Matt Damon The Martian National Board
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The National Board of Review dinner on Tuesday night in Manhattan doubled as a victory lap for an old Hollywood champ, as Sylvester Stallone was showered with multiple tributes. Early in the evening, Matt Damon—this year’s winner for best actor in “The Martian”—revealed that when he was shopping around 1997’s “Good Will Hunting,” the fact that Stallone starred in “Rocky,” after writing the screenplay, kept him from letting another actor from headlining his movie. “Believe me, they really wanted to take it away from us,” Damon said, as he credited Stallone with both his and Ben Affleck’s acting careers. He mentioned that studio executives thought, “God, Leonardo DiCaprio would be so good in this” of the screenplay he co-wrote. But, he added, “every time they said, ‘You can’t do this,’ we said, ‘It’s been done before.’”

Then came Stallone’s award for best supporting actor for “Creed.” Director Ryan Coogler took the stage with a sprawling introduction to his hero—he watched Stallone growing up in all the “Rocky” movies. On the first day on the “Creed” set, Coogler was surprised to see Stallone arrive with four pages of notes for a character he’s played since 1976. “He was like a malleable piece of clay, but a piece of clay that’s been a movie star for 40-plus years,” Coogler said. He said he’s often asked how he directed Stallone. “I still don’t know. I tried to see him for who he was.”

The National Board of Review gala, where the winners are announced in advance, is always like the un-televised rehearsal dinner for the Golden Globes. Yet this year’s ceremony at Cipriani 42nd Street, held as the Oscar ballots are due in mere hours, could actually influence the Academy Awards nominations next week.

When the NBR announced “Mad Max: Fury Road” as best picture last month, the selection drew snickers around the blogosphere. But that was before the action tentpole starring Tom Hardy became the surprise darling of many critics’ groups. Director George Miller proved to be the night’s best over-sharer. He said that Nicholas Hoult, who introduced him, had been suffering from a “tummy bug” and hadn’t eaten a bite. He also offered his surprise at collecting year-end accolades. “I didn’t think we would still be talking about it,” Miller said of his epic. “Yet here we are, still in conversation. In my home, our kids called it the National Board of Woo-hoo!”

Brie Larson continued her awards streak by landing a best actress statue for “Room.” “I’ve been working since I was a kid, and watched fancy things on TV, and never thought real people go to them—I thought you were bred and born into it,” she said. “I didn’t know a girl from Sacramento could make it this far.”

Jennifer Jason Leigh, named best supporting actress for “The Hateful Eight,” called her part in the Quentin Tarantino Western the role of a lifetime. “It was freezing, the costumes weighed 100 pounds, I was covered in blood and chained to another actor for six months,” she said. “Honestly, I’ve never had more fun.”

Ridley Scott, the best director winner for “The Martian,” described his film as a drama, a comedy and an action movie all rolled into one. “I’m proud of ‘The Martian,’ because it could only be fulfilled with my special team,” he said, including the actors who “made it fly.” Jessica Chastain introduced the prolific director, as she recalled the first time she saw “Alien” as a girl. “I remember sitting in my room with that borrowed VHS,” she said. “At that young age, that film had brought a novel concept to my childhood home—there’s more than one kind of role for an actress.”

Jason Segel shared a story about meeting Jacob Tremblay from “Room,” who won the best newcomer award. The 9-year-old actor recognized him by asking: “Are you the Muppets guy?” “I told him I was and we became fast friends,” Segel said. “Later, he came back eager to introduce me to his new friend Johnny Depp. I told him I was too shy. In reality, I was worried it would look like I used a 10-year-old to meet Johnny Depp.” Tremblay’s speech had the crowd oohing. Standing on a crate, he told the audience he needed a minute. “This is my first award, and that makes me really happy,” he said. “The mind of me is so blown.” He shared the breakthrough prize with Abraham Attah from “Beasts of No Nation,” who flew in from Ghana for the ceremony. Attah noted that after the shoot, one of the producers on the film enrolled him in a private school, where he’s now studying.

Cary Fukunaga accepted the NBR’s Freedom of Expression Award for “Beasts of No Nation.” He extended his appreciation to the producers at Red Crown Productions for standing by him, even as the budget for his indie ballooned due to unexpected costs from shooting in Africa. “You allowed me to make this film without trying to destroy the vision of what we were working for,” he said. “Thanks for protecting me.”

The night wasn’t without a pair of swipes at a certain Republican frontrunner. When emcee Willie Geist brought up the Twitter feud Samuel L. Jackson was having with Donald Trump, the actor offered a quip: “I’d say f—k him, but this is a polite crowd.” Later, “Inside Out’s” Lewis Black (who voices Anger) was presenting best-animated film to director Pete Docter, and he suggested that if he’d seen the Pixar hit as a kid, he would’ve saved himself years of therapy. “I think if Donald Trump had seen this film when he was 10, he’d be a better person today,” Black said. “For those of you who didn’t applaud, I pray for your souls.”

Meanwhile, Stallone, 69, managed to cement his status as the perennial underdog in his acceptance speech. He leapt on the stage, and gave Coogler a big hug. “You are the future,” he said. “I’m the past.” He talked about his passion for story telling. “I love all artists,” he said. “As we get older, we become better actors. Quite often, the opportunity doesn’t present itself.”

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