As one battle-weary awards publicist said, “Here we go again. Three months later, same drill.”
Not quite, but close. Wasn’t it just October when we saw Sandra Bullock, Matthew McConaughey, Julia Roberts, Steve McQueen and Lupita Nyong’o hit the stage at the Beverly Hilton to accept their preordained Hollywood Film Awards at the Hollywood Film Festival? Yes, but that was then and this is now. And the pre-Oscar train has moved to the desert right smack in the middle of nomination voting period (ballots are due Wednesday). So in its 25th year, the Palm Springs International Film Festival‘s Awards Gala has taken on even greater importance – and urgency - if the long red carpet, rows of fans, and numbers of studio reps on hand is any indication. “This is a red carpet that is second only to the Golden Globes,” PSIFF Board Chairman Harold Matzner said before Fox Searchlight’s upcoming May release Belle officially opened the fest Friday night. Speaking Saturday night to the crowd of 2000 black tie and gowned locals gathered for this glittery affair, which is sponsored by Cartier and features a giant stage and full orchestra as big as the Academy Awards at the Palm Springs Convention Center, he said $2.4 million had been raised for the non-profit PSIFF Society and educational programs. Not bad, but as far as Hollywood is concerned it’s also not the reason they so wholeheartedly embrace the festival then-Mayor Sonny Bono created a quarter century ago.
This is a chance to be seen as a serious contender just when it counts the most and that is why the star power is so impressive. So in addition to McQueen (Director of the Year for 12 Years A Slave), Nyong’o (Breakthrough Performance Award), Roberts (Spotlight Award), Bullock (Actress of the Year) and McConaughey (Actor of the Year), PSIFF also chose to honor Saving Mr. Banks composer Thomas Newman with its Frederick Lowe Award for film music, give the cast of American Hustle its Ensemble Performance Award, Tom Hanks its Chairman’s Award, U2 its Sonny Bono Visionary Award (‘Bono gets the Bono‘ as someone put it), and at the long evening’s end Meryl Streep won the Icon Award. It is no coincidence that every one of them is being campaigned for Oscars right now, so Palm Springs was a good place to be on this particular night as the Oscar race gears up for its most crucial period over the next two months.
And it’s a fun one. At this point you would think many of these stars would be talked out, but last night’s speeches were first rate and the vibe in the room a spirited one. It doesn’t matter that, like the Hollywood Awards, these honors are basically negotiated by the studios. It serves a purpose and has turned into one of the season’s more fun events. And it’s certainly a good place to fine-tune your acceptance speeches which could come in handy in the next two months – actually, the next two weeks - which are full of awards shows.
McConaughey and Bullock have really stepped up their game since those first Hollywood Awards that now seem so far away. Bullock was very funny talking about Googling herself and wishing she hadn’t, but also touching in describing the quality of the movies this year. “I was watching heartbreaking stories about our past in this country that make me so proud to be in this business, because one day they will show my son how far we’ve come,” she said before going the self-deprecation route (always a plus) in wrapping up by emphasizing all the bad things she learned while Googling herself, including that she is often described as being “over 40.”
McConaughey was particularly impressive and also talked with passion about the quality of films this year. “I want to talk about the people in our industry. I think we have put out a damn good slate of films out this awards season. Challenging films of isolation, survival, history, con men and scams. A lot of these films walk that tightrope. They have a combination of two very hard things to happen – importance and entertainment. I want to say congratulations to our industry on that,” he said before talking about his own films Mud, Wolf Of Wall Street and especially Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey is moving up the charts quickly and with more speeches like this could suddenly find himself in a front runner spot for that Best Actor Oscar. You can just feel this campaign really coming together.
But everyone was at their best whether it was Bruce Dern talking about his long career or Meryl Streep on being an icon. “Everything that Sandra Googled about herself, they say about me too, except they say ‘over 60,’” she laughed. Watching that clip again of Tom Hanks near the end of Captain Phillips just reinforces what a fiercely competitive race for Best Actor we have going on this year. The work that Bullock and McConaughey described was really on display in the expertly chosen film segments last night. And some of the presenters speeches were as good as the acceptances including Gary Oldman for McConaughey, Jane Fonda for her Coming Home co-star Dern, Roberts for Hanks. Hanks pretty much summed up the meaning of the night in terms of the season. “The holidays have come to an end but for some the celebrity mule train is just beginning,” the two-time Oscar winner and awards show veteran said to knowing laughs from his colleagues.
Afterwards the festival threw its usual party at the Parker Hotel, but Harvey Weinstein co-opted it with a private bash in a secluded spa area where entrance was only granted with a poker chip. Among the honorees having fun until the wee hours were Roberts and Bono and The Edge, locked in deep conversation. Also dropping by were Dern, Jeremy Renner, and Bradley Cooper (who made the acceptance speech for the American Hustle cast which even included singer Jack Jones, who got a special shout-out from presenter and the film’s director David O. Russell). Presenters and cast members from August: Osage County Margo Martindale and Ewan McGregor were there. So was the iconic The Grandmaster director Wong Kar Wai whose film has made the shortlist for a Best Foreign Language Film nomination. Incredibly it would be the first nomination ever for him. I was honored to moderate a discussion with him earlier in the day after a festival screening of his movie. This private party proved to be the cool place to unwind after a three-hour gala. Philomena‘s Steve Coogan came by too. Weinstein told me he is really high now on the chances of Philomena breaking into the Best Picture Oscar race. He may be right on that one. Even more astonishing though was Harvey’s admission to me that this was his first time ever at the Palm Springs Film Fest. Now that is probably the surest sign this festival has really arrived as a must-stop during awards season.