Film Critics Awards back Jan. 7 after 5 year absence

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Jason Segal of “The Muppets” here on Jan. 7

After a five-year absence, the 22nd Chicago Film Critics Awards (CFCA) takes the spotlight at the Broadway Playhouse in Water Tower on Jan. 7, it again will be the first of the many awards presentations for Hollywood’s best that climax with the Oscars.

At CFCA’s first show in 1990, shy almost reclusive writer/director John Hughes received the first Commitment to Chicago Award. By then he had already had produced 11 films in Chicago.

This year, James Earl Jones, Dennis Farina and Jason Segal will light up the evening as they receive special awards.  Shirley MacLaine, however, sent her regrets. 

A new part of the show is The Chicago Comedy Awards, produced and hosted in conjunction with The Second City.  The first and long overdue tribute to the city’s abundance of comedic talent has taken seven years to make its debut.  It was conceived by Sharee Pemberton, the CFCA show’s executive producer since 1996.

The Comedy Awards also point up the lack of comedy as its own category in most of the movie awards presentations.    

The awards show was resurrected by film critic Dann Gire, of the Daily Herald and president since 1997 of the Chicago Film Critics Association, (CFCA) and Pemberton, a theatrical, live show and events producer.

CFCA show producer Sharee PembertonThe non-profit Chicago Film Credits Association was founded by Sue Kiner, a radio-based film critic, and Gire in 1990.  Kiner resigned from the CFCA in 1997 to move to London where her husband, a PR executive, had been transferred.(She has since returned to Chicago.)

Current CFCA membership is 55, with Roger Ebert, Bill Zwecker, Richard Roeper, Dean Richards and Michael Wilmington among them. 

To qualify as a member, the print, broadcast or internet critic must live in the greater Chicago area and have been paid as a critic for six months.

Paul Newman presented an award to Tom Hanks in 2001

CFAC’s first awards presentation in 1990, produced by Kiner, was a low-key affair compared to the glitzier evenings that followed.  The venue was the Pump Room at the Ambassador East Hotel, in front of many guests in jeans and sweaters who had come from their film jobs, not sure of what to expect.

CFCA’s last memorable show was held at the Shakespeare Theatre in 2001.  Pemberton secretly had arranged for Paul Newman to appear as a surprise guest to present the Best Actor Award to Tom Hanks for “Castaway.”   (Two years later they would costar in the dark crime drama, “Road to Perdition,” that filmed in the Chicago area.)  

Dann Gire, CFCA co-founder and presidentOther awardees that year were Bonnie Hunt, Benicio del Toro, Ellen Burstyn, Fred Willard and Jennifer Tilly.

Pemberton also recalls the January, 2000 show at Park West that honored actor Kevin Spacey director Sam Mendes for “American Beauty.” 

“The awardees were flown in on a DreamWorks jet and were still airborne when the show started at 7 p.m.,” Pemberton says.   “A police escort rushed the actors from Midway Airport to the Park West and they arrived cold and breathless with seconds to spare.

“When Roger Ebert handed Kevin Spacey the crystal award for Best Actor, Spacey thanked the audience and began to exit.  Ebert was inspired.  He told Spacey, ‘You can’t fly in and just say thank you.’ Spacey smiled, put his hands in his pockets and did a dead-on Johnny Carson impression. Then Ebert jumped in with a perfect Ed McMahon.  It brought the house down.”

9/11 changed the CFCA show’s emphasis and energy

After 9/11, the CFC awards lost their momentum, Pemberton says.
“Hollywood publicists were fearful of their talent flying to Chicago in the dead of winter.  And the rise of televised L.A. awards shows also kept them close to home.”   

From 2004 to 2007, the star-studded awards transformed into stuffy, low-key tribute shows at the Union League Club that honored Chicago natives director William Friedkin, his wife Sherry Lansing, former Paramount CEO and director Robert Altman.

The show went dark When Pemberton dropped out in 2002 to go on a book tour for her novel, “Murder in Winnetka,” and the CFCA was hard pressed to find a producer who could pull a show together in the few weeks between receiving the critics’ winners’ list and the show.

Pemberton and Gire happily reunited this year for what they feel will be as memorable and important evening in showcasing Chicago as a film, talent and comedy center

Special guests to receive major awards 

James Earl Jones will receive the inaugural Oscar Micheaux Award, presented in honor of the first African-American producer and filmmaker, an Illinois native.   

The Commitment to Chicago Award goes to Dennis Farina, star of “The Last Rites of Joe May,” who asked the producers to film it in his hometown of Chicago instead of New York, the original location. 

Jason Segel, writer/producer of “The Muppets,” will thank the CFCA in person for receiving the Best Screenwriter nomination. 

CEO Andrew Alexander of The Second City will accept the Big Shoulders Award for supporting talent and the arts. 

Tickets via Ticketmaster are $125 alone, and $250 for the show and after party at the Ritz Carleton; a $300 ticket also includes a Jan. 7 show and after party at Second City Party in honor of the CFCA, at Second City’s new Up Comedy Club in the old “Tina and Tony’s Wedding” theatre space in Piper’s Alley on North Ave.

For further information, call 630/408-6811; Email Sharee Pemberton at scpemberton@comcast.net.

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