Film Critics Circle
Nothing ever happens in January. When The New York Times squanders valuable front-page space on how long it takes to roll the closing credits for the bloated, overrated three-and-a-half-hour epic, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (nine minutes, 33 seconds), then you know New York is either on hiatus or still suffering from the world’s most humongous post-holiday hangover. On hiatus is exactly where I wish I had been on Sunday, Jan. 11, the night of the 69th annual New York Film Critics Circle Awards. Like everything else over 60, this group has good years and bad years. This year was rock-bottom. An award from the New York Film Critics Circle used to be the most powerful and prestigious of all the prizes in the overcrowded traffic jam of back-patting cinematic supermarket giveaway shows. People who thumbed their noses at the Academy Awards were always proud to accept a NYFCC award, and always said so onstage and in print. This is no longer true. Hasn’t been since the year the NYFCC named Cameron Diaz the best actress of the year. This year, more than one person present was overheard comparing this once-august event to an awards-show spoof on Saturday Night Live .
Gone are the days when I couldn’t wait to rub elbows in the cherished circle at Sardi’s with fellow members like Judith Crist, Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby, talking movies with Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Redford, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert F. Kennedy. The circus is now staged in a tacky Latin-American joint on Broadway called Noche, with gaudy purple fluorescents and three floors of plastic palm trees, where you have to take an elevator every time you want to pee. It was three hours before the ceremonies began, and by the time the elves, trolls, fairies and other assorted hobbits arrived, whole masses of tables had already headed for the exit doors. For five interminable hours, there wasn’t one minute that you didn’t want to flee. Andrew Johnston, this year’s chairman, even forgot the names of some of the members. Well, with awards like these, what’s the alternative?
I was snowbound in Connecticut this year when the voting took place, and I know from experience that a proxy is a formality that never counts. So I didn’t vote. So wrongly label my sadness and displeasure “sour grapes,” if you want. But if I had been there, I wouldn’t have voted for more than a couple of the 2003 winners. This year, I knew in advance that the new breed of young anarchists who now form the nucleus of the group were planning to boycott any film that made sense, held an audience’s interest, made money at the box office or otherwise conformed to any definition of popularity. Traditional forms of narrative filmmaking with beginnings, middles and ends are a curse to today’s deluded breed of Young Turks who call themselves critics. God forbid a movie should get financed by an industry dinosaur like MGM, Warner Brothers or Disney, cost more than the designer-bottled-water budget on a deadly bore by Lars von Trier or the Coen Brothers, or-most unforgivable sin of all-appeal to more people than the seating capacity at the torturous Film Forum! How else do you explain, in a year distinguished by magnificent camerawork, an award for “Best Cinematographer” that honors two of the ugliest and most amateurish movies of the year-the insufferable Elephant and the brain-numbing Gerry , a paralyzing snooze about two people walking through the desert without dialogue for one hour and 40 minutes that didn’t make 10 cents? Acknowledging this dubious affectation, cameraman Harris Savides said, “When I got the word that I got this award, I was bowled over.” He was not alone.
And so, when Paul Giamatti, the hamburger-faced star of American Splendor (a low-budget curiosity I couldn’t sit through without snoring), sauntered onstage to present the Best Actress award to Hope Davis (who won over Diane Keaton, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman!!), he said, “I will now be pretentious-a word I’m sure this group will understand.” The applause and laughter were understandable. Eugene Levy, who won the Best Supporting Actor nod, looked out over the critics and said, “I’m in shock-and frankly, I don’t get it. But checks have already been cut for every publication involved.”
I can remember the year the table-hopping presenters included Liza Minnelli, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and Madonna. This year, in the parade of star-studded celebrities the world was not standing in line to see, we got Daphne Rubin-Vega, Sean Astin, Andre Dubus III, Casey Affleck, Alan Rudolph and bald bandleader Paul Shaffer, the human question mark on Letterman. Huh? Is this the new critics’ equivalent of summer camp in the Poconos? O.K., maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe this is not about youth, or generation-gap ignorance, but about how the world has changed for the worse at any age. Even the young people at my table walked out. We did get one funny speech (Eugene Levy), one polished presenter who was prepared (Nora Ephron), and one class act (the beautiful, gracious and sincere Iranian actress Shohreh Aghdashloo, who won the Best Supporting Actress award for the brilliant, underrated House of Sand and Fog ). But Peter Jackson, the hairy-slob director of the indestructible Rings cycle, and Bill Murray, named Best Actor for Lost in Translation (a film nobody seems to like but critics), didn’t show up at the 69th New York Film Critics Circle Awards at all. Wherever they were, I wish they had asked me to join them.
