"Spotlight," Tom McCarthy's look at the journalistic expose of the Catholic-church sex scandal, was the big winner at the Gotham Awards on Monday night, taking the top honor of best feature as well as best screenplay and a special jury ensemble performance prize.
"This one is very special because so many real people are affected by the words that [were written]" said Michael Sugar, a "Spotlight" producer, in accepting best feature.
An exercise in investigation and reconstruction, McCarthy and his co-writer, Josh Singer, spent years with the Boston Globe journalists who investigated the early-2000s scandal to craft their tale.
"A screenplay is only as good as the people you collaborate with," McCarthy said after receiving the screenplay honor, turning the attention back to the acting ensemble (it includes Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo) and the journalists whose stories he drew from.
Also scoring big wins Monday were Paul Dano, who won best actor for playing one of two roles as the musician Brian Wilson in "Love & Mercy," and Bel Powley, who notched a best actress win for her role as a teenager discovering her sexuality in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl." The films have a few elements in common; each is a period movie about slices of California culture, and both were festival darlings that garnered niche appeal in commercial release.
An East Coast equivalent of Los Angeles' Spirit Awards, the Gothams are billed as one of the first major film-award ceremonies of the year. Though there is not a lot of overlap between the Gothams, whose major winners are decided by small and eclectic juries, and the Oscars, the latter's penchant for indie fare in recent years has bolstered the Gothams' profile. Last year, "Birdman" took best feature at the Gothams before going on to win the best picture Oscar.
Monday's event was hosted by Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer of the cult series "Broad City." The performers kicked off the Gothams by noting the whiteness of the 11 lead acting nominees. "You guys can open up a Williams Sonoma," Jacobson said.
Stealing the evening, however, were the two leads in a Web series called "Shugs and Fats," which won a newly created prize for breakthrough series-short form. The fish-out of water story is described on the pair's website as "two Hijabis on a quest to reconcile their long-held cultural beliefs with a new life in 'liberated' Brooklyn."
"Women like us don't thank our families," said Shugs as the pair took the podium dressed in modest if colorful garb. "We ran away from our families to be here tonight," volleyed Fats.
The speech also featured the line: "We can use this to beat Donald Trump," as an award was brandished. Trump proved the gift that kept on giving, figuring into the jibes of multiple presenters and winners and even becoming a running joke in a speech by Rosie Perez.
Monday's proceedings also saw a number of lifetime achievement awards handed out, including to Robert Redford; "Spotlight" producer Stevie Golin; "Carol" director Todd Haynes; and Helen Mirren. Mirren offered one of the more eloquent speeches of the night, paying tribute to the written word in her remarks.
"I don't really understand what's brought me to this place," she said, "but I do know it has a lot to do with writers."
The actress , who stars as Hedda Hopper in Hollywood Blacklist tale "Trumbo," thanked writers who "have opened the door for me" and implored the audience to "stand behind them when they're threatened with silence by any chicken ...political censorship."
She also took the opportunity to lobby for freedom on behalf of the poet Ashraf Fayadh in Saudi Arabia. "He has been sentenced to death for his thoughtfulness," she said.
The event took an additional topical dimension as "Tangerine," Sean Baker's trans-themed story, won audience and acting prizes. Accepting the breakthrough actor award for Mya Taylor, Baker said, "My hope is that the industry embraces Mya and embraces Kiki," referring to another of the film's stars.
"They've proven there is trans talent out there. We just have to look."
And in receiving the best documentary prize for "The Look of Silence," Joshua Oppenheimer's second film about the aftermath of the Indonesian mass-killings of the 1960s, a producer of the film noted that its story was a real-life version of "The Man In The High Castle," the fictional series about Nazi-occupied America currently streaming on Amazon.
The Amazon reference was a charged one. The film world has been buffeted by an onslaught of high-quality television, and the Gothams this year sought to expand the definition of film content in response.
Organizers created the breakthrough series prizes and handed the USA dramatic thriller series "Mr. Robot" the award in the long form subcategory.
But the night ultimately belonged to "Spotlight." If nothing else, the multiple prizes were a run-through of sorts for future award-show appearances, a chance for recipients to try out and hone their material. Twin themes emerged over the course of the evening--the importance of honoring the survivors of the abuse and the dedication of the journalists and actors who brought their story to light.
"To get one actor to do a selfless and self-subjugated performance is incredibly rare," Ruffalo said in accepting the special jury prize. "To have a whole group of actors do it is a freaking miracle."