From the Gotham Awards floor: Overheard and witnessed at the Oscar season kickoff

Aimlessly wandering around Cipriani Wall Street, the lavish home of New York City”s Gotham Awards, I wondered if anyone knew the awards season was in full swing. That morning, a critics group handed out the first batch of accolades. Present company would soon receive statues swaying the race towards buzzed about thespian thoroughbreds. It was “on.” 

Yet, this crowd didn”t have that awareness. This was way too chill. I was the only one wondering if “Under the Skin” could upset “Birdman,” weighing options in anticipation of the question mark-filled Breakthrough Actor category. Somehow, a run-in with “Boyhood” star Ellar Coltrane ended with us wondering out loud, “What does it all mean?” in the existential sense. 

So this is why everyone was downing bellinis.

The Gotham Awards owns its quiet-before-the-storm identity. The show isn”t the Golden Globes drunken circus, nor is it top tier enough to warrant an intense competitive edge. It”s an event where actual comrades – Hollywood”s New York City expats and the stars who imbue their projects with greenlight magic – wine, dine and deliver speeches they”ve over/underwritten. Look one direction and you spot Amy Schumer stealing a selfie with her sister; look another and you bump into one of the most important people in New York City payroll services. Glamorous. The Gothams are more like a movie set than a fancy gala – statuses removed, colleagues paling around with colleagues.

When I located my table, I was among Team “Grand Budapest Hotel”: producers, Fox Searchlight representatives and the legendary F. Murray Abraham. I instantly had 1,000 questions for Abraham, who picked up an Oscar for his work “Amadeus” and spent two weeks filming his bookend role in Wes Anderson”s comedy of manners. There wasn't time for long walks down memory lane – Uma Thurman hushed the crowd for her opening monologue, a teleprompter reading by way of Norma Desmond. Not everyone landed in time; as the music swayed to introduce the show, Jon Hamm took a seat beside his wife, Jennifer Westfeldt. Only later did it make sense why they were there – both were involved with the Gothams voting groups. Even if the couples' attendance was for press only, it was worth it. There's nothing like creepily watching Jon Hamm gulp wine from across a room. “They”re just like us…”

Though people audibly complained about the length of interstitial clips, the Gothams aren”t half as indulgent as the Oscars. The show flew. There were real surprises. When Tessa Thompson won the Breakthrough Actor Award for “Dear White People,” she caught her breath on the walk to stage. That was real shock. The people behind me wondered where they had seen this girl before. “Selma,” one exclaimed. “Great movie.” OK, so everyone in New York has seen “Selma,” but didn't do the work to see “Dear White People.” Noted.

Spontaneity and involuntary reactions were the Gothams' fuel. Even the cast of “Birdman” oooed and aahed when Meryl Streep took the stage to laud “Hope Springs” co-star Steve Carell, who accepted a special award for the “Foxcatcher” ensemble. Streep may be the best actress in the world, but when the lights went down and clips of Carell as Jon du Pont started playing, she shifted from pre-written heaps of praise to a legitimate look of awe. Maybe she was impressed with Carell. There was reason to be.

When “Boyhood” picked up the Gothams” Audience Award, Richard Linklater walked back to his seat and through the “Birdman” crowd. There were no bad feelings – Alejandro Iñárritu immediately jumped to his feet to give Linklater a hug. And that”s when the awards season imploded.

Later, Ana Lily Amirpour accepted the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award for her work on “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” and took a moment during her speech to request a photo with Tilda Swinton, on hand for a we”re-not-worthy clip show tribute. At the end of the night, I noticed from just a few tables over that Amirpour got her wish. Who could say no to a public plea? (Also, these two need to make a movie together.)


F. Murray Abraham wanted me to try the bread. Maybe I resisted eating it because these catered events don”t usually have great bread, he said, but this is flaky and buttery and delicious. I owe it to myself to take a bite. F. Murray Abraham doesn't realize this is the greatest conversation I”ve ever had in my life. He goes on to tell the table about “It”s Only a Play,” his lasting Broadway outing with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. He has never been happier than starring in this show, making people laugh. It”s what he lives for. “Bon appétit,” he said as waiters dished out the Gothams' steak dinner. This caused me to lose my mind. I inquired about adding a “Best Person Ever” category at the Gothams, but with only an hour left in the show, it was impossible. Sorry, Murray! I tried!

The Peanut Gallery at an awards show is a string of one-line opinions provoked by the parade of celebrities and clip packages. The Gothams were buzzing from start to finish. How long will Catherine Keener talk about Bennett Miller living at her apartment? Is Netflix”s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos really one of the most important people in independent film? (Probably, on a financial level, but people still snorted anyway.) Man, “Moneyball” is an amazing movie! Everyone has documentaries to catch up on. “Look at Michael Keaton, he”s at the top of the world right now – I”ve never seen him like that.” The world misses Philip Seymour Hoffman. Seriously, why aren”t we all talking about Gugu Mbatha-Raw? Everyone loves Patricia Arquette. Everyone loves Julianne Moore. Everyone loves “Boyhood.” Everyone loves Jon Hamm drinking wine.

The Gotham Awards had me thinking less about the 2014 victors than 2015″s major promises. Judd Apatow”s “Trainwreck” will be the funniest movie of the year if it”s on par with what stars Amy Schumer and Tilda Swinton, the unlikeliest comedic duo since Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, were throwing down at the ceremony. Schumer introduced the Swinton tribute, letting us know that when she wrote “Trainwreck,” it included a character described as “A goddess, like Tilda Swinton waiting at a baggage claim.” So Apatow hired Swinton, Renaissance Woman. This choice will inevitably pay off.

No one attending these awards shows can take the wins or upsets too seriously. That”d be unhealthy. When “Birdman” picked up the Best Feature award, Iñárritu, Keaton, Amy Ryan, and the producers group hugged like they just won the camp talent show. Everyone cheered. And then they packed up and filed out. To home, to after parties, to wherever. With so many other award shows ahead, it”s understandable that the Gothams would clear out in under 30 minutes. There were stragglers – Hamm stuck around for fan photos, the “Wish I Was Here” actress and Breakthrough candidate Joey King chatted with friends, Keaton beelined to the bathroom. But that was that. The Gothams were in the can. The award season propelled forward. All of my existential questions were put to rest. I could feel good knowing that F. Murray Abraham loves life. 

Now I can start stressing about who”ll win the Independent Spirit Awards.