The Scene: Inside the 21st Annual Gotham Awards

Charlize Theron Patton Oswalt Gotham Awards - P 2011
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Charlize Theron Patton Oswalt Gotham Awards - P 2011

The 21st annual Gotham Independent Film Awards took place Monday night at New York's historic Cipriani Wall Street restaurant. Presented by the Independent Filmmaker Project, the nominees were selected by small committees of critics and journalists, and the winners were determined by small committees of talent from the indie film community.

PHOTOS: Gotham Awards 2011 Red Carpet Arrivals

I was monitoring the red carpet arrivals, backstage at the pre-show cocktail reception and seated front-and-center -- literally (thanks for letting me crash your table, Paramount!) -- during the presentation of the awards. Here is a recap of sights and sounds from throughout the night...

  • On the red carpet -- which was, for the second year in a row, set up inside of Cipriani -- the arrival of best breakthrough actor nominee Elizabeth Olsen seemed to cause the biggest stir among the gathered photographers. The "other Olsen sister" is quickly becoming both a star and fashion icon in her own right, and even she's still not used to it. When I chatted with Olsen inside the venue, she chuckled that the red carpet reception was "scary," that she's still struggling with autographs ("I don't know how to sign 'Elizabeth'" -- she much prefers "Lizzie") and that the constant march of the awards season is still fun and hasn't begun to wear on her yet.
  • The talent behind The Descendants, which was nominated for best feature and best ensemble, was out in force at the event. Leading man George Clooney couldn't make it, but Alexander Payne, supporting actress/best breakthrough actor nominee Shailene Woodley (who caused a red-carpet stir of her own by wearing a suit-like outfit), scene-stealer Judy Greer and actors Robert Forster, Matthew Lillard and Beau Bridges were in the house. In fact, Payne, Woodley, and Greer all presented or co-presented different categories.
  • During the cocktail hour, Olsen and her fellow best breakthrough actor nominee -- and the category's eventual winner -- Felicity Jones (Like Crazy) seemed to have a fun chat together. Jones, who to my untrained fashion eye had on as beautiful a dress as anyone, later explained to me that one of them was to work with a director who wound up working with the other, and that through that they came to know and like each other.

STORY: 'Tree of Life,' 'Beginners' Tie for Best Feature at Gotham Awards

  • Before the show got under way, the great director Ang Lee, who attended in order to co-present a career tribute, told me that his favorite film of the year, thus far, is The Tree of Life, which was nominated for -- and ended up co-winning -- best feature.
  • Indie film stalwarts Oliver Platt and Edie Falco were good sports and agreed to serve as hosts for the night, following in the footsteps of Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, who took on the same thankless task of reciting cringe-inducing banter periodically throughout the show.
  • The first category of the night, the audience award, was presented by Zachary Quinto, one of the stars of the best ensemble-nominated Margin Call, and Sarah Paulson, one of the stars of the best ensemble-nominated Martha Marcy May Marlene. Determined by the public through online voting, the winner -- over several higher-profile films, including the Oscar short-listed doc Buck -- was Girlfriend, the story of a young man with Down's Syndrome who pursues a single mother, to the great displeasure of her volatile ex-boyfriend. Evan Sneider, the 31-year-old actor who suffers from the same affliction as his character, gave a brief but eloquent acceptance speech.
  • Next up, the aforementioned Payne and Jones took the stage to present the best breakthrough director. The winner -- over four filmmakers with comparable or higher profiles, Mike Cahill (Another Earth), Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Vera Farmiga (Higher Ground), and Evan Glodell (Bellflower) -- was Dee Rees (Pariah), a tremendously talented up-and-comer whose feature directorial debut, a semi-autobiographical film about a young girl coming out as gay in the black community, is truly one of the best films of the year. (Farmiga, a fellow first-time filmmaker and always a class-act, gave Rees a standing-ovation.)

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  • Then, directors Jim Jarmusch and the aforementioned Lee (who I'm told were classmates at NYU) spoke about Tom Rothman, the founder of Fox Searchlight Films and the current chairman and CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, who was the recipient of one of this year's four Gotham tributes. Lee joked that when he first met Rothman, he "talked to me like I was hard of hearing or don't speak English ... then I realized that's how he speaks to everyone!" That didn't stop the two of them from having a long and fruitful collaboration. Lee brought the house down by sharing Rothman's reaction to the first screening of The Ice Storm (1997): "That was great ... but can we not fry the f---ing kids at the end?" Following a clip that showed the unbelievable breadth and depth of films that Rothman has helped to bring to the world -- from micro-budget indies to Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2010) -- Rothman delivered a gracious speech and noted with bemusement that, with 17 years under his belt at Fox, he is the studio's second-longest serving chief, behind only the great Darryl F. Zanuck.
  • The best film not playing at a theater near you category caused many eyes to glaze since -- for obvious reasons -- very few in the audience were familiar with any of the films. But it was nice to see how excited the filmmakers behind Scenes with a Crime were to win and receive a one-week run at a local cinema, an advertisement in the New York Times, and a $15,000 check.
  • One of the most closely watched categories was best breakthrough actor, which featured three high-profile Oscar hopefuls: Olsen, Woodley and Jones -- all three of whom gave great perfs and are among the nicest people on the awards trail this year -- along with the lesser-known Harmony Santana (Gun Hill Road) and Jacob Wysocki (Terri). Presenters Stanley Tucci (one of the stars of best ensemble nominee Margin Call) and Melissa Leo surprised a lot of people when they announced that the winner was Jones, including Jones herself, who confessed that she was in the middle of taking a bite out of her steak when she heard her name. The stunningly beautiful Brit delivered a few gracious remarks and then left the stage in a bit of a daze for the press room, where I was able to congratulate her and share with her a stat that she seemed to find as interesting and exciting as me: that five of the last seven winners of her category at the Gothams went on to score Oscar nods.

