Brad Pitt, Renee Zellweger Thank Famous Friends at National Board of Review Awards

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for National Board of Review; ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

The 'Once Upon A Time in Hollywood' actor revealed how Bradley Cooper helped put him on a path to sobriety while the 'Judy' actress got candid about her longtime friendship with Salma Hayek during the New York ceremony.

These next couple of weeks mark the final leg of a coast-to-coast, months-long awards campaign season. For some, the endeavor is an exhausting one involving countless appearances and constant, coast-to-coast travel. But at the National Board of Review's 2020 awards ceremony on Wednesday night in New York, winners, presenters and attendees illustrated what an emotionally humbling and creatively invigorating time the season could also be.

"I quietly made this film in Korea as I've always done, so to win these awards is just a huge joy and honor," Parasite director and NBR's best foreign language film winner Bong Joon Ho told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet. "At [the New York Film Critics Circle Awards], Tarantino was sitting at a table very near mine, then there was Martin Scorsese and all these other filmmakers I really respect. Since Sunday, I've seen Scorsese three times. That will never happen again in my life."

Richard Jewell star and NBR best supporting actress winner Kathy Bates shared similar sentiments about being honored while getting to "say hello to people you admire."

"I got to sit at Joaquin Phoenix's table at the Globes, so that was — it was fantastic," Bates said. "I also got to talk to Brad Pitt at the AFI luncheon, so that was another cool moment. It's all been kind of fun because — not to sound too Annie Wilkes — I'm a fan."

As the night's various winners and presenters took the stage at Cipriani 42nd Street, it became apparent how much the room was full of fans. But it was equally full of friends, as well as those fighting for a larger message behind their film. During Bates' acceptance speech, she did both, paying tribute to her mother and Richard Jewell's real-life counterparts before taking a moment to celebrate her former Waterboy co-star and best actor winner Adam Sandler.

The room erupted into loud cheers for Bates and did so again after Sandler accepted his honor. Embodying his famous comedic character of Bobby Bushay, the comedian-actor used the final moments of his speech to shout out to Bates, "I love momma!" While his acceptance ended on a comedic note, Sandler started it choked up after hearing longtime friend and collaborator Drew Barrymore sing his praises, not just as an artist but as a father and man.

"You are capable of everything, and I have believed in that since before I met you, which is why I met you. I think this moment, honestly, could not be more deserved," Barrymore said. "You deserve the best, you give the best and you are the best. I love you very much, and I'm so happy to be here tonight to give you best actor from the National Board of Review." 

Sandler and Barrymore were far from the only winner-presenter duo to offer up a tear-tinged exchange. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood star Brad Pitt kicked off his best supporting actor acceptance by warmly embracing presenter Bradley Cooper before admitting that the fellow actor, father and friend had played a significant role in his journey to sobriety. 

"Thank you, Bradley. Bradley just put his daughter to bed and rushed over here to do this," Pitt told the NBR audience. "He's a sweetheart. I got sober because of this guy, and every day has been happier ever since."

While accepting her award for best actress, Renée Zellweger pointed to friend and presenter Salma Hayek as pivotal to her journey with fame. A defining moment of their friendship, the Judy star revealed, was a run-in at an airport around 2005 that saw Hayek ask a simple but profound question. 

"She looked at me, and she said, 'How are you?' and I didn't realize at the time she wasn't just making polite conversation," Zellweger said. "The truth is, I didn't know how I was, so I told her, I said, you know, 'I'm tired.' And Salma just looked at me in that way ... and she smiled and said, 'Well, you know, a rose can't bloom every season. Unless it's plastic.'" 

"The relevance of what she was saying didn't hit me at that time, but it planted the seed, and I am so grateful for that fateful run-in with my friend," Zellweger continued. "Because she reminded me to be an artist, and I know that you cannot be an artist if you do not live an authentic life."

Among the night's other powerful creative duos were presenter Lena Waithe and best directorial debut winner Melina Matsoukas. Both Waithe's introduction and Matsoukas' acceptance championed the NBR for acknowledging the work of black creators and their daily fight to get films like their own, Queen & Slim, made.

"We are stepping into a time of war — a battle for equality, access ownership and opportunity that is happening around the world, but also within our industry. I appreciate the efforts and move into the future to begin to break down the confines that discredit and disregard folks like mine and so many filmmakers that have come before and will come after me," Matsoukas said. "Thank you for being on the right side of the future, the right side of the revolution." 

Another event high included music icon Bruce Springsteen, who presented inaugural NBR Icon award winners to Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino as "the fulfilled prophecy of a nation forged by immigrants." Yet, among all the event's most notable moments, it was the Freedom of Expression Awards winners who delivered the night's most affecting messages. 

The Just Mercy and For Sama creative teams implored the room not just to watch their films, but to find ways to bring increased attention to the lives that are currently being harmed and lost at the hands of violence and injustice amid fights for freedom domestically and abroad. 

"'I've been allowed to be a part of presenting the stories of people who've been cut and bruised and scarred by injustice. We have a system that treats you better if you're rich and guilty than poor and innocent," said Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer whose work Just Mercy is based on. "Tonight you made those of us who feel bruised by injustice and inequality [think] that maybe what we're doing is honorable." 

For these filmmakers, the campaign season goes beyond celebrating the year's best work or seeing old friends. It's a platform for their urgent calls for change. 

"Campaigning for the awards is campaigning for our message from the film," For Sama co-director Waad Al-Kateab told THR. "I really want to invest any platform like today's in shedding light on the bombing of Syrian hospitals and what's happening there right now. We have a message, and we want to deliver it."