Lisa Schwarzbaum reveals what really goes on when the press meets to pick their favorites

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated December 18, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Tom Hanks, Cast Away
Credit: Hanks: Francois Duhamel

Why Tom Hanks won the New York Critics award

It was inevitable, perhaps, that some wag among us in the New York Film Critics Circle would nominate the volleyball in ”Cast Away” (opening Dec. 22) as Best Supporting Actor. We were behind closed doors on a windy Wednesday morning in Midtown Manhattan, voting on candidates for the awards we’ll bestow this year at a January banquet. We were aware of the weight of cinema history on our hunched shoulders; we knew our decisions would affect Oscar campaigns and ticket sales for days, yea, hours to come.

We needed to be as scholarly as CNN’s Jeff Greenfield, as snappy as Justice Antonin Scalia, and as resourceful in promoting what we loved (and blocking what we didn’t) as the Florida State Legislature. We felt the eyes of an army of campaign strategists on us as we spent long minutes in close argument: Do we consider Laura Linney as a leading actress in ”You Can Count On Me” (now playing in New York and L.A.) or as a supporting actress in ”The House of Mirth” (which opens Dec. 22 in New York and L.A.)? Is ”Battlefield Earth” the worst film of the year or in the entire history of the movies?

Having voted (in an extremely close race) to give Tom Hanks the award as Best Actor for his role as a stranded FedEx guy in ”Cast Away,” then, it was logical to consider further: Was ”Wilson,” as the castaway named his inanimate volleyball friend, any less silent than Justice Clarence Thomas during recent Supreme Court hearings? No. Did Wilson look any worse for wear than Robert Downey Jr. — so beautiful in ”Wonder Boys” — at the time of his most recent arrest? No. Would we prefer Wilson’s understated performance to that of Gary Oldman’s over the top foaming as a conservative legislator in ”The Contender”? Yes.

Of course, probity and high standards prevailed — and Wilson didn’t survive the first round of voting. The award for Supporting Actor went to Benicio Del Toro for his fine performance in ”Traffic” (Dec. 25, New York and L.A.). He ought to have been rewarded in 1998 for his even more exciting work in ”Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” but Terry Gilliam’s great, tumultuous, trippy adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s 1971 book was, as NYFCC members like to say, outrageously undervalued and foolishly panned.

Other awards went to Laura Linney in ”You Can Count On Me” (Best Actress), Marcia Gay Harden in ”Pollock” (Best Supporting Actress), ”Yi Yi” (Best Foreign Language Picture), ”Traffic” (Best Picture), and Steven Soderbergh for ”Traffic” and ”Erin Brockovich” (Best Director).

Why didn’t the Best Picture award go to ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” — which, according to a yearlong analysis of EW’s Critical Mass, tied with ”You Can Count On Me” as the Grade A movie of the year? Glad you asked. Chief Justice Rehnquist might not be talking, but my analysis is that the majority of learned members of the NYFCC punished the picture (the only award it received was for Peter Pau’s cinematography) for the very reasons that it has been so well reviewed already; that it’s bound to win awards from other associations of non- New York critics; and that audiences already love it, so it doesn’t need the NYFCC’s help. (”Tiger” opens nationwide next month.)

This is all off the record, you understand; closed door meetings are inviolable. Say you heard it from Wilson.