
Of his best supporting actor award, Jared Leto said he didn’t know if he would ever make a movie again after a six-year absence from the screen, and he was not just referring to his rock gig with “30 Seconds From Mars.” He added, “I am glad I did. This city was everything to me.”
Leto also gave a special shout out to his mother. “My mom is here tonight. She is a shining example of the possibilities of life. She was someone who wasn’t born into luxury, someone who wrestled her own true sense of reality, with two kids, 19 years old in the state of Louisiana, a place you never leave.”
Sally Hawkins presented “Blue Jasmine” star Cate Blanchett with her best actress award. “It was a gift to watch you, Cate,” Hawkins told her. “You’re absolutely fearless. You’re fearless in every role you play.” She added that she’d love to do it all over again, “but in a cheerier sisterly relationship.”
Blanchett paid tribute to director Woody Allen. “He’s one of the world’s great artists,” she said. “Every ounce of direction is in the script, and he trusts you.” She also quipped, “One of his great gifts is that he casts really well.”
After a six-year absence working on the stage, she said of “Blue Jasmine,” which she noted was an “ensemble production,” “What a wonderful way to return to the screen, and to be embraced by the New York Film Critics is really remarkable.”
Bradley Cooper accepted Jennifer Lawrence’s best supporting win for the actress, who was shooting a film. The audience moaned in disappointment when he said she was unable to be there. He paid tribute to her as an actress, her magic in creating characters, and his wonder at watching her technique.
Then he read a note from “The Hunger Games” megastar. “Thank you to the New York Film Critics Circle. Sorry I couldn’t be there. I feel very lucky to receive this award. The critics have been so kind to me so far in my career, but I guess I’m not receiving this for ‘House at the End of The Street,’ (a 2012 dud) so you guys must have missed that one, right?”
Ethan Hawke presented the best foreign language film award to the charming 19-year-old star of “Blue is the Warmest Color,” Adele Exarchopoulous. He said nervously, referring to conflicts she and her co-star had with the director, “I’m here representing Abdellatif Kechiche. It’s complicated.”
James Toback presented the best screenplay award to “American Hustle” writers Eric Singer and David O. Russell, who said, “I aspire to do good work … It’s my goal in a movie to walk out exhilarated. Thank you for realizing that.”
Glenn Close presented the best actor award to Robert Redford for “All Is Lost.” The veteran actor-director and founder of the Sundance Institute received the first standing ovation of the evening, which lasted nearly a minute.
“Getting the chance to hear my colleagues, people who are of my profession, tell their stories and love and passion for the work, where the work is paramount,” was meaningful to him, he said of the evening. He told a story about how his career began in New York as an actor in 1959-60 with his first theatrical production.
“But I thought, I have a small part in it but I don’t think this is a very good play … but what do I know? I’m 21 years old.” They played in New Haven and Washington, “and it didn’t get any better,” he said. The director gave them “a locker room pep talk,” and then they get to New York. After he got a tremendous reaction from the audience, he thought, “I guess I’m wrong. Eleanor Roosevelt was in the audience, she was crying, and I thought. ‘I guess I’m wrong.”
The next day as he was having dinner with fellow cast members and managers, someone brought him a copy of the newspaper with the review of the play. The New York Times critic panned the play and said of his performance, “What a sorry excuse for an actor.” Suddenly, he said, “The restaurant got empty.”
He added of those years in New York, he “found out how important craft was, and what comes with craft is discipline. They’re very valuable qualities to me because I wasn’t the most disciplined character at that time, and so I have great reverence” for my peers.
He singled out director J.C. Chandor with “special gratitude” and added, “I love that film. It was like pure cinema. The fact that there was no dialogue, the fact that there were no voices, the fact that it was stripped clean of any kind of interference between the viewer and the character that was taking that particular journey,” and that “the challenges it presented gave me a chance to go back to my roots.”
He paraphrased T.S. Eliot’s poem, “something to the effect,” he said, that you come to the end and make a beginning and see it for the first time and what we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning.
“I think that’s what happened to me in this film,” said Redford. “I had the chance to be invested in the purest form of just being an actor again.”