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Diary of an Awards Season Host: Behind the Scenes at the Wild and Powerful 2018 New York Film Critics Circle Awards

It's one thing to observe awards shows from the sidelines, and something else to host one. IndieWire's Eric Kohn shares his favorite moments from emceeing the NYFCC ceremony.

- New York, NY - 1/3/18 - New York Film Critics' Circle Awards 2017.-Pictured: Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Tiffany Haddish and Timothée Chalamet-Photo by: Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix-Location: Tao Downtown

“Coco” songwriter Kristen Anderson-Lopez, “Girls Trip” star Tiffany Haddish and “Call Me By Your Name” star Timothée Chalamet at the 2018 NYFCC ceremony

Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix

Awards season has become a cluttered and homogenized series of celebrations in which it’s difficult to distinguish one flashy ceremony from the next. And this year, as chair of the New York Film Critics Circle, I became part of the machinery.

With winners announced in December, I spent the last month huddling with our group’s general manager, Marshall Fine, to nail down presenters, coordinate talent schedules, and juggle practical challenges in advance of the January 3 dinner event at TAO Downtown. But even with last-minute cancellations and an ever-changing seating chart, the East Coast’s first major awards event of 2018 was a lot more boisterous, carefree, and fun than our more tightly scripted (and televised) counterparts.

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In between duties as the evening’s host, I got to witness an incredible mélange of moments that endowed our nearly three-hour party with a welcome dose of authenticity. These are my personal highlights.

Tiffany Haddish Owns the Night

Haddish’s freewheeling, 17-minute acceptance speech for best supporting actress in “Girls Trip” was a preordained phenomenon. Anyone familiar with her bawdy and genuine standup routine could have predicted that she would bring the full force of her personality to the stage. She veered from goofy to sentimental to sincere and back again many times over, thanking everyone from director Malcolm Lee (who presented her award) to her makeup artist. She shared a delightful anecdote about a genitalia bit that was cut from “Girls Trip,” and teared up when recalling her difficult upbringing. (NYFCC vice chair Alison Willmore’s decision to tape the full speech may be the best Oscar push Haddish scored all season.)

Tiffany Haddish

And yes, Haddish even peeked over at me to offer gratitude for greeting her earlier in the night. But I was mostly thrilled she made it out at all. While comedies often get ignored at awards season — and Haddish was a noticeable snub in the Golden Globes’ “Musical or Comedy” performance category — the NYFCC has a history of correcting that narrative, including a best actress prize for Cameron Diaz in “There’s Something About Mary” almost 20 years ago. But comedy tends to exist in a separate ecosystem, and Haddish has been so enmeshed in her acclaimed “She Ready” tour that she has barely been able to approach the mayhem of an awards campaign.

That epic speech allowed her to make up for missed time. The NYFCC has no pauses for commercial breaks, or music to play winners off stage, so Haddish just went for it. Eventually, I locked eyes with Lee, as we both started to wonder if she’d ever give up the mic. But one glimpse of the room, which was transfixed by this rambunctious ball of energy as she guzzled a cocktail bearing her name, confirmed that she could take all the time she needed.

Remembering Dan Talbot

The awards were locked down weeks ago, but when I found out five days before the ceremony that legendary New Yorker Films and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas co-founder Dan Talbot passed away, it was clear that we needed to acknowledge it. Beyond our duties as a critics group honoring the past year’s films, we also speak to the resilience of New York’s longstanding film culture. Few participants maintained a legacy on par with Talbot’s, who ran the Upper West Side arthouse establishment for almost half a century.

Michael Barker at the NYFCC ceremony

I found Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker in the midst of his year-end vacation and asked him if he would share some words on Talbot; I was relieved when he accepted right away. He was the ideal fit: Barker’s company relied heavily on that theater for business, and Barker himself long has been an outsized figure of New York’s cinematic legacy. He did not disappoint, saying that Talbot’s death wasn’t the only great loss in 2017. “We recently lost two of the most passionate cinephiles in our history,” Barker said, noting that filmmaker Jonathan Demme, who died over the summer, attended the previous NYFCC ceremony. “I had lunches with Dan Talbot once a year, every year, since 1982,” Barker said, comparing the experiences to “My Dinner With Andre,” the movie “that played in his theater for over a year.”

There, “we discussed the stock market… Roth and Bellow. He read huge volumes of European and religious history and philosophy. Dan was self-deprecating, never pretended to know more than he did. He was self-taught, curious about what he wanted to be curious about. He knew and trusted what he liked…the guy loved W.C. Fields and Walter Matthau.” Barker added that he would ask Talbot, “Why do we do what we do for a living?” The reply: “Michael, my boy, that’s an easy one: Did you know, in 1909, James Joyce opened the first movie theater in Dublin? Well, he opened this theater and the first show started well. Then it started to fail at the box office and he had to close the theater. I know how to do what James Joyce did not know how to do. I run a movie theater. He wrote ‘Ulysses.'”

The speech was made all the more powerful given the presence of Talbot’s wife and creative partner Toby Talbot in the room, mere days after her husband’s death, while the future of their theater remains uncertain. Barker closed with a plea: “Dan Talbot never doubted the future of the theatrical motion picture… so to all the exhibitors and distributors in this room, to all the critics and journalists in the room, let’s agree to be in solidarity to fight for the Lincoln Plaza to remain an ongoing theater to celebrate and toast the legacy of Daniel Talbot and Jonathan Demme, and stand together to keep that legacy alive.”

No-Shows? No Problem!

On the awards circuit, filmmakers and actors give up their personal lives to ensure their presence at the endless pileup of events before the Oscar-voting deadline. But the NYFCC faced a distinct scheduling challenge, unfolding alongside a gala at the Palm Springs International Film Festival across the country, and right at the start of the year when some people have yet to return from vacation.

Betty Gabriel presenting at the 2018 NYFCC ceremony

For different reasons, winners for “Get Out,” “Phantom Thread,” and “Faces Places” could not attend the ceremony. Fortunately, the studios worked overtime to ensure they could acknowledge their movies in the room. “Get Out” had two of its most memorable faces on the stage. Betty Gabriel — whose frozen expression of terror as the enslaved housemaid is emblematic of the movie’s emotional power — presented the prize for best first feature to her co-star Lil Rel Howery, the investigative TSA agent who provides the movie with its sharpest comic relief. (Howery, who was funny and kind, complimented me on my first hosting gig by the bar later that night, though he noted that nobody could top LL Cool J as the Grammys’ emcee.)

Paul Thomas Anderson sent his “Phantom Thread” star Lesley Manville to the stage in his place, using the opportunity to share his enthusiasm for Haddish’s talent and offer her his phone number so they might discuss a potential collaboration. It was exactly the sort of talent collision that makes cinephiles swoon, and felt unique to the room.

Then, Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Jane Rosenthal shared her thoughts about “Faces Places,” speaking to her seven-year creative partnership with co-director JR before revealing a three-page acceptance speech sent along by the 89-year-old Agnes Varda. In every case, the winning artists communed with the audiences through their own sensibilities, rendering their physical absence moot.

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