Pre-Pre-Oscar Party

“This is like the New York Oscars, except without any of the annoying prestige,” said Michael Ian Black, the VH1 I Love the 80′s fetish object, who had been hired to host the 13th annual IFP/Gotham Awards on Monday, Sept. 22, at Chelsea Piers’ Pier Sixty.

Mr. Black may have been scathingly accurate in his assertion that he’d “talked to the numbers guys” and determined that the Gothams-which will air on the Independent Film Channel Sept. 25 and on Bravo Sept. 28-will be watched by 300 people. But just one night after a stultifyingly dull Emmys presentation, the party that has of late secretly been the industry’s most relaxed and unscripted festival of insular back-scratching felt weightier than ever.

Always more profusely grateful to the likes of director-actor-writer Nick Zedd and Focus Features co-president James Schamus than to Steven Spielberg and Paramount chairwoman Sherry Lansing, the nerdy Gotham Awards kicks off the unglamorous IFP film market in Oscar-Siberia September.

But the industry’s ungainly hustle to the starting gate in light of 2004′s month-early Oscars has meant that Monday night’s ceremony actually fêted filmmakers who already have horses in the race.

David Linde, the co-head (with James Schamus) of Focus Features, which released Lost in Translation , received a Gotham Award. The low-budget Lost , which was directed by Sofia Coppola, has produced the season’s surest Academy bet yet-Bill Murray’s performance.

As the Gothams’ usual crowd of rowdies grazed and schmoozed during the cocktail hour before the festivities, the names of the movies that were being thrown around were films that will continue to be mentioned as we move through awards season: American Splendor for its lead performance by Paul Giamatti and screenplay by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini; the small but chilling Thirteen , for Holly Hunter’s lead; and screenwriter and director Peter Hedges for Pieces of April .

Perhaps it was this sense of hope, or the summer success of small-budget films like Spellbound , 28 Days Later and Swimming Pool ; or perhaps it was the martinis. But the Gothams felt buoyant and cheerful-and much higher-budget than they have in past years.

Which is not to say that they weren’t still earnest and self-righteous and incestuous. All of the usual suspects were in attendance: Alec Baldwin, Sigourney Weaver, Glenn Close, Steve Buscemi, Oliver Platt, Matt Dillon, Aidan Quinn, Rosie Perez, Matthew Modine, Fisher Stevens, Sam Waterston, Illeana Douglas, Olympia Dukakis, Giancarlo Esposito, Eric Bogosian, Denise Rich, James Ivory, Ismail Merchant, James Schamus. There was the god of punky New York cinema, Jim Jarmusch, and the criminally cute teen star of Roger Dodger , Jesse Eisenberg. And then there was Le Divorce actress Naomi Watts-who looked like she had some inner light bulb that was making her blonder and more translucent.

Once they’d taken their seats at the 100 tables set up at Pier Sixty, they supped on summer rolls with little glasses of cucumber dipping sauce; shrimp and scallops atop mounds of risotto; cinnamon mini-doughnuts and chocolate-dipped strawberries. The Turning Leaf wine flowed copiously.

“This is getting flashier,” said Mr. Bogosian, who is in the upcoming film about porn star John Holmes, Wonderland . He was seated at the Lion’s Gate table, which was very close to the stage.

He was waving his hand around the room to indicate the mingling crowd, in which the women looked shiny and bare-shouldered and the men looked like an army of dark-jacketed, bright-collared troops.

“Ten years ago, this thing was empty,” he said.

Actor Alec Baldwin, there to present an award to ContentFilm co-founder Edward Pressman, sat next to his date, Nicole Seidel. Mr. Baldwin is currently surfing a wave of admiration for his performance in ContentFilm’s The Cooler , which will be released on Nov. 19. Mr. Baldwin plays a compellingly repellent casino owner in the smart little Vegas movie, which also features a scene in which William H. Macy goes down on ER ‘s Maria Bello. Hello.

Mr. Baldwin is about to reteam with Mr. Pressman, who has produced everything from Conan the Barbarian to Hoffa to Badlands , to remake The Swimmer , the 1968 Burt Lancaster movie based on the John Cheever short story.

“As long as I have a movie being released [by Mr. Pressman] that is getting a good response, I am going to suck up to Ed as hard and as long as I can,” said Mr. Baldwin. “I e-mail him with story ideas and script ideas on a weekly basis. I am not going to let this relationship go down the drain. Why do you think I’m giving him this award?”

