One of the main members of the National Board of Review — or rather the "National Board of People Who Aren't Reviewers But Pay a Membership Fee to See Films and Give Them Awards" — is a man I told you about last week, Robert Policastro. Policastro, according to my sources, is one of three people on the board of directors for the NBR who influence the voting. He, Lois Ballon and Carol Rapaport were the NBR leaders who made sure Moulin Rouge got the vote for Best Picture this year.
Unlike other awards groups, the NBR is not comprised of movie reviewers. I am told that Policastro's resume consists of one long run of employment in the restaurant field. To be specific, for many years he was the banquet manager at Tavern on the Green in Manhattan. Since 1994, the NBR has been having its annual gala awards dinner at Tavern, charging $400 per head to people who want to meet and gawk at stars.
According to the current banquet manager, Policastro was working at Tavern when he got involved with the group as a member.
Previous to Tavern handling the NBR dinner, the event was smaller in scope — a cocktail party held for a couple of years at the New York Public Library, and then at the Equitable Life Building. According to former NBR member Kevin Lewis, the catering there was provided by a company called In Good Taste. The company is owned by Ballon and Rapaport.
"Anyone who thinks that The Women is a dated play should look at the meetings of the National Board of Review," Lewis told me on Friday. "There it would be a documentary film."
Lewis wrote articles for the now defunct NBR magazine Films in Review from 1980 to 1994. He has his own long resume of credits, although none in food service. He served as curator of exhibitions at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center in the 1980s, was Special Projects Coordinator at the American Theatre Wing and at the Shubert Archive in 1991.
Lewis claims that he left in 1994 when the current group took power. "I am disgusted with the NBR," he told me. "That year, 1994, Lois told me she actually wanted to give Warren Beatty an award for the movie Love Affair for 'bringing romance back to the movies.' She was convinced he'd come. The awards were all about who they thought would come to the dinner."
Love Affair was one of the most poorly reviewed movies of the '90s.
Lewis points out that the Beatty business had a history to it as well. In 1991 the organization gave him Best Actor for Bugsy, and relegated Anthony Hopkins to best supporting status for Silence of the Lambs — even though every other awards group put him in the main Best Actor category.
This year, the NBR is giving a lifetime achievement award to Steven Spielberg. On the face of it, this would seem a good idea since many of his films — E.T., Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, among them — are classics. But in order to get Spielberg, the group put his flop AI: Artificial Intelligence on its Top Ten list.
"Basically the group is run by people with a lot of money and no taste," said Lewis. "When the name of the award was changed from the Griffith [named for legendary director D.W. Griffith], I suggested it calling it the Lumiere," he said referring to French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere who are credited with inventing cinema in the 1890s. "But Lois had never heard of the Lumiere brothers. I had to give her a Katz's Film encyclopedia."
Ballon and Rapaport, however, do not like to be challenged by members and tend to run the NBR as a cult-like group. One former member, Nicki Goldstein, claims she was kicked off the board last year after she crossed Rapaport.
"I asked for press notes at a screening," said Goldstein, whose tenure did not overlap with Lewis, whom she doesn't know. "They screamed at me and said board members didn't get press notes. It was petty and mindless. But they sent me a letter rescinding my membership without telling me what I did wrong. I sent a letter of apology and it didn't help. They're very cliquish."
Goldstein says the voting members of the group represent maybe 20 percent of the eventual decision about who wins what category. She agrees that Ballon et al pick winners based on who they think will come to the annual dinner. "It's ridiculous and meaningless," said Goldstein, who has long been a television producer and is a past president of the New York Television Academy.
"I thought my votes counted," she said. "But the [process] is very political. They liked to spread around the winners and 'honor' everyone. Every studio is covered. That way they build attendance at the dinner. This year they gave Spielberg an award to sell tickets and so they could say DreamWorks got something.
"When I heard their list of winners this year," she continued, "I laughed."
Goldstein said that Ballon, Rapaport and Policastro run "a mean spirited group. Lois, Carol and Bob have a franchise that fulfills their needs. I'm glad I'm not with them anymore."
Policastro was unavailable for comment. Ballon and Rapaport declinedto comment.
Benjamin Bratt, the Law & Order actor who narrowly escaped from his romance with Julia Roberts, hits New York tonight with a vengeance.
Bratt stars in the new drama Piñero about poet Miguel Piñero, so he's bringing a bunch of pals down to Piñero's famous Nuyorican Poets Café on the Lower East Side for a celebration. Among the expected guests who will hear Bratt read some of Piñero's poems: co-star Talisa Soto, co-star Giancarlo Esposito (who portrays Miguel Algarin), producers Fisher Stevens and John Leguizamo and celeb supporters actress Sonia Braga (Sex and the City), actress Monica Bellucci (Malena), and Bellucci's lucky husband, actor Vincent Cassel.
Miramax has just picked up a documentary made by Academy Award-nominated Majid Majidi, whose new film Baran is a possible Oscar nominee.
The Color of Hope was filmed undercover in Afghanistan this November at two Red Cross Camps, one occupied by the Taliban and one by the Northern Alliance. In the documentary, Majidi explores the conflict currently taking place through the perspective of Afghani children.