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Marred by Disruption, the New York Film Critics Circle Awards Press On to Honor Their Favorites

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire January 7, 2014 at 11:03AM

A notoriously disruptive critic was true to form, but Harry Belafonte's presentation to '12 Years a Slave' director Steve McQueen was moving all the same.
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Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards
Variety Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards

So, a Bad Thing happened at the New York Film Critics Circle's awards dinner last night. If you keep tabs on the world of criticism, you've probably heard about it already. We'll talk about that in a second, but even though it may technically be the most "news-worthy" thing that happened at what was otherwise a collegial, low-key affair, I don't feel right leading with it. So:

The New York Film Critics Circle held its annual awards dinner last night. I attended for the first time, as a guest of my friend David Fear. The NYFCC's are one of the very few critics awards stars show up to claim in person, and most did: Best Actor Robert Redford, Best Actress Cate Blanchett, Best Supporting Actor Jared Leto and the American Hustle crew: director/co-writer David O. Russell, co-writer Eric Russell, producers Charles Roven and Megan Ellison, accepting for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Fruitvale Station's Ryan Coogler claimed the award for Best First Feature, presented to him by the movie's cast: Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer. Inside Llewyn Davis cinematographer accepted his from the movie's star, Oscar Isaac, who praised "the alchemy of lens and light and celluloid."

The acceptance speeches and introductions were full of memorable moments. Jennifer Lawrence couldn't be there in person to accept Best Actress, so her castmate Bradley Cooper read a statement from her: "The critics have been very kind to be thus far in my career. But I guess I'm not getting this for The House at the End of the Street. You guys must have missed that one." Adele Exarchopoulos, accepting Best Foreign Film from Before Midnight's Ethan Hawke, opened with a reference to the notorious dissension between director Abdellatif Kechiche and his actresses, especially the absent Lea Seydoux: "I'm here representing Abdel -- it's complicated."

Glenn Close, whose turn opposite Redford in The Natural was one of her first film roles, recalled the advice he gave her: "Use the master shots for rehearsal." Redford himself went further back, remembering the arrival of his very first play in New York City. Over the course of the out-of-town tryouts, the then-21-year-old actor developed a sneaking suspicion that the play was a dud, eventually confirmed by the opening-night arrival of the New York Herald Tribune's review: "A bomb was dropped in the form of a play." The message, implicit but clear: Sometimes, at least, critics get it right.

Blanchett took the stage after a fulsome introduction by her Blue Jasmine costar Sally Hawkins. "Ditto," she said, "like in -- what's that movie with the clay?" (Congratulations on everyone who had a side bet on her dropping a Ghost reference.) Sarah Polley used her acceptance of Best Nonfiction Film to stump for the National Film Board of Canada, and the security and creative freedom that comes with government arts funding. James Toback slipped an insinuation that Marilyn Monroe was murdered into his introduction for Best Screenplay, because he's James Toback.

And then there was Best Director, which was awarded to 12 Years a Slave's Steve McQueen. To present the award, the NYFCC tapped Harry Belafonte, who took the stage to a standing ovation led by the Fruitvale Station table. Belafonte began by evoking the malign impact of D.W. Griffith's racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation, and then the film history turned personal. He recalled seeing Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies as a child, watching this beautiful white man swing through the jungle, over which he seemed to have complete mastery, while its dark-skinned native inhabitants were depicted as savage and crude. "I was five when I saw Tarzan of the Apes," Belafonte said, "and the one thing I never wanted to be after I saw that film was an African." (Belafonte's speech can be read in full here, and listen to it here.)

12 Years a Slave, Belafonte said, made him "proud to be an African." But Armond White, who was seated at the back of the room, evidently disagreed. From where I sat, I heard a few loud noises as Belafonte and McQueen spoke, and given White's history of disrupting the awards and his well-documented antipathy towards 12 Years a Slave, I assumed he was the responsible party. But it wasn't until I touched base with colleagues who were at or near White's table that I was able to discern what he and his guests had been yelling. Variety reported that White yelled, "You're an embarrassing doorman and garbage man! Fuck you! Kiss my ass." I was told by several parties that White also yelled out, "White liberal bullshit!"

Plenty of my colleagues have already expressed their disgust at White's boorish behavior, so there's no need to add my own condemnation. But it's worth reflecting briefly on how and why this continues to happen. The obvious question is: Given White's history, why is he still allowed at the awards dinner, or even still a member of the NYFCC? Based on the way he stood and faced the room, arms outstretched like Caesar, when the roll call of the Circle's members reached his name, he feeds on the attention -- and based on the fervent applause that greeted him, he has a significant number of supporters in the room. But while it's galling to see White's antics overshadow Belafonte's profound and moving remarks -- Variety's account didn't even bother to summarize them -- it's also the case that White and co.'s outburst is news, and that as Glenn Kenny pointed out, the fact that it leads stories about the dinner can no longer come as a surprise. Ousting him from the NYFCC, as several people have already suggested, is not a step that should be taken lightly, but rescinding his invitation to future events should be a slam-dunk. According to NYFCC's John Anderson, outgoing chairman Joshua Rothkopf sent out an email to members this morning: "It amazes me that we have members who are so self-serving, they would sacrifice the decorum of our group -- both in public and during our confidential meetings -- solely to satisfy their own egos. I can't believe we need to draft rules of conduct for adults, but apparently we do."

Update: NYFCC chair Joshua Rothkopf has issued a formal apology, and says the Circle "will be taking disciplinary action." White told fellow member John Anderson that he "was not in a position or vicinity to yell at McQueen. It was talk among my tablemates. The Variety and Wire lines are outright misquotes and lies."


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