Even as Oscar nomination polls were closing Friday afternoon, the awards season action was already shifting to the Southern California desert as the 10-day Palm Springs International Film Festival kicked off, not only with its highly publicized Saturday night gala where enormous statuettes are handed out to Oscar hopefuls looking for a boost in the race, but also as a genuinely impressive public showcase for world cinema.
42 of the 71 official Oscar foreign entries are on display at the Fest (which runs through January 13) including 8 of the 9 finalists which made the shortlist. Many of those filmmakers nervously awaiting results, of which of the 9 become the 5 nominees, were at the fest all weekend, even as a select group of about 30 high-profile Academy members (including Meryl Streep, who told me last year she had a great time on this uber committee) in New York and Los Angeles were viewing the finalists and making their choices (to be announced with other Oscar nominees on Thursday morning).
There were so many accents heard on the streets of the famous desert city you might be excused for thinking you were at the United Nations. So as a small band of motion picture elite were watching foreign films and deciding fates on their respective coasts, the Palm Springs crowd was literally packing cinemas to see some of that same subtitled fare here. As the fest’s International Star of the Year, Helen Mirren said in her acceptance at the Gala, “Please, please watch films with subtitles!”
It seems the locals took that plea to heart. Despite my media credential I had to use connections just to get in to the overbooked Saturday afternoon screening of the brilliant shortlisted Switzerland entry, Sister which reminded me of the best of Francois Truffaut. The theatre was packed with an enthusiastic, mostly graying Springs crowd. The woman next to me had already seen four other of the foreign fare in fest and this was only her second full day (the fest officially opened with Spain’s black and white silent homage, Blancanieves Thursday night). Sister is only the second film from director Ursula Meier who has a big future. It features remarkable performances from Lea Seydoux and newcomer Kasey Mottet Klein. Meier, like many of the other foreign film Oscar hopefuls was there to introduce the film and do a Q&A although she told me the first PSIFF screening Friday night was a bit of a nightmare as the film was shown accidentally with a 3D lens (making the picture 30% darker) at the Regal Theatre. The projectionist forgot to change over the regular film, The Hobbit. Knowing this was an all-important weekend for the movie, U.S. distributor Jeff Lipsky of Adopt films (who is doing a wave of new openings to coincide with Oscar noms) made a plea to crowd, “if you know any Academy members please tell them to vote for the film”. I am not quite sure just how many in this audience have Meryl Streep’s cell though, so how effective this plea was in getting votes is questionable.
Among others still in the race having fun in the sun and soaking up the local love for cinema from around the world were Kon-Tiki’s Norwegian directors Espen Sandberg and Joachim Ronning as well as The Deep’s Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur who seemed thrilled just to be among the finalists of 71 contenders this year. They were also at the Parker Hotel Sunday awards brunch (sponsored by PMC’s Variety and Mercedes Benz) where several new directors were given honors (including the Kon-Tiki pair), along with an “Indie Impact Award” presented with an impassioned introduction by Silver Linings Playbook star Bradley Cooper to his director/writer David O. Russell noting that the comedy was a 152-page script shot in only 33 days. Earlier he told me how impressed he was in seeing the extremely personal commitment Russell brought to the project. The director won a standing ovation for his off-the-cuff, illuminating and smart speech about what it takes to make a successful independent film and the collaborative process involved with his cast led by Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. The crowd (which included several Academy members) really seemed to respond. With hopes of several Oscar nominations, The Weinstein Company is finally going wide with Silver Linings expanding to about 2,500 theaters on January 18th, two months after its Thanksgiving debut.
Oscar rival director Tom Hooper (his King’s Speech direction beat Russell’s The Fighter two years ago) and his Les Miserables co-star Eddie Redmayne were also there and later participated in a festival conversation series, Talking Pictures. I moderated following the fest’s showing of Les Mis at the Annenberg Screening Room of the Palm Springs Art Museum. Hooper was in a very good mood as the movie had just passed $100 million domestically yesterday. “That’s the fastest a musical has ever done that, ” he said. “I really care about the film doing well financially. I think if you ask people to trust you with their money, they should be paid back.”
Both Russell and Hooper were among those participating in the Black Tie Saturday night Gala at the massive Convention Center (Hooper got the Sonny Bono Visionary Award while Russell presented to Actor of the Year Bradley Cooper), which is a Mary Hart-hosted glitzy event with its Cartier sponsor and full orchestra that is unique in the awards season firmament. It was no different this year as other honorees included Mirren, Sally Field, Richard Gere, Naomi Watts, Helen Hunt, composer Mychael Danna, Robert Zemeckis and the cast of Argo.
In the past few years this PSIFF gala has turned into an important stop on the awards circuit as it offered Oscar contenders a real spotlight for a speech (there are many Academy members who hang out or live in the desert) right as voting is going on. Unfortunately that changed this year with the earlier Oscar timetable and polls closing the day before the Gala. Awards strategists now get the most bang from their buck via the almost-daily PSIFF press releases announcing the honorees that do come out while Oscar voters have ballots in hand. Much like October’s Hollywood Film Festival gala that leads off the rubber chicken awards season banquet tour, these awards are all negotiated between the festival and the studios based on a guaranteed appearance by the winner.
Mirren, who won one of these previously for The Queen, told me her publicist accidentally dropped and broke her first PSIFF statue in half (she joked it now make a good vase) so the new one would come in handy. Hooper, Cooper and Redmayne (the latter two were both sharing a birthday) all told me they were intrigued by the large number of well-dressed volunteers who line the red carpeted entrance to the banquet enthusiastically applauding in unison as anyone, and I mean anyone, enters the room. It is sort of like walking into a sushi restaurant. The restrooms are right behind them which made for some awkward moments including one for Cooper. “I came back to the men’s room and they applauded me again, and then again when I came out. I didn’t really know what I did in that time to deserve this kind of response,” he laughed. Hooper said it was the first time he had ever been celebrated “for going to the loo”.
Of the speeches just about everyone did a great job, and that includes the eloquent presenters – among them Tom Hanks to his Forrest Gump and Castaway director Zemeckis and 14-year-old Tom Holland to his Impossible mother Naomi Watts who told me that after the holidays she was actually looking forward to some of these events again. Watts, by the way was among several prominent Academy members there who said they had to call the support line more than once before finally being able to fill out her online ballot this year.
Lincoln co-star Sally Field’s Career Achievement acceptance has gotten the most attention and hers was definitely a heartfelt look back at an “unorthodox” career as she once famously noted in an Oscar acceptance. She seems to really get how to make a memorable awards speech. If I were Disney/Dreamworks I would be looking for a way to get this speech in front of more Oscar voters after her inevitable Supporting Actress nomination comes later this week. She got the one genuine standing ovation of the evening. But all had their moments especially Gere who in accepting his Chairman’s Award quoted a Japanese poet who wrote, “Under Cherry Trees there are no strangers” and then amended it to say “Under movie screens there are no strangers”.
The fest seemed to be a nice respite for many of these weary contenders who have been on the awards circuit for months already. “I guess it’s all just about over now,” said Cooper who is new to the grueling process . “Actually in many ways it is just beginning” I answered. With the DGA, BAFTA and Oscar nominations, Critics Choice Movie Awards, National Board Of Review and New York Film Critics and LA Film Critics dinners, the AFI lunch and finally the Golden Globes all crammed into this one superweek it, in truth, may seem to some that this season is never going to end.