The surprises at the annual New York Film Critics Circle dinner bash aren’t in the awards; they were announced last month. The appeal of this gathering – which in its raffishness is something like the Golden Globes but with noses tilted slightly upward – lies in how the honored artists will behave when addressing some of the most prominent bylines in the business. Graciousness generally prevails, which is no fun at all. Sometimes an honoree will let loose, and that’s when the fun begins.
This year’s affair, the group’s 83rd, at celebrity stable Tao Downtown, was more staid than recent years, and it could hardly be otherwise: As the Circle’s chairman and event host Eric Kohn, chief film critic of Deadline’s sister site IndieWire, said at the outset, the awards season has been cast in the long shadow of Hollywood’s very public reckoning with sexual harassment and assault scandals, as well as the death last week, felt personally by many in the audience, of New Yorker Films head Dan Talbot and the imminent shuttering of his indie palace, the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
So it was more than a tonic when Tiffany Haddish abandoned formality as she approached the podium and proceeded to kidnap the show. It was a relief. Accepting the award for best supporting actress in Girls Trip, she inspected the citation to be certain her name was spelled correctly (it was) and thanked God for putting her parents together, her parents for conceiving her and nature for the panoply of experience-enhancing substances she apparently had been partaking of freely.
Haddish opened up about her attempts to get pregnant, her affection for the crews on her films (“When I work with people, I work with everybody from the person that’s working the camera, the person that’s putting the clothes on me, the person that combs my hair…because all of y’all make my dreams come true”). She was not the first honoree to insist she didn’t read reviews, but easily was the most sincere in dismissing her celebrants. (“Because I’m sensitive,” she said, “that’s just who I am.”)
She spoke of making the film, in which she is the unfiltered catalyst to some seriously raunchy femme bonding, and told an unprintable story about a bit she wanted to include in Girl’s Trip that the producers declared out-of-bounds as it involved branding a male body part and oral infidelity. (Evidently, you can get the whole squirm-inducing version by attending her stand-up act.) She also spoke of the positive influence of fear, and her hope that strangers approach her with a happy face.
Haddish was so terrific that Edward Norton, who had to follow her to introduce best supporting actor Willem Dafoe (for The Florida Project), opened by saying, “This is awkward but Tiffany gave my speech, word for word.”
It was an especially good night for women in the industry, with the best film award going to Greta Gerwig’s solo directing debut with Lady Bird and that film’s star, Saoirse Ronan taking the honors for best leading performance by an actress.
But the most resonant speech was by Career Achievement honoree Molly Haskell, a film critic not only of incomparable stature but one whose entertaining, enlightening analyses of the role of sex in films extends back more than half a century (notably in her books From Reverence to Rape and Holding My Own In No Man’s Land) and could not have been timelier.
Referring to the loss of Dan Talbot, Haskell recalled the flourishing of independent film in the late 1960s and early 70s less as a golden age of film than as “a golden age of critics. It wasn’t that the criticism was better, but it was a smaller world.
“Everybody was talking about films,” she said. “And at the same time, women were emerging, women’s roles were being shown, and that was where I came in. It just seemed natural to me to take an interest in men’s and women’s roles. I did say I was a film critic first and a feminist second. I always felt that my first
allegiance was to film as an art form, and I still think that. Through the decades, people would be saying ‘this is the year of the woman,’ but actually, very little progress was being made. Until 2017. And this moment of reckoning turned into a groundswell. It’s really a revolution. Monuments have toppled. And it’s both exhilarating and terrifying, and we don’t know how it’s going to play out.”
Haskell noted that the ’70s were a time of male buddy films, but “in my experience, women do a lot more bonding than men.” Both Lady Bird and Girls Trip helped redress that imbalance, and that the latter “is wilder and raunchier than any Rat Pack film,” she noted with amusement. “I looked at that tonight and thought, ‘Yeah, man, you got it.’ So if this award is reparations to women, I’m quite happy to accept it on behalf of women everywhere – and especially women critics everywhere.”