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New York Film Critics Circle Awards: Steve McQueen Heckled By Film Critic

The "12 Years a Slave" director was razzed from the audience by Armond White upon taking the stage in tears following a moving intro by Harry Belafonte.

Steve McQueen New York Film Critics Circle - H 2014
AP Images
Steve McQueen at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards

A member of the New York Film Critics Circle put a damper on the group's 69th annual awards ceremony when he heckled a winner from the audience. From the back of the Edison Hotel Ballroom in Gotham, Armond White, the controversial film critic for CityArts, yelled at Steve McQueen, the NYFCC's best director winner for 12 Years a Slave, "You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. F— you. Kiss my ass," according to a Variety reporter seated near him.

The outburst from White, who has behaved similarly at past NYFCC ceremonies and has derided McQueen's film since October, could not be heard from the front of the room and did not interrupt the proceedings. McQueen had just taken the stage following a passionate introduction from the legendary Harry Belafonte that left the director in tears and stole the show up to that point.

American Hustle was the night's big winner, with prizes for best picture, best supporting actress and best screenplay, but that much was known long before the ceremony ever began, since voting took place and the results were announced on Dec. 3. The night's real "drama" came in the form of introductions and acceptance speeches, some of which could conceivably sway the results of Oscar nominations voting, which is now underway and closes on Jan. 8.

Veterans Robert Redford (the best actor winner for All Is Lost), Cate Blanchett (best actress for Blue Jasmine) and Jared Leto (best supporting actor for Dallas Buyers Club) and young up-and-comers Ryan Coogler (best first film for Fruitvale Station) and Sarah Polley (best documentary for Stories We Tell) were among the standout speakers.

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The festivities kicked off with Inside Llewyn Davis star Oscar Isaac presenting the best cinematography award to that film's lenser, Bruno Delbonnel. Accepting the award, the Frenchman said it was "a privilege" to work with writers/directors Ethan Coen and Joel Coen (who were not in attendance) and actors F. Murray Abraham (who was) and Isaac.

Then critic David Fear, introduced as "an authority on Japanese cinema," presented best animated film to Hayao Miyazaki, in absentia, for The Wind Rises, the anime master's swan song. Miyazaki, who previously won the same prize for Spirited Away (2002) and Howl's Moving Castle (2005), could not attend, as he was celebrating his 73rd birthday with his family, according to producer Frank Marshall, who accepted on his behalf. Marshall said, "Working with Mr. Miyazaki on one of the last films of his career was one of the high points of my career."

Mark Ruffalo presented the best documentary prize to his friend of 12 years, Sarah Polley, who was being feted for Stories We Tell, a doc about her unusual family. "Sarah's such a beautiful filmmaker, because she's brutally honest and unflinching," Ruffalo said. Polley, who thanked the group "for honoring [her father] Michael Polley's spirit and his writing with this award," chuckled, "It's such a relief just to not have made a fool of myself with this film; to be here is bewildering and great."

New Yorker film critic David Denby then saluted verite cinema pioneer Frederick Wiseman with a lifetime achievement award for his 48-year body of work, including this year's doc At Berkeley. Wiseman, who is 83 but was skiing in Switzerland with his grandkkids, sent written remarks that included the passage, "Aside from some minor irritations to do with raising money, I've had a pretty good time."

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The next prize, best first first film, went to 27-year-old Ryan Coogler via the stars of his film Fruitvale Station, Michael B. Jordan, Melonie Diaz and Octavia Spencer, who noted that Coogler was "just a student on winter break from USC Film School" when he learned about the death of Oscar Grant and decided to write and direct a film about it, winning the support of producer Forest Whitaker along the way. Acknowledging that the film was shot in the homes of his friends and grandma and that he and his fiancee slept on a mattress while making it -- "we were finally able to get ourselves a bed" after it was completed, he said -- Coogler emphasized, "If I could have it my way I wouldn't be here before you, because Oscar would still be alive."

Peter Travers, the film critic for Rolling Stone, said of best supporting actor winner Leto, who played Rayon, a drug-using transvestite who is afflicted with AIDS in the mid-1980s, in Dallas Buyers Club, "You did it in heels...but we looked beyond the heels." After taking the stage to a rousing ovation, the Oscar frontrunner said, "It's incredible what can happen when you put on a red pair of heels!" Referring to his six-year absence from the screen prior to Dallas Buyers, he continued, "I didn't know if I would ever make a film again, for a number of reasons -- not just music [a reference to his other career as a rock star with the band Thirty Seconds to Mars] -- but I'm really glad that I did, because this film changed my life." Leto added, "A very special thank you to the Rayons of the world for showing me what true courage and bravery is. The Rayons make the world a better and more beautiful place."

