This boisterous evening hosted by Dave Karger has grown from humble beginnings into one of the festival’s top draws. The Arlington was sold out on Saturday, February 3 with people eager to see and hear the seven 2018 Virtuosos — Mary J. Blige, John Boyega, Timothée Chalamet, Hong Chau, Gal Gadot, Daniel Kaluuya, and Kumail Nanjiani. Unfortunately, Wonder Woman Gal Gadot was down with the flu and unable to make it, but the excitement both outside on the red carpet and in the theater nevertheless ran high, especially for music great Blige and for the two young actors vying for the Oscar’s top acting prize, Daniel Kaluuya and Timothée Chalamet.
The simple format provides a great platform for Karger’s playful wit and showcases the individual stars very effectively. Each artist comes out in alphabetical order for a montage and a question and answer session with the host. Once everyone’s had their turn, the group assembles in a set of high director’s chairs for a wild panel discussion that’s driven by clever hypothetical questions such as “do you have a silly voice that you like to do for fun?”
Mary J. Blige has achieved something this year that’s so unusual that she’s not only the first person to have done it, she’s pretty much the only person who has ever even been in a position to do it. She’s nominated for two Academy Awards for the same film, Mudbound: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, and Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) for the song “Mighty River.” In her interview, Blige was humble and funny, recalling trips to the south she made as a young girl, and reserving particular praise for Dee Rees, Mudbound’s female director, and Rachel Morrison, the film’s cinematographer. The biggest cheers came when she announced that she would sing “Mighty River” on the upcoming Oscar broadcast.
Host Karger lavished praise on Detroit, saying that it was his favorite film of 2017, by way of introducing its charming young star, the British actor John Boyega. Boyega told of the somewhat convoluted casting process he went through on his way to the role, and cited the film’s “clarity” as a prime value in addressing the ongoing racial tensions in this country that he referred to as “our mess.” Asked about how this role fit with playing Finn in two recent Star Wars films, Boyega named “longevity” as his ultimate career goal. It’s a wise choice for someone who’s already this successful at just 25 years of age, and identified what would become a strong theme of the night, with both Chalamet and Kaluuya also in their twenties.
Teen idol Timothée Chalamet managed to present both a serious side in his discussion of hewing closely to the spirit of Andre Aciman’s book in his performance in the film Call Me by Your Name, and an endearing goofiness when responding to a question about a particularly embarrassing sex scene with a peach. “I’ve been waiting for this!” he crowed when asked about the peach, and he stuck to his story even as Karger tried to pry more out of him. Chalamet is the youngest actor in more than 80 years to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Actor category.
Hong Chau remembered how she was willing to “cage fight” to land the role Ngoc Lan Tran in Alexander Payne’s Downsizing. Her observations on the film included a tantalizing hint of what could have been an “even weirder” movie with long sequences performed entirely in the fantasy language “Norwinglish.” Although this strange material got left out of the final edit, Chau’s expressive performance remained untouched, thus giving the second half of the film an unreserved emotionality that interviewer Karger said moved him to tears.
Daniel Kaluuya played Chris, the lead in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and he’s still clearly riding an incredible sense of wonder and exultation at how far this performance has taken him. He joked with Karger about not wanting to best Denzel Washington in the Oscar race, as he fears that “beating Denzel in any kind of acting contest might actually be against the rules of African-America.” As an Englishman, Kaluuya was at a disadvantage when auditioning for the role because, he said, writer-director Peele saw it as “an African-American story.” He overcame the director’s preconceptions by emphasizing the similarities between the two cultures, jokingly remarking that “we have a couple of white people in England too you know. If you leave the M25 [London’s orbital motorway —Ed.], it’s basically Get Out.”
The night’s biggest laughs were earned by Kumail Nanjiani, the Pakistan-born star and co-author of The Big Sick. Nanjiani used his stand-up comedian’s instinct for the quick comeback to rock the house in his interview, and then to disrupt the subsequent panel discussion with a non-stop barrage of hilarious one liners and impertinent demands. When Timothée Chalamet offered his impression of a voice mail message he once received from Matthew McConaughey, Nanjiani was instantly all over him, first asking if he had really ignored an email from McConaughey (long story, he hadn’t), and then demanding that, since his phone was present in the theater, he replay the actual message. Although Chalamet’s phone made it to the stage, the message was alas never found, inciting the irrepressible Nanjiani to repeat his demand for it.
By the time Christopher Lloyd came out to confer the honors, the theater was buzzing with love and appreciation for this new generation of stars. Seldom has the tribute format played host to such a promising group.