Complete List of Gotham Awards Winners

  • Next up was hands-down the most entertaining portion of the night: actor-comedian Patton Oswalt's presentation of a career tribute to his Young Adult co-star Charlize Theron. Oswalt, who sat to my left during the show and scribbled together a few notes during the proceedings, took the stage and proceeded to bring the house down. First, he jokingly began by asking, "What is a fluffer? [A fluffer is a sex term.]? Oh, sorry, that's a different awards show; that's tomorrow night." He went on to say what a pleasure it was to work with Theron, noting her skill as an actor ("She's a cross between Lee Marvin and Bill Murray") and emphasizing that "it's not her fault that she looks like that" (to which she pointed at her face and yelled back, "Yeah it is! This cost a lot of money!"). Oswalt also belittled all of the talk about her weight-gain for the film Monster (2003), for which she won the best actress Oscar, noting, "I gained 40 pounds for Young Adult 20 years before Diablo Cody wrote the script!" He then introduced a montage of Theron's work by saying that the Gotham Awards were unable to secure the rights to clips from most of her films and would therefore only show scenes from her first, Childen of the Corn III: Urban Harvest. After the montage finished, Theron took the stage to warm applause and insisted that Oswalt, who is roughly half her height, stand beside her as she gave her acceptance speech. They bantered back-and-forth throughout it (he said "I feel like you're accepting me as the award," and she told the audience, "I got naked next to him in Young Adult, to which he replied, "Oh, yeah, that's a treat! 'I couldn't get next to Michael Moore...'"). Theron closed by thanking Young Adult's director Jason Reitman for "letting me play a big bitch," calling him "one of the best directors I've ever worked with."
  • Farmiga and Twilight star Peter Facinelli then presided over the presentation of the best ensemble category, one of the most significant and hotly contested of the night. The Descendants, Martha Marcy May Marlene, Margin Call (the most ensemble-y of the lot) and Take Shelter (the least ensemble-y of the lot) all fell, in something of a surprise, to Focus Features' Beginners. Christopher Plummer, who is widely regarded as the favorite to win the best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in the film, accepted the award on behalf of his castmates (including the absent Ewan McGregor, who he said is filming in Uganda), noting that the making of Beginners provided "more fun than I've had in many a film that I've made."

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  • David Cronenberg, the iconic and eccentric Canadian director, then received the third career tribute.
  • Moneyball director Bennett Miller and documentary filmmaker Chris Hegedus then presented the best documentary award to Better This World, a film that grippingly chronicles a controversial terrorism case and was inexplicably left off of the Academy's doc short-list last week, over Bill Cunningham New York and Hell and Back Again, two films that did make the Academy's doc short-list; The Interrupters, which should have made the Academy's doc shortlist; and The Woodmans, a doc with which I am not familiar.
  • Alec Baldwin then stepped up to the podium, provoking great laughter when he acknowledged -- apparently half-seriously -- that he never thought he'd be back at the Gothams after attending a few years ago to support a friend, who ended up losing, after which Baldwin recalled saying, "F--- these people." What brought him back, however, was the chance to present his friend and fellow thespian Gary Oldman (a best actor Oscar hopeful this year for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) with the fourth and final tribute of the night. He said that he regards Oldman as "the greatest film actor of his generation" and then introduced a terrific montage of Oldman's many and varied film roles over the past 25 or so years that offered a pretty solid supporting argument. As Oldman eventually took the stage to accept his award, he received one of the few -- and by far the biggest -- standing ovation for an individual of the night.

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  • The Gothams saved the biggest category -- and most dramatic moment of the night -- for the bitter end: Actress Tilda Swinton (one of the key faces of the indie scene and a best actress Oscar hopeful this year for We Need to Talk About Kevin) introduced the nominees for best feature, the top award of the night, and then cued a video of Natalie Portman, who -- along with fellow Oscar winners Jodie Foster and Nicole Kidman, among others -- judged the category. Portman explained that, after lengthy deliberations, she and her fellow jurors could not decide between two films, and therefore decided to honor both, which Swinton revealed to be Beginners and Fox Searchlight's The Tree of Life. The producers of the latter accepted on behalf of the film's stars and writer-director Terrence Malick, who were not in attendance, and the director of the former, Mike Mills, accepted on behalf of his cast, who once again gathered on stage behind him.