By William Wolf


In accepting the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s 44th Chaplin Award at the Society’s annual gala last night (May 8, 2017) at the David H. Koch Theater, Robert De Niro blasted Trump administration budget plans to take away funding from various arts organizations. De Niro was eloquent in making his point.

Citing the importance of art, he lauded the long line of Chaplin award recipients before him for their contributions to art, and especially cited the art of Charlie Chaplin, the Society’s first recipient and the man for whom the annual award has been named. Taking a dig at President Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, he pointed out the Chaplin came here as an immigrant “who probably wouldn’t pass today’s extreme vetting.” He expressed hope that “we are not keeping out the next Chaplin.”

De Niro also mocked the administration’s excuse for cutting arts funds--that they were supposedly just going to “the rich liberal elite.” The audience then erupted with applause when he said, “This is what they now call an alternative fact.` I call it what it is—bullshit.”

De Niro wryly lauded the annual Film Society of Lincoln Center’s annual film festival as “my favorable uptown festival.” De Niro, of course, has been a prime force in establishing the ongoing Tribeca Film Festival downtown. There was generosity with respect to the Tribeca event expressed during the gala that raised funds for the New York Film Festival that occurs every Fall. Film festivals in the same city inevitably compete in raising money.

In keynoting the evening, Ann Tenenbaum, Chairman of the Board of the Film Society, announced that $1.7 million had been raised by the gala to support the Society’s work.

During the salute to De Niro an array of clips from the many films he has made were shown, some emphasizing his tough guy and dramatic roles, others reflecting his comedies. Some were keyed to his working with the assembled notables who spoke in his honor.

Among the speakers were Michael Douglas, Whoopi Goldberg, Barry Levinson, Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, Ben Stiller, Harvey Keitel and Meryl Streep. All were lavish in their praise for De Niro as an actor and as a person.

Penn, for example, told how when he first saw De Niro on screen, it made him forget about his initial idea of directing films to wanting to become an actor. Several speakers had stories to tell about working together on films. Streep, who was honored in 2008 with the Chaplin Award, was effusive in her praise, and looking up at De Niro seated in a box, said “I love you.”

The honor of presenting the award to De Niro fell to Martin Scorsese, himself a Chaplin Award honoree, who had elaborated upon working with De Niro and on their long-time friendship. De Niro had to pause before he spoke after he was introduced as there was a huge ovation from the packed theater. Some were only attending the awards ceremony, others went to a post-Gala dinner.

The more than 100 films in which De Niro appeared have included such especially well known ones as “Taxi Driver,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Raging Bull,” “Analyze This,” “Goodfellas,” “A Bronx Tale,” “The King of Comedy," "The Little Fockers” and ensuing “Fockers” comedies.

Recipients of the Chaplin Award since Charlie Chaplin was honored in 1972 have included such famous film stars and directors as Fred Astaire, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Laurence Olivier, Federico Fellini, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Gregory Peck, Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, Sean Connery, Mike Nichols, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford and Morgan Freeman.

I’ve been attending an reviewing these galas since the start, and it as been gratifying to see the parade of the honorees over the years. The first award to Chaplin was thrilling because it marked his return to the United States after staying abroad for 20 years, since when as he left for Europe in 1952, he was told he would not be welcomed back until he proved his moral turpitude. He had been broadly criticized as a result of a paternity suit, but the basic reason was for the political bent of his latter films and his support of left-wing causes.

In advance of his return, I had gone to his home in Switzerland to interview him, as he said he would not be giving interviews in the United States. He told me, “I’m going to America, I like America and I’m prepared to be shot.” Instead he was honored as a returning hero. Subsequent to his being celebrated by the Film Society of Lincoln Center he was awarded an honorary Oscar in Hollywood. Posted May 9, 2017.


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