Palm Springs International Film Festival organizers often tout its annual Awards Gala as the awards season's kickoff and the branding has done its job. In addition to a sellout crowd of more than 1,000 who attended the black-tie awards dinner at the Palm Springs Convention Center Jan. 8, earlier that day fans waited more than two hours to grab a seat at a screening of “The King’s Speech” that included a Q&A with Oscar frontrunner Colin Firth.
Firth also received the festival's Desert Palm Achievement Actor Award from Dame Helen Mirren; she curtseyed to him as he came onstage as audience members rose for a standing ovation.
Oliver Stone kicked off the gala that - true of most awards shows – didn’t embrace brevity. Still, the lineup of presenters and honorees was impressive and, as Palm Springs International Film Society chairman Harold Matzner noted, the evening raised $1.3 million - a sizable chunk of the festival's $5.7 million budget.
"It's just extraordinary to me that at only 19 she was the lead in such an exceptional film as 'Winter's Bone,'" Stone said to introduce the night's first honoree, Rising Star Award winner Jennifer Lawrence. "I think you will all see a lot of her over the next 50 years. Welcome to the circus, Jennifer."
"I guess I'm supposed to act like this is all normal when I'm actually jumping up and down like a five-year-old inside," said Lawrence, who next co-stars opposite Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster in "The Beaver."
Fellow young actor Carey Mulligan received PSIFF honors for her roles in "Never Let Me Go" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," after an introduction from fellow British actor Andrew Garfield.
Natalie Portman, who received the Desert Palm Achievement Actress Award, received an effusive introduction from Jake Gyllenhaal that praised everything about her up to and including her eyebrows.
"This movie was such a pleasure to make and to be recognized by this community is just a cherry on top," said Portman, who is receiving Oscar hype for her role in "Black Swan." "Darren Aronofsky is the greatest among great directors I've had the pleasure to work with," she said, adding, "I'd dust your shoes to work on your next film."
Earlier in the evening, Portman introduced Javier Bardem, who received the fest's International Star Award. (Bardem joked that the award for "international star" meant, "You don't understand what I say.”) The actor dedicated the prize to his “Biutiful” director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and gave a shout-outs to Michael Douglas and to his wife and the mother of his child, Penelope Cruz.
In other awards, Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg introduced David O. Russell, who received the fest’s Director of the Year Award for "The Fighter." And James Franco presented his “127 Hours” director Danny Boyle with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award. "The film could have easily become some artsy Hungarian slow movie, but Danny Boyle likes to entertain and I think he succeeded," said Franco.
Also taking home awards were Diane Warren ("Burlesque"), who received the Frederick Loewe Music Award and Ben Affleck, who received the Chairman’s Award for "The Town." Affleck noted his current substantial facial hair, joking that he grew a "chairman's beard" for the acceptance, adding, "I hope that by osmosis I get some of the great talent that has been here tonight."
"The Social Network" director David Fincher introduced Jesse Eisenberg and Garfield, who accepted the Ensemble Performance Award. Closing out the evening was Aaron Eckhart, who presented actor Robert Duvall ("Get Low") with the festival's Career Achievement Award. Duvall was immortalized earlier in the week with handprints at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood.
The 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival continues through January 17. The festival opened Thursday night with a screening of Francois Ozon's "Potiche."