Notes From Under the Red Carpet at the Gotham Awards

11/30/2011 10:27 am ET | Updated Jan 30, 2012

Are the only folks who are not celebrity gawkers the celebs themselves? As I emerge from the subway's Wall Street exit, there they are, a gaggle of gawkers, penned and contained, hoping to see, to photograph, to breathe the same air as ... who? Sean Durkin? Carrie Maclemore? And must they be fenced off? They're not saber-toothed tigers. Once inside, it's a scarcely different scene around the red carpet. Thank you for not stepping over this line, a handler says. Is she afraid I'll try to tweeze Zachary Quinto's eyebrows?

The occasion is The Gotham Independent Film Awards at Cipriani Wall Street. Loosey-goosey and festive, the event not only kicks off awards season -- its awards are often a bellwether for bigger trophies down the pike come Oscar night. Hurt Locker won here first before going on to nab the big one. Most of the public, of course, could probably care less about awards "season," taking notice only on Oscar night. But for industry types it's a big deal since there's money involved -- and some big fat Hollywood egos; the filmmakers garner much-deserved recognition; and we critics are caught up willy-nilly in the frenzy, most hoping it will soon be over, thank you very much.

Cipriani Wall Street is a cavernous space that evokes nothing so much as a mega bank and seems somewhat at odds with the spirit of the chronically money-starved world of indie film. How odd, I reflect, that with the economy in a shambles and American society in crisis, the films being honored tonight don't reflect this. Exception is JC Chandor's exceptionally stylish, but morally wishy-washy Margin Call.

There appear to be THOUSANDS of guests pouring into the $1000 a plate fete. I recognize few people and those I do don't deign to recognize me. One fellow has so perfected the art of gazing right through you, you have to pat yourself down to ascertain that you are, in fact, here.

Much of the crowd has concluded that the best way to play this event is to get roaring drunk. No problem, since the entrance is flanked with a phalanx of servers bearing trays of Bellinis. Other guests are putting away entire mugs of vodka from a Russian sponsor. A bar girl totters around on stilettos in a teensy dress-let and giant fur cap with flaps like people wear in front of the Kremlin.

I sidle up to a guy with a big goofy smile whom I saw being interviewed on one of the giant TV screens around the place. He turns out to be Mike Mills, director/writer of Beginners. Later in the evening the film will win -- or rather, be tied for Best Film -- along with Terence Malick's Tree of Life. Beginners features the divine Christopher Plummer, which makes it automatically a must-see. It's also cool that two films got the nod, likely because they can't be compared. Beginners is a family drama and Tree of Life is ... well, I defy anyone out there to say. Maybe call it a conversation with God? And unbeatably gorgeous thanks to genius DP Emmanuel Lubezki.

The start of dinner is almost the most spectacular, grandly choreographed moment of the evening. Legions of servers march from the kitchen bearing dinner plates, an endless stream fanning out and occupying the room, it could have been an f/x effect. What's actually on those plates is hard to determine, but after three Bellinis it doesn't much matter.

Emcees Edie Falco and Oliver Platt take the stage, looking mucho uncomfortable, grimacing at their own jokes as they fell flat. Meanwhile a steady hum persists as half the room goes on with their conversations. Jim Jarmusch and Ang Lee deliver tributes to Tom Rothman. Rothman is CEO of Fox, has produced an extraordinary lineup of films, from Black Swan to Titantic, and has bangs. He's also a great supporter of indies. "All great filmmakers are independent," he says. I can't get over the fact that people were jawing away while the sublime Ang Lee was giving his tribute.

When it comes his turn to present, Stanley Tucci is pretty blunt: "No one's listening, they're all talking away and completely drunk," he says to no one in particular. Award for Breakthrough Actor goes to Felicity Jones for Crazy Love, though in my view it should have gone to Brit Marling in Another World.

Charlize Theron, tapped for a tribute, looks to be 6-foot and wears her hair tucked into a band like she's ready to clean house. It seems unfair that God gave someone such a beautiful face and talent, and then even added non-sag boobs. "I had to get naked with him," she laughs. She's hugging Patton Oswalt, her co-star in Young Adult, who comes to her armpit and calls himself a bridge troll.

"This is very sweet," says David Cronenberg, whose personal magnetism has quieted the house. "All artists think at some point think they're fraudulent." he says, going psychological on us -- maybe the influence of Freud and Jung from his new film A Dangerous Method. "I've tried to sell out to Wall Street, to the studios, to the money men -- but it's never worked out. As Sartre would have said, I'm condemned to be free." A woman is twittering away in the Ladies. "Did you hear that? He said I'm here because I'm a failure."

As Gary Oldman takes the podium, I decide to circulate and test out if I can walk. Images of Oldman are projected all around, but the ambient noise is starting up again. One guy at a front table is talking as if he's in an ear splitting restaurant. On the number 2 train home I decide the evening's Charm Award goes to the affable and very handsome Alexander Payne. And also to Ang Lee's assistant, a man of exquisite manners. When you arrive for an interview with Lee, his assistant bows, smiles, and makes you tea. He's like an emissary from a vanished world.