Glenn Close and Damien Chazelle Honored at the Sundance Benefit Dinner in New York
Glenn Close and Damien Chazelle Honored at the Sundance Benefit Dinner in New York

Last week was the 2014 Sundance Institute Celebration in New York, a benefit dinner to raise donations for the cause of independent cinema. The Sundance Institute presented awards to Glenn Close and Damien Chazelle, who each gave short speeches preceded by promotional videos that focused on the efforts of the Sundance Labs. The most highlighted films were Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," Lee Daniels's (who was in attendance) "Precious," and Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of a Southern Wild" (an Oscar nominee for Best Picture). Here are our seven highlights from the night, from the charming speeches to notable attendees (and absences).

"We barely make American movies anymore. We make movies catering to a global audience." -- Chazelle

Damien Chazelle On the Return of "American Movies"

The young director of the 2014 Sundance Jury and Audience Awards winner "Whiplash," Damien Chazelle received the night's Vanguard Award and used his speech to celebrate what he called "small, specific, executive dependent movies." Keri Russell had introduced him as "a promising and exceptionally talented filmmaker" with a "unique vision," declaring him "one of the great voices in American cinema." Chazelle began by expressing his terror during the film's premiere, which had recalled to him the similar anxiety of performing as a jazz drummer—his profession prior to directing and the subject matter of "Whiplash." He said he feared "sharing something really personal," and talked of the importance of "taking something specific and local and making it global, connecting it to an audience," which was "what the 70s were about." He criticized the current film industry, saying, "We barely make American movies anymore. We make movies catering to a global audience." He praised the work of two recent award recipients—Ryan Coogler ("Fruitvale Station") and Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of a Southern Wild")—claiming "the importance of American film and of Sundance" to be found in their success as true "American movies" that captured a national truth via locally specific stories.

TV's "The Americans" (Rather, an American and a Welshman) Show Up

Presenting Chazelle with his award, Keri Russell brought along her onscreen husband Matthew Rhys; their FX series "The Americans" is one of the best on television, reaching dramatic heights that few indie films recently have. Rhys and Russell play Soviet spies who (spoiler alert) most recently are faced with the decision to incorporate their teenage daughter into their struggle against American capitalism. Rhys told me he would not want his own daughter to know the truth and preferred she lead a "normal" life, thus aligning himself with his character's position; while Russell, true to hers, was more ambivalent. Russell admitted to not ever having learned a word of Russian, while Rhys described grappling with the language the two of them purport to speak fluently on the series. Russell channeled her breakout role of Felicity with her warm yet introspective demeanor, but it was Rhys's soft-spoken, laid back charm (accentuated by a Welsh accent) that caught me off guard after seeing him regularly seethe and explode on "The Americans." Neither had been given a script for next season, which will likely premiere at the start of 2015, so there were sadly no spoilers to be gained. (A writer for the series, Stu Zicherman, was also making the rounds. I mistook him for David O. Russell, whose more sizable filmography he said he'd prefer to his own; Zicherman has directed only one film, "A.D.O.C.," which received few favorable reviews but managed to draw the talents of Amy Poehler, Adam Scott, and Catherine O'Hara.)

The New Generation: Television Youngsters Mackenzie Davis and Ben Rosenfield

A new generation of Sundance film actors who are both currently on big TV dramas were also present to soak in the night of business-casual glamour. I spoke to Mackenzie Davis, who had supporting roles in "Breathe In" (which premiered at Sundance) and the commercial rom-com "That Awkward Moment" (starring "Whiplash" lead Miles Teller), and who is now in AMC's latest attempt at prestige drama "Halt and Catch Fire" (costarring Lee Pace and Scoot McNairy). Davis is a 27 year-old with sharp, engaging blue eyes, who holds her own onscreen and is expectedly charming in-person. She expressed the great pressure she felt in filming the pilot—an apparently big production that was long in development. This is no surprise given AMC's anxiety over hitting on a new great series now that its landmark shows have come or are coming to a close. Accompanying Davis was Ben Rosenfield, the young actor from HBO's "Boardwalk Empire" who was recently seen at Sundance in "Song One," starring Anne Hathaway and directed by newcomer Kate Barker-Froyland, with whom he told me he loved working. Rosenfield demonstrated good taste, too, quoting "Louie," a show of which it is always nice to meet fans, given its low ratings. 