This may be a good time to play catch-up. Photographed with all the beguiling varnish of the world-renowned painting for which it is named, Girl with a Pearl Earring is director Peter Webber’s scrupulously detailed study of the career and repressed life of 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Adapted from Tracy Chevalier’s best-selling 2000 novel, this opulent film imagines the world of Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a comely maid who will one day sit for the museum piece, and whose chaste flirtation with the great painter (well played by Colin Firth) sets off shock waves that affect every member of his household, while ripping the veil from Vermeer’s cloistered home life in a triumph of composition and light inspired by his work. The film is a sublimely incandescent study of the glorious surfaces and emotional depths of the period. When young Griet arrives in the house, she tries to maintain her equilibrium in a situation where privacy is hard to come by: The lady of the house, Catharina (Essie Davis), is demanding and perennially pregnant, and her mother, Maria (Judy Parfitt, the latest in a line of crusty Brits descending from Dame Edith Evans), is tight-fisted and implacable.
Vermeer turns to Griet as a sanctuary from domestic stress, and she responds with an awakening passion for love and art. However, their disparate backgrounds-as well as class, age and religious differences-begin to complicate their developing relationship. Nevertheless, the master asks Griet to pose for one of his canvases, arousing jealousy, resentment and ultimately fury in the internecine plots of his wife, family and even his art patron, Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), who turns out to be greedily and selfishly fixated on what Vermeer can do for him. It can be argued that the real star of Girl with a Pearl Earring is cinematographer Eduardo Serra, who nobly fleshes out director Webber’s glorious vision of the period. The composition of every frame takes the breath away like a visit to the Reijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Drawing on Vermeer’s celebrated practice of painting female subjects peering directly into the eyes of the viewer, Ms. Johansson envelops us in the maidservant’s point of view with her burnished, wide-eyed, nocturnal and full-faced beauty. Colin Firth, in a welcome about-face from his dashing, clean-cut performance in the lowbrow Love Actually , is especially subtle and touching in the forced restraint and quiet insightfulness that mask his tortured psyche. A rare and elegant film bathed in the kind of soft, delicate light that can build unexpectedly to feelings of both anxiety and bliss.
Elegant and lyrical, Barbara Carroll is a throwback to the navy blue nights in the lost, lamented after-dark decades when the cultured, well-dressed and wise ventured out to hear sophisticated music in scores of saloons, supper clubs and posh watering holes uptown and down, where a good steak was a good steak and not a slice of cocoa-dusted venison with pomegranate seeds and cucumber sorbet. Now they rush to one of those trendy, pretentious restaurants like the Biltmore Room, grab a ridiculously overpriced nosh like crab-stuffed squash blossoms with mango chili and lemongrass coconut curd with licorice (just reading the menus sends Alka-Seltzer stocks soaring), and they’re home by 11 with a Zantac 75. At the Algonquin, Barbara Carroll is determined to bring back some class.
I used to spend the midnight hours lingering over a nightcap at the Carlyle’s no longer de rigueur Bemelmans Bar, listening to this soignée mistress of the keyboard polishing, embellishing and reinventing the classic lines of Kern, Porter and Ellington with the ease and self-assurance of an architect inventing the skylines of tomorrow. But the noise and the cigar smoke were a challenge the world outgrew. Now, in the nurturing glow of the Algonquin’s famous Oak Room, she is the focus of attentive and admiring ears again. It’s more like a concert than a club date, and the surprises are nonstop. The night I dropped in to greet the cabaret New Year, she romped through the most humorous “Surrey with the Fringe on Top” I have ever heard. On the first chorus, she rollicked. On the bridge, she rocked. Throughout, she detoured on the swing highway with audacious and satisfying results. Always inventive, she used the blues-tinged big-city chords from Gershwin’s stunning Prelude in C Sharp Minor as a haunting lead-in and counter melody to Vernon Duke’s evergreen “Autumn in New York” that justifiably earned tumultuous applause and cries of “Brava!” In recent years, Ms. Carroll has dipped her dainty feet into singing-tentatively at first, then with growing relish. This time out, she seems more comfortable and actually has fun with lyrics. And-let’s face it-she couldn’t hire a better or more supportive accompanist and partner-in-rhyme than the estimable, witty and abundantly talented Jay Leonhardt on bass. Together, they investigate parallel universes of musical magic on “All in Fun” and “Nobody Else But Me” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, translate Charlie Parker sax solos, and devote a special section of the show to the underappreciated Vernon Duke, exploring rare, seldom-heard verses to “I Can’t Get Started” and jamming the Count Basie intros on “April in Paris.” Without surrendering one iota of feminine charm, this is a lady who can play astonishing arpeggios, swing in chords or undulate her sinuous way through barroom stride with equal abandon, in the styles of Bill Evans, George Shearing and Art Tatum. Best of all, she can monogram familiar standards with a personal stitch uniquely her own, which sure pays off for a singer who plays her own piano. Imagine the benefits: no hassles, no payrolls to meet, and-wonder of wonders-she plays in all of her own keys. Barbara Carroll and Jay Leonhart will play a 2 p.m. brunch show every Sunday afternoon in February and, later, an 8 p.m. Sunday dinner show. Like a buttered rum on the slopes of Aspen, this is the best New York remedy for conquering the cold of a Manhattan winter I can prescribe. The electric blanket of Barbara Carroll’s music, back when we need her most? I hope she establishes a Sunday salon at the Algonquin that lasts for years.