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The Heckle Heard Round the World: Scandal Rocks Big 'Slave' Win

Thelma Adams
Yahoo Movies
January 7, 2014
Armond White - inset - and Steve McQueen
Armond White - inset - and Steve McQueen

What happens when you put the person Time magazine dubbed the "World's Most Contrarian Film Critic" in one of the most decorous awards events during a presentation honoring one of the year's most prestigious films? An ugly scandal.

Armond White, one of the nation's few high-profile African-American critics and the owner of the dubious Time-sanctioned sobriquet, overshadowed last evening's New York Film Critics Circle Awards dinner by heckling Best Director winner Steve McQueen. (It was enough to upstage Best Supporting Actress Jennifer Lawrence ("American Hustle") — if she had bothered attending.)

According to an attendee sitting adjacent to White at a table at the very back of the Edison Ballroom where the event was held, the City Arts critic called out "F--- you. Kiss my ass," during the standing ovation for McQueen, honored for helming the Oscar-contending "12 Years a Slave."

"It's kind of laughable the way I was misquoted," White said to Yahoo! Movies over the phone. "Why would I call McQueen a doorman? Or a garbage man? These are flat out misquotes. I would take issue. I was not heckling I was talking among friends at the table. In years past, people hang around listening to what I say and then they report it as heckling. I never heckle. I didn't heckle. It's just misrepresentation."

Nevertheless, another witness confirmed that, as Variety reported, White didn't stop there. "You're an embarrassing doorman and garbage man," the reviewer said, and then loudly bemoaned "white liberal guilt." The witness said White and his guests were boisterous throughout the night — the event is, after all, a dinner with drinks — except during the awards for "American Hustle," a White favorite.

[Photos: NYFCC Awards Red Carpet]

Slate's Dana Stevens tweeted: "@trulyvery @BilgeEbiri @foundasonfilm It coming right after the Belafonte speech was crazy — a moment of pure goodness followed by pure crud."

Stevens, who was seated at White's table, commented to Yahoo: "He and his entire party — especially a couple of younger guys that were with him — were complete boors the entire evening, talking loudly enough that my party had to strain to hear the speeches, with the content of their conversation getting louder, coarser and more focused on mocking whoever was on stage as the evening went on. (When they 'liked' someone — like Sally Hawkins or anyone to do with 'American Hustle' — their loud hoots of approval were almost as embarrassing.) When Jared Leto mentioned that his mother had come with him this evening, there was frat-boy commentary along the lines of 'Yeah, I'll bet she did.'"

This morning amid a flurry of emails among New York Film Critics Members with the subject line "ruined" [full disclosure: I've been in the group since 1995], Chairman Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York said: "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."

[Related: What Competition? Hanks, Streep, and McConaughey Kick Off Awards Season Hurling Compliments]

Rothkopf was not solely addressing White's heckle of last night, but also of the recent indiscretion of New York Post writer Lou Lumenick. Only last month, Lumenick breached the group's confidentiality by publishing information about the Circle's secret voting after being expressly told not to reveal the names of runners-up.

Rothkopf, who hands off the chairmanship to Stephen Witty of Newark's Star Ledger newspaper, has called for an emergency session in the coming month to deal with these breaches in decorum, if not outright violations of the group's by-laws.

IndieWire's Eric Kohn, who attended the event for the first time last night as a member of what has been considered the most prestigious of critics organizations, had this to say: "I am less bothered by questions of personal conduct than the public's fixation on them, particularly in this case, because the event itself was a fluid, classy tribute to some of the finest movies released this year.

"Let's be honest here: Harry Belafonte gave a great speech. Why aren't we talking about that? Perhaps the issue isn't the occurrence of the heckling, but its unfortunate timing. Whoever was responsible, they could have at least picked a better target — although among last night's speeches, I couldn't give you a single name that deserved such unruly treatment. Maybe some people are just more adept at writing words than blurting them out on the fly."

This is not the first time White has made headlines for heckling at the NYFCC Awards. Last year, it was reported that he called fellow critic J. Hoberman "a jacka--," and he repeatedly dissed "The Social Network" in a previous year. However, reports that he made Annette Bening cry during her acceptance speech for Best Actress in "The Kids Are Alright" are highly exaggerated. White, who was not named "The World's Most Contrarian Film Critic" for nothing, concluded: "It's not that discourse has become uncivil, but that at a private dinner you are not free to say anything anymore."

Watch Steve McQueen in '12 Years a Slave' Featurette: