The calendar has barely hit 2016 but awards season just kicked into a higher gear with the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s gala highlighting Oscar contenders happening earlier than ever Saturday night. Everyone getting an award on the humongous stage of the Palm Springs Convention Center is the focus of a major Oscar campaign and this festival, now 27 years old, has become a must-stop for some contenders due to its deliberate timing just as Academy voters have nominating ballots in hand. Because the nature of the calendar has everything accelerated this year (the Golden Globes are just a week away and Oscar nominations are announced in 11 days) to get these stars and filmmakers to interrupt their holiday and somehow get to the Southern California desert there has to be some kind of payoff in timing and coverage that puts their name front and center as Oscar voters are making their decisions. And so Rising Star Award winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Sonny Bono Visionary Award recipient Tom McCarthy (director/co-writer Spotlight), Breakthrough Performance winner Brie Larson (Room), Spotlight honorees Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) and Rooney Mara (Carol), International Stars Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Desert Palm Achievement Awards for Actor and Actress Johnny Depp (Black Mass) and Cate Blanchett (Carol), Chairman’s Award choice Matt Damon (The Martian) and Ensemble Performance Award (The Big Short) all got their turn on stage in order to make speeches that might be a precursor to Oscar night and, if the Gods are with them , they might be repeating this performance on February 28th at the Dolby Theatre.
In fact PSIFF Chairman Of The Board Harold Matzner tried to make a point that a stop in the desert around New Years almost guarantees one of those coveted Oscar nominations these contenders have been hunting for the past four months. “Twenty-eight of the last 31 honorees at the Palm Springs Film Festival have gone on to be nominated for Academy Awards,” said Matzner who also made note of the increased security around this year’s gala but still assuring the tony dressed-to-the-nines crowd that there is “no known threat,” but nevertheless an army swat team and full contingent of police squad deputies were standing by just in case. Thankfully there was no need, and no real concern from perennial PSIFF gala host Mary Hart who noted the event serves only as “ground zero” for awards season. “It is a key predictor of the Academy Awards and you are lucky to be sitting here because you will know it first. Our honorees are going to be that much closer to Oscar gold, “she exclaimed before announcing that $2.4 million had been raised for the nonprofit PSIFF. Longtime key sponsor Cartier was AWOL this year, replaced by private residential golf course community Bighorn as the main financial backer of the glitzy affair. The gift at everyone’s table setting was a green Buddha plastic figure that lights up. Nine-year-old Room star Jacob Tremblay was having fun playing with his when I dropped by to say hello to him and his director Lenny Abrahamson who both presented to their star, Brie Larson.
I was seated at the Focus Features table who were there in support of Vikander including her Danish Girl producer Gail Mutrux who labored 15 years to get that film to the screen. Vikander, first up on stage ( with the help of presenter and co-star Amber Heard), thanked Mutrux, director Tom Hooper and co-star Eddie Redmayne before acknowledging members of the transgender community for being so helpful in her research. Her allegiance was torn between this table and one right next to it for Universal’s Steve Jobs which happened to have her boyfriend Fassbender and his co-star Kate Winslet (who presented his International Award). After both had gotten their trophies they disappeared into the night. Vikander told us she and Fassbender wrote their acceptance speeches while playing Yahtzee on the plane ride into the desert. Michael Keaton made a brief appearance to present to his Spotlight director McCarthy (who did a shout-out to the late Sonny Bono, namesake of his award, and former Mayor of Palm Springs who came up with the idea for this well-timed film festival that has only grown year after year). McCarthy elegantly saluted the “beleaguered” profession of journalism for which his film pays “homage.”
The festival doesn’t hand out these honors unless the winners agree to appear in person. In the case of the Ensemble Award to the cast of The Big Short it wasn’t announced until late this week because Paramount had to round up enough of them from their Christmas breaks to actually show up and accept – no easy task. Director Adam McKay presented to Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Finn Wittrock and Jeremy Strong. Bale actually flew in from Spain, where he was working. Some of the appearances were very last minute. Before the Gala, Chairman Award honoree Matt Damon and his director (and presenter) Ridley Scott were also scheduled to appear at a PSIFF Q&A following an afternoon screening of The Martian but were delayed and showed up 45 minutes late. It didn’t matter to the audience who all stayed and waited. That’s the level of
enthusiasm this town has for this annual festival. Damon, nominated for a Golden Globe in Comedy for his performance, used virtually all of his speech to praise Scott before blatantly noting his director has never personally won an Oscar and that this is the year to rectify that.”He’s just a master director. There are a handful of them on earth but he is one of them. I thought that he already had an Academy Award because Gladiator won Best Picture. But he wasn’t a producer on that, and so the bottom line is he has given more than enough so I hope this is his year,” he said to much applause including from 20th Century Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos leading the cheering section at their table. Blanchett’s award was presented by a former co-star – and current Oscar rival – Saoirse Ronan whom she lavishly praised before stating that her director Todd Haynes and colleagues on Carol had “set the bar so very high.” Depp seemed a popular winner as well with the crowd who strongly responded to the well-chosen clip reel which showed his remarkable range.
But for me it was the sheer elegance of Cranston, receiving his “Spotlight Award” from his Trumbo co-star Helen Mirren, who truly showed what a
classy acceptance speech could be, even telling the audience that 16 years ago the Palm Springs festival accepted a short film he had written and directed in honor of his wife. Cranston is also a “local” in the sense that he is part owner of the Palme d’Or Cinema in nearby Palm Desert. Nevertheless he wasn’t expecting a prize this year but ultimately used the moment to emphasize the message of his film. “Dalton Trumbo was not a hero. He was a man who was just defending his civil liberties. He would not have said he was a hero, but there were many heroes during that dark time in Hollywood and American history. Certainly Kirk Douglas is a hero. Certainly Otto Preminger is a hero. And there are thousands of other people who were not blacklisted who saw an injustice and tried to right the wrong. Those are the people who should be celebrated for the message of Trumbo, and if our little movie is successful then hopefully the next generation of filmgoers will come away with asking the question: Did these 10 men go to prison knowing that they committed no crime? That they had an ideology that was not popular at the time but that was no crime? Hopefully they will realize that the blacklist was not a show on NBC, or also the blacklist is not that list writers want to get on so hopefully their screenplays will get sold. I would love to see that name change … My favorite line in the movie is when Dalton Trumbo confronts John Wayne and says ‘the whole point of this fight is that we both have the right to be wrong’. I am still questioning whether the Palm Springs Film Festival got this Spotlight award wrong, but I am going to get off this stage before they can change their minds.”
And now just two days into the New Year this is just the beginning of a long string of awards shows. Hopefully they will be providing more rewarding moments like that one.