Leonardo DiCaprio, left, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone pose with the Gotham historical icon and creator tribute for "Killers of the Flower Moon," at the Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street, Monday, Nov. 27, 2023, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
NEW YORK — Celine Song’s wistful romance “Past Lives” earned top honors at the Gotham Awards on Monday evening at an award-season kickoff where the night’s biggest drama came in a political speech by Robert De Niro that the actor claimed had been edited without his permission.
“Past Lives,” a breakout at the Sundance Film Festival in January and an arthouse hit in June for A24, may be poised to be an Oscar sleeper this year after winning best feature film at the Gothams. Affection is strong for Song’s directorial debut, starring Greta Lee as a woman born in Seoul who, after marrying an American (John Magaro), reconnects with a childhood friend from South Korea (Teo Yoo).
“This is the first film I’ve ever made and a very personal film about an extraordinary feeling I had in an ordinary bar in the East Village, not too many blocks away from here,” said Song, accepting the award. “As this film has been shared with the world, it has taught me — and taught us — that you’re never alone in that extraordinary feeling.”
“Past Lives” was expected to win, but the ceremony went off-script when De Niro, co-star in Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon,” took the podium to present a tribute award to the film. While giving his remarks, De Niro noticed a section had been omitted on the teleprompter. After attempting to scroll back through, he completed his speech before returning to read from his phone.
“The beginning of my speech was edited, cut out,” De Niro said. “I didn’t know about it.”
De Niro, known for his fiery rhetoric against former President Donald Trump, then expanded on what he called America’s “post-truth society” and chided Hollywood — specifically John Wayne — for earlier depictions of Native Americans.
“The former president lied to us more than 30,000 times during his four years in office, and he’s keeping up the pace with his current campaign of retribution,” De Niro said. “With all of his lies, he can’t hide his soul. He attacks the weak, destroys the gifts of nature and shows his disrespect for example using Pocahontas as a slur.”
De Niro seemed to blame Apple, which produced “Killers of the Flower Moon,” for the changes to his speech.
“So I’m going to say these things — to Apple and thank them, all that. Gothams. Blah blah blah. Apple. But I don’t really feel like thanking them at all for what they did,” said De Niro. “How dare they do that, actually.”
Apple didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment late Monday evening.
It was still a big night for Scorsese’s epic, about the Osage murders in the early 20th century, even though Scorsese unexpectedly wasn’t in attendance. Lily Gladstone, who stars in the film opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, won for best lead performance — though not for that performance.
Gladstone won for a lesser-known film released earlier in 2023: “The Unknown Country,” in which stars as a woman embarking on a road trip though the Midwest. In each of her speeches — for “Killers of the Flower Moon” and “The Unknown Country” — Gladstone praised the filmmakers for prioritizing Native perspectives.
“I challenge everybody in this room who makes films: Invest. When you have a budget, invest it in the people,” said Gladstone. “Invest in the people that you’re telling your story about. Your film will be better for it. Your lives will be better for it.”
The Gotham Awards, now in their 33rd year, leapfrog most of the major ceremonies that lead up to the Academy Awards. But over time, they’ve established themselves as the first big party of the season, and an early hint at some of the favorites.
Put on by the Gotham Film & Media Institute and held annually at Cipriani Wall Street, the Gothams have some quirks that make them different than other awards. Prizes are chosen by small committees of film professionals, critics and journalists. Their acting categories are also gender neutral, with 10 actors nominated for lead performance, and another 10 up for supporting performances.
This year, one of the most competitive categories was best international film. There, Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning courtroom drama “Anatomy of a Fall” triumphed over the likes of “Poor Things,” “All of Us Strangers” and “The Zone of Interest.” Triet’s film also won for best screenplay.
Andrew Haigh’s tender metaphysical drama “All of Us Strangers,” starring Andrew Scott as a screenwriter cast back into his childhood while developing a relationship with a neighbor (Paul Mescal), had come into the Gothams as the lead nominee with four nods, but went home without a trophy.
The Gothams this year removed a $35 million budget cap for nominees, but many big-budget films still opted not to submit themselves. The monthslong Screen Actors Guild strike meant awards season got off to a slower start, but one of the early questions is if anything can rival those diametrically opposed summer sensations of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer.”
Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie of “Barbie” were among the numerous tribute awards. In their joint speech, Gerwig said her partner, Noah Baumbach, found out he was co-writing the movie with her from a Variety article that cited them both. He sent the article to Gerwig with just a question mark, she said.
“Then he wrote back: ‘It’s OK, we’ll make each other laugh,'” added Gerwig.
Best supporting performance went to Charles Melton of Todd Haynes’ “May December.” He plays a young father who first began his relationship with his wife (Julianne Moore) when he was a minor.
A.V. Rockwell, whose directorial debut “A Thousand and One” stars Teyana Taylor as a single mother, won for breakthrough director. She noted all of her fellow nominees were women. “It’s a fight just to get here,” she said.
“Just to be frank, it is very hard to tell a culturally specific story when you look like this,” said Rockwell.
Best documentary went to Kaouther Ben Hania’s Tunisian film “Four Daughters,” a true story about a Tunisian women with two daughters who became radicalized. The film reconstructs their disappearance.
In the TV categories, the Netflix series “Beef,” starring Steven Yeun and Ali Wong as a pair locked in a feud after a road rage incident, won for both breakthrough series under 40 minutes and for Wong’s performance.
“If you haven’t seen ‘Beef’ yet, I swear it’s more than me and Steven crying.” Wong said.
Tribute awards ensured that some star power hit the Gothams stage. They were given to: Bradley Cooper, the director, star and co-writer of “Maestro”; Ben Affleck, the director and co-star of “Air”; George C. Wolfe, the director of “Rustin”; and Michael Mann, the director of “Ferrari.”
Affleck, however, wasn’t in attendance. The film’s screenwriter, Alex Convery, instead accepted the award.
“Well, you thought you were getting Ben Affleck,” said Convery. “Sorry.”
The Gothams have a checkered history of forecasting future awards glory. Last year, it was the first win in what became a runaway Oscar campaign for “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” and where Ke Huy Quan’s supporting-actor bid got its start. The year before that, Gotham winner “The Lost Daughter” faded on the campaign trail, but 2020-winner “Nomadland” went the distance to the Academy Awards.
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