Celebrating its 50th anniversary, the San Francisco International Film Festival welcomed about 600 of the city’s well-heeled residents to the Westin St. Francis Hotel in Union Square last night for the annual Film Society Awards night. Hollywood glitterati also made their way in for the big party, including Bay Area natives George Lucas and Robin Williams as well as director Spike Lee, recent Oscar-winning screenwriter Peter Morgan, and director Ron Howard. San Francisco Film Society executive director Graham Leggat greeted the crowd, taking the stage in the cavernous ballroom saying gleefully, “This is the longest running festival in the Americas…”
Schmoozing, cocktails and invitees strutting flashy evening attire was the order of the night at the pre-dinner cocktail party inside, while the celebs made their way down the press line for photos and interviews. The San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Freedom Marching Band eventually lead a parade into the adjoining ballroom for the dinner portion of the evening, followed by the honorary awards. First up was Pixar‘s John Lasseter who introduced George Lucas, the recipient of SFIFF’s one-time only Irving M. Levin Award (named in honor of the film festival’s founder). “…he had these wacky crazy ideas of doing digital filmmaking,” said Lasseter when introducing Lucas to the stage. “And think about it today. He changed filmmaking…and I was lucky enough to be fired from Walt Disney animation in 1983 and then got hired by Lucas’ company…”
“I am out of the mainstream and I can do things that aren’t too smart,” Lucas said, stirring laughter. He wrapped up his quick stage appearance saying, “I’m proud to be from here and proud the San Francisco International Film Festival is the oldest in America.”
A bit of levity punctuated the evening as speakers chimed in with the score of the NBA playoff game between the local Warriors and the Dallas Mavericks, which regularly wound up the crowd into a roar of cheers. Director Ron Howard gave a score update before introducing “The Queen” writer Peter Morgan, who received the fest’s Kanbar Award for “excellence in screenwriting.”
“I hadn’t heard of Peter Morgan until [the fairly recent past] but I met him in the U.K. about a project I was working on, but he eventually passed on the project… Kind of makes you wonder what the hell I’m doing here…” Howard said to laughs. The pair are actually currently working on the drama “Frost/Nixon,” which Morgan wrote as a play and is adapting into a screenplay. Howard, of course, will direct.
“I have no idea what sport you’re talking about,” Morgan said with an accentuated stiff upper lip, referencing the basketball score updates. He then reflected on his award saying, “This is surreal. Thank you for honoring a writer at all…I’m thrilled, and it’s even not someone from the Bay Area. It was inconvenient for you to ask me, and it was inconvenient for me to come,” he said to still more laughter.
Director Spike Lee was up next, taking the stage in a white tux with black trim to accept his Film Society Directing Award. He elicited audience cheers with another basketball game update, “the score is 90 – 67…” And then noticed some parallels between himself and the festival. “I turned 50 [on] March 20, [so I was born] when this great festival began. ‘She’s Gotta Have It‘ premiered here in 1986, and I’m here now. So I feel like I’ve come full circle.”
Graham Leggat reminisced that when Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It” debuted at the SF fest in ’86, the city suffered a blackout just as the screening began, and Lee along with then executive director Peter Scarlet (now Tribeca Film Festival director) entertained the audience with an impromptu onstage Q&A by flashlight until the power was restored.
The gala evening climaxed last night with Robin Williams receiving the Peter J. Owens Award, which honors an actor whose work “exemplifies brilliance, independence and integrity.” Williams began his uproarious speech touting his Bay Area credentials, recalling his upbringing in tony Marin County (one of the nation’s wealthiest) just across the Golden Gate Bridge.
“When I got here 40 years ago [with my family], we lived in Marin, which is Spanish for “wealthy white people…” Williams said to bursts of laughter. He then praised San Francisco and credited the city for his eventual career choice. “This place is different…there’s a lot going on here. I found improvisation here…this city has a wild side, this city is an asylum…it’s a zoo…I can even walk around the streets of San Francisco and here…I’m normal. That’s what this place is about, creation. This place is always home, and it always will be…”
Leggat closed the evening saying the Film Society had raised the most ever at the evening’s fundraiser, which benefits film programs targeting 8 – 18 year-olds in the Bay Area.
But, there was one final order of business for Leggat. The basketball score… “With one minute to go, it’s Warriors 111 and Dallas 86.” The crowd cheered once again, and it was a good night for San Francisco.