Mr. Baldwin claimed, however, that even if he can participate in ritualized carnivals like the Gothams, he himself has become immune to the plaudits and the vicissitudes of his chosen profession.

“I’m 45. I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” continued Mr. Baldwin. “I still love acting under certain circumstances. I love to do a play when it all comes together. But as far as the business part of it-success and failure-I actually feel like I’ve gone deaf and dumb to it.

“When a friend tells me, ‘Man, you were great in that,’ or ‘Man, you’re going to win something for that,’ I say, ‘Great-whatever happens,’” said Mr. Baldwin. “I really don’t care about success in the movie business anymore.”

At that point, songwriter and Clinton supporter Denise Rich came over and enclosed Mr. Baldwin in a bear hug.

The Gotham Awards, which features a full dinner before anyone gets onstage and round tables where unsuspecting actors can be seized from behind by eager networkers, are big on bear hugs.

They’re also family-friendly. Lynn Pressman, Mr. Pressman’s mama and the former head of Pressman Toys, who hovers near 90, was just behind Ms. Rich. She was dressed in a black sequined dress that was 20 years old, according to Ms. Pressman, as well as a fur stole and a black sequined wide-brimmed hat that she said was a copy of a Mr. John design.

“The thing about Eddie,” she said immediately, without even demanding an introduction, “is that we wanted him to be in the [toy] company. But he didn’t want to; he wanted to be a movie producer. So we gave him a little bit of space in the company, you know, he and his friends, and they made $75 a week or something. And you know Eddie went to Stanford and then the London School of Economics, and that’s how he became a filmmaker. He made his first movie in London! And every day the bank called me up and said, ‘Eddie’s short!’ Well, he was making a movie and I didn’t know! So I gave him my beach house, and he had all of these actors-big actors, but of course no one knew who they were then-sleeping in my basement. And when they were done with the movie, they trashed my house! But it was the best investment I ever made. I lost the house, but Eddie became a movie producer.”

It was about then that Mr. Black took the stage to kick off the awards portion of the evening and guests were asked to turn off their cell phones and settle down at their rose-petal-strewn tables. After his crack about the New York Oscars, Mr. Black insisted that the awards were not without glamour.

“I’m going to Jim Jarmusch’s after-party,” he said. “It’s at Applebee’s. And we are going to shut that Bee’s down! Does the phrase ‘all-you-can-eat potato skins’ mean anything to you?”

Mr. Black then warmed up to some of the audience members who were seated at tables closest to the stage.

“We may never be in the same room again,” said Mr. Black to Glenn Close, whom he called “gorgeous.”

“And so I ask this with the utmost respect: Can I tap that ass?”

Mr. Black then introduced Mr. Jarmusch by reciting a list of things he imagined the Stranger Than Paradise ‘s dark director might say at a dinner party: “Do you know what this salad reminds me of? Death.” And: “I bet Tom Waits would love this salsa.”

“Tom Waits would love this salsa,” said the lemon-haired Mr. Jarmusch as he presented an award to Steve Buscemi, whom he said he remembered waving to from the back of a fire truck when the two men lived in the East Village in the early 80′s and Mr. Buscemi was part of Engine Company No. 55 in Little Italy.

As tends to happen at the Gothams, which purport to celebrate bare-bones, gritty New York filmmaking, a lot of the clips from Mr. Buscemi’s reel were from Adam Sandler movies.

“If one more 9-year-old calls me ‘Crazy Eyes,’” said Mr. Buscemi after thanking Mr. Sandler, in reference to the character he played in Mr. Deeds . “What, he couldn’t have named him ‘Normal Eyes’ or something?”

Mr. Buscemi kicked off the inside-baseball vibe of the Gothams by joking: “I know what we all thought when we saw Stranger Than Paradise : sellout!”

In case you missed it, Mr. Jarmusch’s esoteric 1983 film about a hipster New Yorker and his Hungarian cousin was not exactly Mr. Deeds . Mr. Buscemi went on to plant the evening firmly in familiarly incestuous ground, thanking practically every member of New York’s film-and-theater underground cabal: Nick Zedd, Sara Driver, Willem Dafoe and Liz LeComte, Stanley Tucci, the Coen brothers and even the late Joe Strummer.

The cartoon-voiced, puggy Mr. Buscemi, who was in a blue-collared shirt, purple tie and black jacket, said that he was nervous while accepting his award.

“Not just about this-about everything,” he said. “[President George] Bush and [French President Jacques] Chirac have this big meeting tomorrow. I can’t stop thinking about it. I keep thinking that Bush is going to be influencing him in subtle ways-like playing ‘My Way’ on the stereo.”

