Three groups haven't agreed since 'List'

During the annual awards race, three top critics organizations have demonstrated the most heft in pushing their fillies toward the Oscar finish line: the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the National Society of Film Critics.

Such recent Oscar champs as Marcia Gay Harden, Benicio Del Toro and Hilary Swank partly owe their golden boys to those orgs. Historically, the groups can no doubt take some credit for dozens of best pic victories, dating back to “The Lost Weekend,” the NYFCC’s top choice of 1945.

“We critics are explorers on the fringe,” says Gotham circle member Jack Mathews, a N.Y. Daily News scribe. “We discover new talent and new trends in filmmaking and we get them on the Oscar radar screen.”

But who belongs to these critics orgs and, geography aside, how do they differ?

The Gotham group is by far the oldest and most esteemed. It was formed in 1935 when the town’s newspaper scribes banded together to challenge the growing clout of the infant Oscars, which were born on America’s other coast in 1929. The group reigned unrivaled until 1966, when N.Y.’s magazine writers revolted against the circle’s policy of excluding non-newspaper critics and, in an explosion of chutzpah, claimed transcontinental dominion by forming the National Society of Film Critics. The critics in America’s film capital, Los Angeles, didn’t jump into the quickly crowding derby until 1975.

Today the three groups have notably different identities.

Cutting edge of cool

“The (NSFC) is deeply invested in being hipper than the other groups,” insists member Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We get behind underknown or underseen movies and, yes, many of our choices can be called elitist. We’re not afraid of subtitles.”

The society, in fact, is notorious for flirting with foreign-lingo films — especially ones directed by Ingmar Bergman. Three were voted best pic during the 1960s and ’70s: “Persona,” “Shame” and “Scenes From a Marriage.” Last year in a characteristic stroke of arcanum, the society embraced Taiwan’s “Yi-Yi.”

The society’s 55 members include such notable scribes as Kenneth Turan (L.A. Times), Elvis Mitchell (New York Times), Mike Clark (USA Today) and Todd McCarthy (Variety). It’s the only one of the three orgs that doesn’t hold a kudos bash — its award scrolls are mailed to the winners — and it has the least Oscar impact because winners are announced in early January.

Sixteen society members also belong to the 38-member Gotham circle, but the latter org claims many major critics exclusively, including Stephen Holden (N.Y. Times), Leah Rozen (People), Thelma Adams (Us Weekly) and the New York Daily News’ Mathews.

Adams, a former circle chair, describes the group thus: “We pride ourselves on being edgier, riskier, meatier. We’re not fluff.”

Just like the society, the Gotham circle has embraced foreign-lingo fare (“Day for Night,” “Cries and Whispers”), plus such big-coin earners as “Saving Private Ryan” and “GoodFellas.” In general, however, it tends to favor English-language indies such as “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Topsy-Turvy” and “Traffic.”

East-west rivals

Since many of its choices are considered more Oscar-friendly than the society’s, the circle’s chief rival in the kudos derby is the LAFCA, which has successfully backed such fillies as “Rocky,” “Amadeus” and “Kramer vs. Kramer.” To its credit, the circle can probably take credit for pushing more than a dozen Oscar pic winners, including “Tom Jones,” “In the Heat of the Night” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” The showdown between the two orgs gets fierce, especially around Dec. 10-17, when they jockey to be the first out of the gate with their winners.

The Angelenos can be edgy in their choices, too, picking such arthouse fare as “Secrets and Lies” and “Little Dorrit” as best pics. Last year they opted for their first subtitled choice, Taiwan’s “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

What distinguishes the L.A. group is its fearlessness in gobbling up popcorn pics like “Star Wars” or “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial” and in facing down the studios to get behind little films that need a push. In 1985, it named “Brazil” best pic in order to force Universal to release director Terry Gilliam’s untampered, original cut and, when Louis Malle’s “Atlantic City” tanked during its initial limited release in 1981, its best pic laurel made Paramount reissue it with Oscar trumpets blaring.

It’s 53 members include such popular critics as Leonard Maltin (“Entertainment Tonight,” Playboy) and Joe Morgenstern (Wall Street Journal) to freelancers for Variety and the L.A. Weekly.

Temper tantrums

The headstrong nature of all three groups can cause sparks — and even fists — to fly. Before debate and boozing were outlawed during voting sessions in the 1980s and, in the case of the National Society of Film Critics, the 1990s, contretemps got so heated that a N.Y. Times reporter suffered a heart attack during a society powwow in 1975.

“There can be considerable rancor and envy at these events,” admits NSFC member Rickey. “Imagine a room full of contrarians — lots of magnets repelling each other.”

“The final decisions are a matter of compromise,” Adams adds. “It’s very rare that everybody gets behind one movie. Usually, there are two or three major contenders and often what wins is that third we-can-all-live-with-it film.”

Sometimes, however, their compromises live on in infamy, as has the circle’s 1998 actress choice of Cameron Diaz for “There’s Something About Mary.”

But circle member Jack Mathews maintains that the groups make many valuable contributions to the kudos derby. “Most of the little movies would never get noticed if we didn’t cast our spotlight on them.”

Tom O’Neil is the author of Variety’s “Movie Awards” and host of the awards Web site http://www.goldderby.com.

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