You have to say this much for the annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala held Monday evening on the official New Year’s Day holiday: of all the awards shows coming our way in 2017 this one is definitely the first. It also happens to be very BIG in scope, with the largest stage – at the Palm Springs Convention Center – of any other, a full live orchestra playing on the honorees with their film’s theme music, 12,750 purple orchids flown in from Holland just for the occasion, and lavender crystal buddhas that light up at every place setting.
With Chopard and Mercedes Benz among the key sponsors, this is one non-televised awards show that pulls out all the stops, a big moneyed event that raised $2.3 million for the non-profit PSIFF this year.
Drawing honorees Nicole Kidman, Tom Hanks, Andrew Garfield, Amy Adams, Natalie Portman, Casey Affleck, Annette Bening, Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali and the casts of Hidden Figures and La La Land, this desert destination has become a must for Oscar hopefuls who agree to show up, even if the most exciting game in the history of the Rose Bowl is still going on as they are set to arrive.
“In the last four years 38 of our 42 honorees have gone on to win Oscar nominations in their year at the festival and we think this year’s group is destined for similar success,” said PSIFF Board Chairman Harold Matzner in his opening remarks.
In a sign of the times he also noted the intense law enforcement presence. “Tonight’s film awards gala is being held under heavy security although there are no known threats of any kind,” he said, while noting that they made a point of not having people walking around with automatic weapons unlike, he says, another televised awards show he did not name.
Actually the only known “threat” to this gala is the Golden Globes which take place next Sunday. PSIFF cannot pull this star presence off if it comes after that big NBC broadcast. The town moves on quickly to Guild and Academy nominations. Where Palm Springs wields its influence is not only because Globes voting is still going on, but also Oscar nominations for which balloting starts on Thursday. That is why, as host Mary Hart put it, people may not have been happy interrupting their holiday vacations to head out to the desert, but that “the show must go on.” And so it did, with nice speeches all around, speeches that make a good tryout for what some may get to say if they win on Sunday at the Globes.
If that is the case, expect La La Land’s Ryan Gosling to repeat his loving mention of Debbie Reynolds in accepting the Vanguard Award for his movie which was , in some part, inspired by the MGM Golden Era musicals like Reynolds’ Singin’ In The Rain. “I wish I could have said this in person but I would like to thank Debbie Reynolds. Her work is an inspiration,” he told the very well-heeled crowd mostly made up of Palm Springs society. It is a fact that the creative team, including Gosling, made a trip to see the Gene Kelly archives (at the invitation of Kelly’s widow Patricia Kelly) before they started shooting, and that of course includes a lot of material on Singin’ In The Rain, the movie Reynolds starred in when she was just 19. By the way, co-star Emma Stone was also supposed to be there last night, but came down with strep throat. Director Damien Chazelle and composer Justin Hurwitz also made acceptance speeches, as they are likely to do at the Globes where La La Land is a heavy favorite, especially in the Musical/Comedy categories. Before the show I was congratulating Hurwitz on the remarkable box office numbers for the film so far, and predictions it will reach $100 million plus. It’s a given that young women might flock to see this romantic musical, but Hurwitz told me Lionsgate shared their research numbers and that males are so far even scoring the film higher than women.
Speaking of box office, I caught the eye of Annette Bening and Warren Beatty as they were arriving and congratulated her on the stellar initial box office numbers for her Golden Globe nominated 20th Century Women which just opened last week. “Really, I haven’t looked at them yet. That’s great,” she smiled as she and Beatty ran the gauntlet of paparazzi packed in on the red carpet. She got the festival’s Career Achievement Award and was elegant in her acceptance where she also thanked her husband. The pair will be front and center at the Globes where she is not only nominated for Best Actress Musical/Comedy but she is opposite her co-star Lily Collins (she plays her mother) from Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply. Should be a fun night for the Beattys, who between their two films have been out and about on the circuit a lot this season.
In terms of speeches I have say that no one does them better than Lion co-star and International Star Award recipient Kidman. She said the evening had a strong emotional connection since she was last honored at PSIFF 12 years ago and sat in the same audience with her late father and still displays photos of the event in her home. There was much mention of family connections to this event and Palm Springs by many of the honorees.