Mr. Buscemi’s imagined political scenario went on to include an image of Dick Cheney dressed as a waiter, telling Mr. Chirac that he should pick from “Italian, ranch or freedom” salad dressings, before he announced that because his father was in the audience, he would “lay off the Bush stuff.” (Tell that to William H. Macy.)

Later, Mr. Black returned to the stage and, when faced with introducing actress Naomi Watts, recited a poem: “Naomi Watts, you rock / You’re smart and saucy / My second-favorite Aussie / Behind the guy from Men at Work.”

Ms. Watts introduced Focus Features co-president David Linde, who was fêted with a reel of clips with congratulations from people like his Focus partner James Schamus, former Good Machine partner Ted Hope and Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola-who cryptically said, “He’s been like a father to me all these years”-as well as clips from his movies, including Lost in Translation , Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , The Ice Storm and The Pianist .

American Splendor co-directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini won one of the only two competitive prizes of the evening, the Open Palm award. In their speech, they said that they had left New York after Sept. 11 to film their movie, and that they had at the time “wondered if it would still be here when we returned.”

“And our movie opened on the day of the blackout,” said Ms. Berman, “and so we are bookended by New York disasters.”

They also have a movie with Oscar aspirations: for their screenplay and Paul Giamatti’s performance, though he would be competing in the lead-actor category against Bill Murray. One of their fellow competitors for the Open Palm award was another long-shot Oscar hopeful-Peter Hedges, whose screenplay for his directorial debut, Pieces of April , is being talked about for an Oscar.

Mr. Baldwin next took the stage to suck up long and hard to Mr. Pressman, recalling that the “man who launched the career of the future governor of California” by producing Conan the Barbarian with Arnold Schwarzenegger “would do anything to get a film made,” remembering a call he got one day from Mr. Pressman, who was drinking at 5 p.m. at a place called Whiskey-A-Go-Go with Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara.

“Whiskey-A-Go-Go at 5 o’clock in the afternoon in Los Angeles with Abel. That is a suicide run right there,” said Mr. Baldwin, referring to Mr. Ferrara’s fabled tippling prowess.

In his introduction to the director and producer team James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, Mr. Black joked that they would soon try to update their image by making How to Lose a Guy in a Fortnight and by casting Dame Judi Dench in a shot-by-shot remake of Jackass .

Mr. Ivory then took the stage and gave a thorough introduction to actress Glenn Close, instructing his partner, Mr. Merchant: “Ismail, you can say something later.”

Ms. Close’s film reel played to the tune of “With One Look,” the glass-shatterer from her onstage run as Norma Desmond in the musical Sunset Boulevard , and featured one inexplicably long clip of the actress as a dung-covered Cruella DeVil in Disney’s 101 Dalmations .

A scene from Fatal Attraction in which Ms. Close’s character, Alex Forrest, asks Michael Douglas’ character whether he expects her to like being treated like someone who can be dropped after one night of passion received a smattering of applause from the boozy audience, and it again became clear that the world is divided between people who believe that Alex had a point and those that don’t. (That is: between women and men.)

After the reel played, Mr. Merchant made everything more mysterious by stepping up to the mike and offering “the congratulations of the 1.1 billion people of India to the goddess of cinema.”

A poodle-haired Ms. Close then made the final speech of the night, thanking her friend and World According to Garp co-star, Mary Beth Hurt, who recently swam the Hudson River-yuck!-and her agent, Kevin Huvane of CAA.

After some fairly standard drama-school theory about how good acting is about reflecting and she’s had incredible reflections and reflectors, Ms. Close got down to the real nuts and bolts of being an eccentric diva by thanking her dogs.

“I’ve forgotten all these people-and my dogs,” sputtered the actress. “God, anyone who has dogs knows what they bring to your life. Gosh, our house is full of them! And when I brought Petey”-who played Flaubert the dog in Merchant-Ivory’s Le Divorce -”to the set of The Stepford Wives , we had everyone playing fetch.”

And so concluded the Gotham Awards, an event that remains unscripted, unpolished, increasingly fancy and determinedly nerdy.

As the crowd rushed out the door to openly paw through their gift bags-a rarer and rarer commodity these days-bow-tied professor- cum –Focus Features co-president James Schamus was being whisked through the scrum by Ms. Watts. The excitement on his face fought awkwardly with his professorial demeanor as he passed a friend shouting, “We’re going to Bungalow 8!”