READ MORE: Anne Thompson on the National Board of Review Winners
Sylvester Stallone returned to the stage at Cipriani 42nd Street at the National Board of Review Gala on Tuesday night, moments after accepting his prize for best supporting actor in “Creed.” In a wonderfully off-the-cuff throwback moment, he elicited cheers by deadpanning “Yo, Adrian” into the mic, then got around to the real reason for the epilogue to his heartfelt acceptance speech: He forgot to thank the studio, Warner Bros.
Such deference is a key factor in awards season, in which the companies willing to spend the most often expect to win just as much. But it’s also a recurring criticism of the NBR in particular, an 107-year-old nonprofit initially launched to certify films but more recently accused of getting bought by them. More specifically, the murky voting process by a largely unknown membership has led to charges of internal manipulation, with affluent members exerting major influence on the choices for the awards and favoring distributors with whom they maintain strong relationships.
The precise moral standing of the NBRs may be difficult to parse, but they certainly put on a good show. And it didn’t hurt this year for the ceremony to offer a strikingly different perspective on 2015 in cinema, with genuinely good studio projects “Creed,” “The Martian,” and best film winner “Mad Max: Fury Road” all receiving prominent exposure — after their absence from the New York Film Critics Circle awards the night before.
Yet with dubiously named prizes such as “Outstanding Collaborative Vision” or “Freedom of Expression” — the latter wasn’t the only award that went to two separate films Tuesday — it’s hard to ignore charges that the organization spreads its winners as far as possible simply to sell more tables and crowd the room with famous faces at the height of pre-nomination Oscar mania. In that sense, the NBRs excel at revealing the collusion of the industry that defines the marketplace of awards season.
Tables at the NBR are famous for their schwag; this year proved no exception, with guests lunging for giant dolls of the imaginary characters from Pixar’s “Inside Out,” soundtracks from “Creed” and “Straight Outta Compton,” scripts for “The Hateful Eight,” Blu-rays for “Fury Road” and, perhaps most egregiously, “loteria” cards tied to the Mexican drug war thriller “Sicario.” Even journalists and smarmy insiders known for trash-talking the NBR could be spotted hauling as much loot out the door as possible by the end of the night.
In the cocktail hour preceding the dinner, people tried to make sense of the just-announced PGA nominations, which excluded presumed awards season favorites “Carol” and “Room.” One theory was that the guild’s largely white male membership excluded those female-driven titles from consideration; another involved its more conservative sensibilities. Ironically, these theories would suggest that the PGA — a group filled with Academy members — has far more autonomy than the NBR’s alleged deference to the industry.
But if the NBR is actively trying to play a role in Oscar season, there’s no question it reached that goal on Tuesday with a series of spirited acceptance speeches, many of which at least felt sincere. No moment stood out more than when nine-year-old actor Jacob Tremblay — receiving the same breakthrough performance prize for “Room” that “Beasts of No Nation” star Abraham Attah accepted moments earlier — poked his head up at the podium. Following a charming introduction by Jason Segel (who said that Tremblay recognized him as “that Muppets guy”), Tremblay received a resounding “awwww” from the crowd as he paused to declare, “I just need a moment” and concluded, “The mind of me… is blown.” In the midst of the thundering applause that followed, one audience member shouted, “And you’re telling me he’s not getting nominated?”
The rest of the ceremony contained plenty of endearing moments. Lewis Black’s hilarious tribute to “Inside Out” included one of several digs at Donald Trump that night, as well as wry acknowledgement of Pixar’s adult sensibilities. “When I knew I’d been cast to play Anger inside a 12-year-old girl’s head, I thought that Pixar was the most perverted company on the planet,” he said. Robert De Niro took a dig at the Republican party while presenting best actor to “The Martian” star Matt Damon (“”Science — love it or hate it, or, if you’re a Republican presidential candidate, deny it”); Damon said tales of Stallone’s early career commitment amid hard times inspired the younger actor’s early collaboration with Ben Affleck (“It changed the course of our lives”).
“Creed” director Ryan Coogler recalled his trepidation over meeting Stallone for the first time and hoping to get his DVD of “Rocky II” signed for his father, a fan. Jonathan Demme presented “Son of Saul” with best foreign language film and placed Hungarian newcomer Lazslo Nemes in illustrious company. “There’s this very small club of filmmakers who started out with a brilliant masterpiece,” Demme said. “You, Orson Welles and probably a couple of others.” There was “Straight Outta Compton” star Jason Mitchell’s charming presentation of best actress to Brie Larson, where he affectionately referring to her by her “rap name,” “Young Breeta;” Jessica Chastain delivered a tearjerking ode to best director winner Ridley Scott for creating strong roles for women in American movies.
It was harder, however, to get much out of the “The Big Short” ensemble prize, when everyone but main stars of the movie took the stage, or best screenplay winner Quentin Tarantino’s absence. Everyone was delighted to see George Miller up there at the end of the night, though even he didn’t quite seem to know what to make of the event. After a few cursory thanks, he tacked on a matter-of-fact assessment: “Here we are, in the conversation, and it has to do with this body, National Board of Review.” Indeed.
But the truest moment of the night was also its funniest. After Damon left the stage, the host of the ceremony, MSNBC anchor Willie Geist, returned. Geist noted that he interviewed Damon and Scott earlier in the day and had asked Damon if he wanted to win the Oscar. Damon said he wanted the 77-year-old Scott to win more than he desired a best actor trophy himself. “It’s a nice sentiment,” Geist said, “but he’s full of shit.”