Honoring Andrew Sarris and Rejecting Steven Spielberg at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards

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by Matt Singer
January 8, 2013 10:58 AM
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"Lincoln."
There were a lot of highlights at last night's 78th Annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner, and -- not surprisingly -- a lot of talk about film criticism. The ceremony began with host and NYFCC chairman Joshua Rothkopf introducing each member of the Critics Circle by name, and then warning the crowd that "the business of film criticism is in serious trouble." After encouraging the editors in the room to hire more critics, he called up Artinfo's J. Hoberman to pay tribute to the late Judith Crist and Andrew Sarris. In a touching moment, Hoberman held up and kissed his copy of "the book" -- Sarris' "The American Cinema."

When the awards began in earnest, many of the honorees used their time at the podium to thank critics for their work. After defending her movie's controversial subject matter ("Depiction is not endorsement") Kathryn Bigelow acknowledged the critics who've both supported and challenged her ("The things that you've written matter to the artist, and they matter to me"), before dedicating her Best Director award for "Zero Dark Thirty" to Sarris, whom she called a mentor. "Lincoln" screenwriter Tony Kushner thanked critics who wrote about "Munich" and "Lincoln" and said he was grateful -- both to those who voted for him, and those who didn't ("Those who didn't, I'm still grateful, just slightly less so."). If the business of film criticism is indeed in serious trouble, the practice is clearly still vital -- not just to audiences, but to filmmakers as well.

My favorite speech of the night belonged to Steven Spielberg, who presented Daniel Day-Lewis with his award for Best Actor for "Lincoln." To honor his star, Spielberg read one of the letters Day-Lewis' wrote him when he rejected the part. As Spielberg told it, there were many drafts of the film before Tony Kushner signed on and before he was able to convince Day-Lewis to sign on. At one point, he said, the film looked more like "Saving Private Ryan," but set in the Civil War. After he met Day-Lewis and gave him one of these earlier drafts of the script, Spielberg received this response:

"Dear Steven-

It was a real pleasure just to sit and talk with you. I listened very carefully to what you had to say about this compelling history, and I've since read the script and found it -- in all the detail of which it descries these monumental events and in the compassionate portraits of all the principle characters -- both powerful and moving. I can't account for how at any given moment I feel the need to explore one life as opposed to another. But I do know that I can only do this work if I feel almost as if there's no choice. That a subject coincides inexplicably with a very personal need and a very specific moment in time. In this case, 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. I do hope this makes sense Steven. I'm glad you're making the film. I wish you the strength for it and I send both my very best wishes and my sincere gratitude to you for having considered me." 

Daniel."

Spielberg ended his speech with a bit of close textual analysis -- if not outright criticism -- of his own, as he took stock of Day-Lewis' performance and why it resonates so powerfully with audiences (and critics):

"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 lays 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. And perhaps the surprising financial success that our picture's enjoying right now is in no small measure due to the people not wanting to say goodbye to Lincoln either."

Not a bad interpretation of the movie. If the whole directing thing doesn't work out, I think the kid might have a future as a film critic.

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