Desert Palm Achievement Award Actor winner Casey Affleck described the evening as a pretty nice “nexus of events” for him, including the first time he ever went west of his native Massachusetts when he was 15 and came out to visit his Dad who had a job at a State Rehabilitation agency in Indio. He said the PSIFF staffer who was assigned to him told him she actually came through the clinic when his Dad was there. Incidentally his presenter, Sir Ben Kingsley got right to the crux of the night, mentioning that magic word “Oscar” in introducing Affleck. “Of course there are good actors who spend decades doing valiant work and perhaps wait for that golden, career-defining opportunity that will marry their talent perfectly to the role, the direction, the zeitgeist,” he said. ” Vito Corleone, Ted Kramer, Gordon Gekko, Hannibal Lecter, and yes , of course Gandhi. Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea has found his own ideal role in Lee Chandler. His performance is so flawless, so raw, it is his serious shot at an Academy Award.”
Chairman’s Award winner and Arrival star Amy Adams charmed the crowd when she said she brought her daughter with her to the ceremony and told her on the drive over to just look for the Turbines. “Every time we see those turbines we know something awesome is going to happen , whether it is a music festival or a film festival. So thank you Palm Springs. It is such a great way to bring in the New Year, ” she said.
Like Adams and Kidman, Jackie star and Desert Palm Achievement Award – Actress Natalie Portman was also a returnee to the festival looking great while also noticeably pregnant as she was the first time around when she was honored for Black Swan in 2011. Hart, recalling that night, said the Festival had medical personnel
on hand in case she gave birth before she could give a speech.
Another Best Actress contender, Ruth Negga for the terrific Loving, was actually a first timer at this gala and sitting with her at the Focus Features table she confessed to me that she was a little overwhelmed by just how big it all was. Add to that her Rising Star Award was the very first one of the night. “It was surreal. It’s so nice, but my teeth didn’t stop chattering. When I saw the length of that stage I said ‘please God please let me get out there during the applause’. It’s so nerve-wracking,” she said. She didn’t have to worry. She did just fine. Presenters were her director Jeff Nichols and co-star Joel Edgerton, the latter saying of her simple and honest acting, “I refer to her as truth where the ‘t’ is silent”. He couldn’t stay for the whole show as he told me he had to be back on the Downtown L.A. set of his new film with Will Smith, Bright at 5:45 AM, so he picked up his crystal buddha and snuck out before show’s end.
Along with Edgerton, Nichols and Negga at the Focus table were CEO Peter Kujawski who grabbed Loving as his first major buy at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, and COO Abhijay Prakash. Although Loving scored Golden Globe acting nominations for both Negga and Edgerton, Kujawski told me he is hopeful it will make the Oscar Best Picture list when those nominations are announced January 24th. Certainly they are doing everything to campaign it.
Spotlight Award winner Andrew Garfield made a new friend in the audience when he told the teleprompter to shut off for a moment. “I have an opportunity to do something which I didn’t plan, but there’s a man in the room who is directly responsible for making me want to be an actor, and he doesn’t know it, but Mr. Tom Hanks I cannot tell you what your life’s work has meant to me, but especially what your work in Big and Joe Versus The Volcano meant to me. You are directly responsible for me being here and to stand alongside you is humbling to say the least,” he said much to the shock of Hanks who was sitting right nearby my table and seemed floored, but not nearly as stunned as he was by the specific mention of his 1990 box office flop Joe Versus The Volcano. That film, which I confess to loving, has a devoted cult following now, but clearly Hanks didn’t expect it to be the reason Garfield got into the business. Hanks, getting the only full-on standing ovation of the night, didn’t hold back on his reaction: “I must say I was thrilled and I was stunned to get the fabulous actor Andrew Garfield to finally , finally see to it that the Palm Springs International Film Festival gave some love to Joe Versus The Volcano!” Garfield and Hanks just might be able to continue this brewing awards season bromance at the Oscars if both are nominated in the Best Actor category as they deserve to be, Garfield for Hacksaw Ridge and Hanks for Sully.
Because of the crazy schedule, the actual Film Festival part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival doesn’t get underway until Thursday, with opening night film, The Sense Of An Ending starring Charlotte Rampling and Jim Broadbent. The Fest will run through January 16th.