I have been a member of the New York Film Critics Circle since I was pregnant with my first child, who accompanied me and the rest of the family to last night's awards dinner at Crimson on 21st and Broadway in Manhattan. He's now a junior in high school and looks down on me from a height approaching six feet. That's just to say that I've seen a lot of these untelevised dinners, even hosted a couple, and what struck me last night at the intimate affair for something like 300 guests was two major distinct camps: that representing "Lincoln" and that representing "Zero Dark Thirty." An uneasy truce exists between the two -- the hip and controversial capturing history on the fly versus old-school Hollywood describing the well-documented past -- as the awards red-carpet season opened last night.
The NYFCC awarded "Lincoln" three prizes: Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis as the Great Emancipator, Best Supporting Actress for Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, and Best Screenplay to Tony Kushner. All attended, along with director Steven Spielberg, who presented, and Lincoln scholar Doris Kearns Goodwin, who gives the project the intellectual seal of approval. There's no critiquing the lengthy, extraordinarily well acted, gorgeously shot, sweepingly scored biopic on the grounds of accuracy. And this is going to be a bone of contention as the two camps sit at nearby tables at every awards event from now until the Oscars on February 24.
Moving to the "Zero Dark Thirty" table, we find the recipients of three awards, including what were clearly the top honors: Best Picture and Best Director for Kathryn Bigelow, returning after her win for "The Hurt Locker." Greig Fraser also took a prize for Best Cinematography. Screenwriter/co-producer Mark Boal was also in attendance. In their corner, acting as a presenter, was the movie's star, Jessica Chastain, who lost out as best actress to Rachel Weisz, seated across the room with husband Daniel Craig. Team "Zero Dark Thirty" seemed a little more nervous than the "Lincoln"-ites, despite their top win. Why? The movie about the CIA's lengthy and ultimately successful hunt for Osama bin Laden has come under scrutiny for its authenticity by no less than the CIA. In my opinion, the movie stands as a work of art that examines the use of torture as part of a larger story -- but clearly the filmmakers and their studio, Sony Pictures, have concerns that this controversy could potentially taint their Best Picture chances.
In the 17 years I've been attending these dinners, it seems like their link to the Academy Awards has become closer, and not in an entirely positive way. This was the first year that NYFCC members were given VIP badges at the door; in the past, it was our dinner. Now, a little less so, as security guards patrol the Daniels -- Day-Lewis and Craig -- and tell critics who have given the awards that Mr. Day-Lewis is in the middle of talking, as if it were no longer a party where everyone can talk to everyone else. But this is just a change, not really a complaint, as who doesn't want to have dinner with A-list stars one night a year and then dine out on the stories for the remaining 364?
After NYFCC chair Joshua Rothkopf handed out the awards, and the immediate thanks shared around the tables, the beautiful Chastain bridged the gap between the "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Lincoln" camps. She threaded her way through the tight tables, intent on being introduced to Day-Lewis. The "Lincoln" portrayer held court beside the "Lincoln" table, talking over a railing with "Skyfall" star Craig. Chastain met Day-Lewis and exchanged charm pills. The takeaway from these introductions and meetings that will continue through Oscar season is that, for the talent, this is also the time to solidify industry relationships beyond their current circle and to line up future gigs. While winning an Oscar can raise the profile of a star, or director, or writer, playing the game along the way can ensure that the best projects land in your agent's inbox. It's that Game of Roles that your favorite actors are engaged in behind the scenes, and that is one reason that the stakes are so very high.
Short takes: Chris Rock gave an enthusiastic endorsement of "Central Park Five" in presenting Best Nonfiction Feature to that film. Later, the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore climbed on his soapbox during his presentation of the award for Best First Film to David France's "How to Survive a Plague," a history of AIDS activism, by attacking the Catholic Church. From the balcony, former NYFCC chair and noted contrarian Armond White, no stranger to controversy, gleefully tossed an F-bomb at Moore audible in my half of the room. When Weisz took the podium to accept her Best Actress award for "The Deep Blue Sea" from the actor David Strathairn, she noted that her mother was Catholic.
Matthew McConaughey took the stage to accept the Best Supporting Actor for "Magic Mike" and "Bernie." What should have been a moment of relative levity, given his roles as a stripper and a sleazy lawyer, was overshadowed by McConaughey's scary gaunt appearance. He lost 28 pounds to play an AIDS patient in "Dallas Buyers Club." Not since Christian Bale shed weight for "The Machinist" in 2004, has an otherwise handsome actor so thoroughly ruined his looks for a role. "Magic Mike" director Steven Soderbergh presented the honors to McConaughey but otherwise kept a low profile. It was, apparently, nearly indigestion-inducing for the prolific and talented director to break bread with so many critics who have laid into his films nearly as often as they have praised them.