By: Steve Moreau, Ronit Pinto, and Jaime Lubin
This December marked a milestone for New York Women in Film and Television (NYWIFT), as members of the illustrious organization again filled the New York Hilton Midtown’s ballroom for the 40th NYWIFT Muse Awards. The event celebrates women of outstanding vision and achievement both in front of and behind the camera in film, television, the music industry and digital media. Hosted by CBS Sunday Morning contributor Nancy Giles, a frequent emcee of the awards ceremony, the 2019 honorees spanned a tremendous range of fields and talents, including Emmy-winning actress Ann Dowd (The Handmaid’s Tale); Grammy-winning singer Gloria Estefan; director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet); creator/writer Shoshannah Stern (This Close, Supernatural); Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud; Caroline’s on Broadway and New York Comedy Festival founder Caroline Hirsch, who received a “Made in New York” award; and Emmy-nominated producer Jane Rosenthal, CEO and co-founder of Tribeca Enterprises, recipient of NYWIFT’s first-ever “Career Impact Achievement Award.”
Introducing the event, NYWIFT Executive Director Cynthia Lopez shared, “Thank all the activists that came here before you to open the door for you today. When crossing a threshold in the future, you hold a door to those who come behind you. All the women we are honoring here are doing just that.”
Upon receiving her award, the iconic Gloria Estefan got a standing ovation, thanking her family and husband of 42 years, Emilio Estefan, saying he is “a bigger feminist than anyone in this room.” Gloria went on to explain, “We all need our muses. They come in every way, shape and form that you can imagine…We’re all about the yes. Nothing empowers you like a no. Take every no you receive and turn it around and do what you want.”
As Ann Dowd took the podium, she tearily recounted the years of auditions and roles that shaped her journey: “It’s important to go back to the beginning. I remember coming to New York and all I had going for me was a fierce desire, a kind of panicked energy, and all I asked of myself is please, don’t ever give up.” She also made audiences laugh, recalling, ‘”I remember standing in front of a Broadway house, many of them, and I would put my arms up, and I would say ‘thank you, I’m coming, soon. And I’m not going to be in the audience, thank you very much.’ The people around me, after all this, is New York, went ‘mhm-mhm,’ this isn’t going to go well.” She concluded her speech by emphasizing, “Trust yourself and trust that there is a place at the table for you.”
Kasi Lemmons, who’s just had a recent and resounding success with Harriet, the biopic starring Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman, spoke about examining the strength of the film’s titular character: “Together we have the power to change the world through the sheer force of our will, with our courage and our humanity, our conviction and our sense of justice…”
The show’s finale was the presentation of the inaugural Career Impact Achievement Award to Jane Rosenthal. NYWIFT’s Executive Director Cynthia Lopez noted, “The Career Impact Achievement Award was created to celebrate the Muse Awards’ 40th anniversary, to pay tribute to a woman whose commitment to the industry has been as longstanding as NYWIFT’s commitment to equality and inclusion. Jane Rosenthal’s incredible body of work and her initiatives through Tribeca Film Festival and Tribeca Enterprises make her not only an important figure in the entertainment industry, but a vital part of New York City’s cultural scene. Honoring a New York institution like Jane was a perfect fit as we celebrated our New York chapter’s incredible milestone.”
Rosenthal’s own acceptance speech conveyed her dignity and courage of conviction in supporting women in entertainment and media. “It’s wonderful to be acknowledged,” she told the audience, “but you don’t manifest justice or impact with an award. We create impact when we commit to doing something… All of us here have a passion. We must also commit to supporting each other to promote and produce underrepresented voices. This year, those passions came together for me with Ava Duvernay and When They See Us, the story of the Exonerated Five. All of us fight for equity for women and the underrepresented, not just in our business, but in every business. We don’t have the luxury of congratulating ourselves on how far we’ve come.”
Jane concluded, “These are not normal times! No matter the failures or challenges we face, we have to keep pushing forward. As storytellers, artists, executives, activists, doers, we have never been held back by ‘normal,’ and we cannot be held back by ‘no.’”
Robert DeNiro joined Rosenthal on stage at the end of her speech and thanked the organization for recognizing her. Among the ceremony’s other attendees were author Margaret Atwood; actress, writer and comedienne Aisling Bea (Living With Yourself); actress, writer and producer Jen Ponton (Dietland); actress Ana Villafañe (who portrayed Gloria Estefan in the Broadway musical On Your Feet); and television host Wendy Williams.
Asked about the greater meaning the Muse Awards hold in today’s cultural climate, Cynthia Lopez was quick to provide inspirational insights. “The NYWIFT Muse Awards honor women of vision and achievement, who have persevered in spite of adversity and lifted up others along the way. This year’s group was especially impactful: Ann Dowd’s career spans decades though her fame came later in life; Kasi Lemmons has had incredible success with Harriet; Anjali Sud spearheads Vimeo, an innovative technology platform for independent content creators; Shoshannah Stern is changing the way we look at disabilities…and the list goes on. Each and every honoree is a shining example of the ways in which women push the dial forward, and continue to find new ways to support each other and amplify unheard voices.”
Congratulations to all honorees of this year’s Muse Awards, and to the women across industries ensuring everyone’s stories are heard. We’re listening.