Jeremy Irons Mistook Glenn Close For A Man

Irons and Close first met on Broadway, working together on "The Real Thing." Irons began his introduction speech with memories of that early time, saying, "Up to that point, I had assumed [Glenn Close] was a man. Under the watchful eye of Mike Nichols, I learned that she was a woman. My friendship began and my working relationship with this extraordinary woman began." He described Close as "hardworking and committed with a wicked imagination and humor to go with it—a devastating combination." Drawing laughs from the crowd with an anecdote of how he unzipped his pants on stage in order to raise the energy level of their performance, he said, "She'll take anything on and even me as an actor, which is no drink of water." He praised her "risk taking and commitment," particularly for her pursuit of "Albert Nobbs," an indie film she co-wrote, produced, and starred in as the cross-dressing title lead. "The people who put the money into the movie are here tonight, and they deserve a round of applause," he continued, and talked of Close's skill at "seducing" donors. Their intimate personal and professional relationship was clear, and Irons warmly directly addressed Close with the loudly applauded sentiment: "You are, Lenny, whether you like it or not—and I know you like it—one of the greatest actresses of our time."

Glenn Close Begs God for Investor Returns

Glenn Close was the star of the night, honored for a lifetime of dedication to independent cinema. She received two standing ovations—one received by Jeremy Irons, who jokingly noted the crowd's error in taking to their feet too early; and the second by Close herself, who spent the greater part of her speech thanking donors. Of Irons, Close said, "We had such incredible adventures," before moving on to her thesis: "I have a passionate and life-long commitment to independent film." "I love being in an independent film," she continued, "I love the cast that gathers around a good piece of writing. Certainly not for the money, but because it is good and challenging; and you will spend your days with people who want to be there for all the right reasons. I love being part of movies that almost don't get made."

She then "paid tribute to" her donors, including her husband David Shaw, whom she had invited as her guests. She thanked them for investing in "risky, edgy, personal, provocative, quiet, fierce, and often heart-breaking stories that are the soul of independent films." In the moment that drew the most applause and laughter, Close got down on her knees in a mock prayer, saying in a child's voice: "Dear God. God? Dear God. I know you have a lot to think about. But I want to tell you that I will be eternally grateful if somehow you helped John, Cammie, and David, make back their money. Thank you." "A big pay day is really nice," she added, and closed by signaling the future of filmmaking: "I'm eager to meet the next generation of Sundance filmmakers."

George Lucas and Mellody Hobson at Sundance Institute Celebration
George Lucas and Mellody Hobson at Sundance Institute Celebration

George Lucas Made an Independent Film (Sort Of)

The surprise of the night was the presence of George Lucas, whom Close thanked in her speech, saying, "Wasn't 'American Graffiti' an independent film? Or maybe that was when studios were making what we now call independent cinema." "Every filmmaker has been influenced in some way by George Lucas," she continued. "My favorite quote of his is ‘Anything you think of can happen.'" ("American Graffiti" was made by Universal, one of Hollywood's biggest studios; but the film is slight in scope, closer to "Dazed and Confused" in its youthful energy than it is to most other films in its profit range—it made over $200 million). Lucas quickly disappeared after the ceremony's close; however, briefly seen from just a few feet away, he looked to me no different than he did when he made "Star Wars" in 1977.

Robert Redford Busy Filming "Captain America"

Close and the MCs noted the absence of Sundance's founder and leader, the actor-director Robert Redford, and praised the fact that he could not be present due to a film shoot (nearing 80, the Oscar winner is as active as ever, last year headlining the highly lauded "All Is Lost.") They, however, failed to mention the name of the film he is currently shooting, which, after a brief inquiry, was discovered to be the third installment of the big action franchise "Captain America." (There was no better proof in attendance of the idea of indies as stepping stones for "bigger" films than Darren Aronofsky, who in 1998 had won the Sundance directing award for his low-budget gem "Pi" but whose latest venture into cinema was this year's multi-millionaire dollar "Noah," starring Oscar winners and an inordinate amount of CGI.) Meanwhile, the lead actor of Chazelle's "Whiplash," Teller, was busy shooting the next action hero sequel "The Fantastic Four" with "That Awkward Moment" costar Michael B. Jordan, who himself had his film breakout as the star of the big Sundance hit "Fruitvale Station." The superhero is indeed today's much-coveted rung on the acting ladder, and I wondered which x-men Redford would have been in his prime.