The race is on! On Monday, Nov. 27, the 27th Independent Film Project Gotham Awards launched awards season and the long slog toward the Oscars. A who's-who of the film world piled into Cipriani Wall Street, a ginormous temple to Mammon turned event space. For some time now, the loosey-goosey ceremony has taken on fresh importance as a bellwether for bigger honors: Consider that for the past three years the top winner at the Gothams has gone on to snag Best Picture at the Oscars (Moonlight, 2016; Spotlight, 2015; Birdman, 2014).
The awards gave a boost to Call Me By Your Name (Sony Pictures Classics), Luca Guadagnino’s film about a precocious 17-year-old who falls for his father's 24-year-old research assistant during a summer in 1980s Italy. The film snagged Best Picture, as well as a richly deserved Breakthrough Actor prize for its star Timothée Chalamet. (Interestingly, 2016 Oscar winner Moonlight also foregrounded same-sex love.)
The horror drama Get Out, released by Universal Pictures, scored a pair of trophies for Jordan Peele—Best Screenplay and Breakthrough Director—as well as the Audience Award. A major charm offensive was mounted by 87-year-old Lois Smith and Brooklynn Prince, the remarkably assured little girl (dubbed the new Shirley Temple) from The Florida Project, as they awarded Peele Best Screenplay. James Franco pulled off a surprise win as Best Actor for The Disaster Artist (A24). Saoirse Ronan took Best Actress for her role as a rebel with a cause in Lady Bird (also A24). She dedicated her prize to “the two women who mean so much to me,” nodding toward her mother and her director, Greta Gerwig.
To cover this year's Gothams I was promoted to the press green room, far above the madding crowd below. A big plus of my new perch was that the winners all came trooping upstairs for photo ops and 30-second interviews. But you're also in a bit of a vacuum because you're insulated from the folks yukking it up down in Ringling world.
In past years, guests gabbed loudly during speeches by the most august presenters (Michael Bloomberg must have experienced a career first at the lack of attention paid his words). During a reconnaissance mission to my former habitat below stairs, I noticed that this year's crowd seemed a bit more mannerly. Even though emcee John Cameron Mitchell immediately snapped, "Already on your fuckin' phones! It's gonna be a long night." The crowd didn't return the love. Mitchell called himself "a queer guy who survived AIDS" and talked of a "pop-up Nixon" (presumably that fellow in the White House) and what a strange time it is, but after that rambled off into the ether.
I felt for Ethan Hawke, looking charmingly seedy, hair in a D.A., sort of like a ’50s greaser. He delivered an impassioned tribute to Jason Blum, a producer who makes good indie films on the cheap. Hawke poured out his heart. Can you believe the ambient chatter never let up? With all due respect, Dustin Hoffman, who received a career tribute, delivered yawn-mongering boilerplate.
I meandered in search of material. These big burly guys with ear buds kept asking me who I was and why was I there (I’d taken the wrong entrance and never got my badge). You feel really safe at the Gothams, especially from yourself. I spotted Timothée Chalamet of Call Me, who came with his mother. I wanted to eavesdrop on the thrilling duet he and Carey Mulligan were singing at each other, but would have had to put my ear to their lips, like that Indian waiter at the Agra. Chalamet bites the air when he talks and smiles. At twenty-one, he's taking all the acclaim in stride. A tad nervous during his acceptance speech, he fired off at breakneck speed a list of his inspirations, including the usual suspects like Guadagnino, co-star Armie Hammer, etc., but also Cardi B (a reference only his generation will get). I'm obsessed with Call Me, in part because if you surf the net you can discover what Guadagnino left out. Therein lies his brilliance. Only the greatest can sense what to leave out.
The terrific actor Michael K. Williams got the crowd worked up with the lines, "I'm the good, the bad and the ugly. New York, you made me what I am." Amen. Time to return downstairs to scarf some dessert. The stars don't do dessert. They're too busy being thin. True to the rollicking spirit of the Gothams, Nicole Kidman delivered her thanks for a career tribute in stocking feet. Reese Witherspoon, her presenter, beamed happily from the sidelines. Appearances can deceive, but here in Gotham there seems to be more genuine fellow feeling than at the fete in La La land.
Amazingly for the Gothams, the evening felt almost apolitical, and this at a moment when everything is politics. A glancing reference from Witherspoon to the sexual misdeeds of powerful men. An allusion from Cynthia Nixon to the surreal goings-on in Washington. Honoree Al Gore, who called political will "a renewable resource," was about as political as it got. He lauded this "golden era for documentaries" for getting out the message on the global-warming crisis. We're going to solve this, we can do it, he insisted. "If there's a new President," he started one sentence… Then, to much laughter, he turned aside and fervently clasped his hands to pray.