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In Praise of Armond White, the Hilarious Renegade Critic who Heckled Steve McQueen

January 7, 2014  |  12:55pm
In Praise of Armond White, the Hilarious Renegade Critic who Heckled Steve McQueen

Armond White is the editor of CityArts, a New York City culture review, and last night he caused quite a stir at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards when he took it upon himself to berate Steve McQueen in front of the entire audience.

Yes, you read that correctly. According to Variety and numerous other sources, White was sitting in the back of the room when McQueen took the stage to receive the best director prize for the critically acclaimed 12 Years A Slave. What happened next is the stuff of heckling legend. Per Variety:

As soon as McQueen took the stage, White started shouting from his table at the back of the room. “You’re an embarrassing doorman and garbage man,” White boomed. “F—you. Kiss my ass.”

McQueen either didn’t hear the comments or pretended not to. He thanked the critics group for honoring him with an award previously given to John Ford and Woody Allen, at which point White hissed “pulease.”

I’m nearly speechless. “You’re a doorman and garbage man” is some top-notch shit-talking, and I’m not even sure what it means. And whether you agree or disagree with his take on the film (personally, like almost everyone else, I thought 12 Years was really good), you have to admit that White has some serious cojones.

As it happens, White is a notorious gadfly who spreads intrigue both in person and in print. He has a habit of panning critically revered films, and in his original review of 12 Years, he compared it to “torture porn” and labeled it a “dud of the week.” If nothing else, the man is consistent. (Note: I highly recommend reading the whole review, which contains gems like, “Steve McQueen’s post-racial art games and taste for cruelty play into cultural chaos. The story in 12 Years a Slave didn’t need to be filmed this way and I wish I never saw it.”)

Still, though, taking on McQueen in that forum, as he’s about to receive an award? That’s a calculated move guaranteed to elicit nothing but rage and recrimination. To stage such a confrontation, in the most public setting possible, is at least a little bit epic. In a batshit way, sure, but that only adds to the hilarity.

Dig a bit deeper, though, and it turns out this is only the tip of the Armond White iceberg. The man is combative, tireless and totally fearless. They actually let him host the awards show in 2011 (he was chairman at the time, but still, bad move!), and the results, as recorded by Vulture the next day, are incredible. A few choice highlights:

—White repeatedly made it clear that he disagreed with the NYFCC’s decisions, which made everyone uncomfortable. When he had to introduce the presenter who was set to give Annette Bening the Best Actress award, he talked about her performance in Mother and Child instead of The Kids Are All Right, which he hated. Gawker reported that the whole ordeal made Bening cry.

—White had panned Black Swan that year, and director Darren Aronofsky used his time on stage to strike back at White: “Keep it up, because you give all of us another reason not to read the New York Press,” he said. “Hey, my only chance to have revenge against this guy, and now it’s done. I’m sorry.” After his speech, White took the stage with his retort ready: “That’s all right. Darren reads me. That’s all I want. And because he reads me, he knows the truth.”

—When he introduced Michelle Williams to present an award to Mark Ruffalo, he rattled off some passive-aggressive praise for her work in a 2004 film, which everyone took as a “deliberate snub” of her role in Blue Valentine. Williams was nonplussed: “Um, thanks, that was, like, ten years ago. I’m not going to read any of your reviews of my other work because you really had to reach.”

—When introducing Tony Kushner, who was presenting the award for Best Picture, he unleashed one of his best zingers of the night: “Surely, Kushner, whose great play, Angels in America, showed how spiritual and social connections transformed lust and envy to family, friends, and country, has a moral responsibility to explain why The Social Network is good.”

—This closing paragraph is pure gold and needs to be experienced verbatim: “Throughout the evening, as many of the presenters and winners cringed and some openly jeered him, White kept a condescending grin plastered on his face that seemed to pity the poor deluded film illiterates. The evening ended with a few hisses at his final swipe (“I thank the circle for not awarding a single award to Greenberg”), but then relief set in that this was White’s last year as chairman, and therefore, as host.”

A year later, relegated from chairman of the NYFCC to a participating member, he still managed to ruffle feathers by heckling Robert De Niro and Viola Davis, shouting “The Good Shepherd!” at the former and “Ethel Waters!” at the latter. It seems these references were positive; he loved the 2006 De Niro film, and Waters was the second African-American woman to be nominated for an Academy Award. Still, you have to laugh at the timing, which is anything but appropriate.

So it seems that White is the Ignatius J. Reilly of the New York film scene, and I, for one, am glad to have such an eccentric iconoclast around. I look forward to his next incident, and I only hope he can top himself.

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