Bradley Cooper accepted best supporting actress on behalf of his American Hustle co-star Jennifer Lawrence, with whom he also worked on last year's Silver Linings Playbook. After noting that Lawrence could not be at the event because she was filming -- to moans of disappointment -- he described "the Jennifer Lawrence experience" and read remarks that she sent along, including, "I'm not receiving this for The House at the End of the Street [her critically panned 2012 film], so I guess you missed that one."

Then Ethan Hawke came up to introduce the best foreign film winner, Blue Is the Warmest Color, a French drama. After Hawke noted that "it is hard to make a serious movie like this without titters," an inadvertent double entrendre, the film's star Adele Exarchopoulos stepped up to the podium to accept it. "I was gonna do an improvisation, like in the movie, but now I'm scared," the 19-year-old Frenchwoman said. And she received laughs for a reference to the film's director, Abdellatif Kechiche, with whom she and her co-star have very publicly clashed: "I'm here representing Abdel -- it's complicated."

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Next, Oscar-nominated screenwriter James Toback presented best screenplay to David O. Russell and Eric Singer for American Hustle. After noting that he first met Russell 20 years ago and after a 30-second conversation concluded, "This is some strange motherfucker," Toback gushed that Russell is "a true great American artist" and said of Hustle, "It's one of the great movies ever...I sat there in awe." Russell, for his part, thanked Singer for bringing the story to his attention and noted that he is only interested in making films about interesting people, like those featured in Hustle.

Then, an obviously nervous Sally Hawkins took the stage to speak about her Blue Jasmine co-star Blanchett, the best actress winner. Saying "It was a gift to watch you, Cate" and "You're fearless in every role you play," Hawkins joked, "I would give anything to do it all over again -- but perhaps with a slightly cheerier sisterly relationship?" Blanchett brought a sense of humor, as well, quipping, "Thank you to the New York Film Critics Circle for showing such great taste and discernment in giving me this award." More seriously, she continued, "This is clearly an ensemble award" and said that after her own six-year absence from a screen part of any size, this was "a wonderful way to return."

Glenn Close followed by presenting the best actor prize to All Is Lost's Redford, her co-star 30 years ago in The Natural. After recalling how helpful he was and how impressed she was by his social conscience back then, she said she was equally impressed that, for the film for which he was being honored, he "put his talent in the hands of someone who was making only his second feature," J.C. Chandor. Redford then received the night's first standing ovation as he took the stage. He thanked the group for recognizing a performance that took him "back to my roots" after a career as a star, director and film festival organizer that was often wonderful but "took me further and further from where I began." He closed by paraphrasing T.S. Eliot: "What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

The most moving moment of the ceremony, though, came after Belafonte was introduced, stepped up to the stage with a cane while receiving a standing ovation, and then delivered the speech of the night in presenting the best director prize to 12 Years a Slave's McQueen. Noting that, over the course of his lifetime, people of color have been categorized as "colored," then "Negro," then "black" and now "African-American," he said the abiding question for him and others who look like him has been, "Who am I? What am I?" He said the cinema has not always provided a helpful answer to that question. The Birth of a Nation, the first feature film, showed blacks as rapists and abusers, absent of soul, intelligence and desire, and Tarzan, the first film he ever saw in a theater, depicted them as little more than savages. "I didn't want to be an African," Belafonte recalled. "Now, I can say, in my 87th year of life, I am overjoyed to have seen Steve McQueen step into this space and give us a film that touches the depths of who we are as a people." Belafonte addressed McQueen: "Even if you never do anything else, many in your tribe -- many in the world -- are deeply grateful." As the room rose in a standing ovation, led by Fruitvale Station's Jordan, McQueen, in tears, took the stage, kissed Belafonte's hand and patted his chest.

As McQueen began to speak, there was a bit of commotion in the back of room, but it was unclear from the front of it what was going on. Variety later reported that White had shouted: “You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man. F— you. Kiss my ass," and added, after McQueen noted that previous recipients of his prize had included John Ford and Woody Allen, “Pulease.” McQueen did not seem to hear the comments and proceeded with his remarks, noting that in his film's star, Chiwetel Ejiofor, he saw the "inherent sense of grace that this man [Belafonte] possesses."

Finally, writer/director Peter Bogdanovich came out to present the best film prize to American Hustle's producers Richard Suckle, Megan Ellison, Jonathan Gordon, Cooper and Russell. (The film's other principal producer, Charles Roven, was not present.) Bogdanovich, who has not only made great films but also interviewed many great players from Hollywood's Golden Age, asked what it is that makes cinema so special -- and then did a spot-on imitation of Jimmy Stewart's response when Bogdanovich posed that question to him years ago: "You're giving people little tiny pieces of time that they never forget." In praising Russell, Bogdanovich noted, "I love people who make movies about people" -- but Russell, recognizing that Belafonte was an impossible act to follow, said only, "Oh, my God, Harry Belafonte!" and "Thank you."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg