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An Inside Look at the Event That’s a Stunning Prognosticator of Oscar Nominations

Of the recent Palm Springs Film Festival Gala winners, 87.5% received Oscar nominations. The 2019 awards include Bradley Cooper and Spike Lee.

PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 03:  Bradley Cooper accepts the Director of the Year Award onstage at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 3, 2019 in Palm Springs, California.  (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Bradley Cooper accepts the Director of the Year Award at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala.

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Bradley Cooper spoke of the irony of receiving an honor in a room where he shot a scene of “A Star Is Born,” Peter Farrelly and Spike Lee honed their messages, and Glenn Close got the biggest response at this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala.

Of all the stops on the annual awards-show cattle call, few grab the enthusiastic response of this annual pre-festival gala. It’s the first of many — followed by the AFI luncheon, the Golden Globes, the New York Film Critics’ Dinner, and comes just before voting opens for Oscar nominations. Call it the out-of-town debut for the big show, or spring training for movie pros (just a few blocks from where the Los Angeles Angels once had their pre-season ball field), it showcases contenders who are primed and ready to go.

As long-time festival chairman (and dominant Coachella Valley philanthropist) Harold Matzner noted in his comments, 49 of the 56 recipients over the last six years went on to Oscar nominations. That’s no coincidence; the various awards are designed to showcase established contenders, generate publicity on national media, and get a chance to impress a community (one which includes a smattering of Academy members) just 114 miles from the Dolby Theater.

The Gala is the Coachella Valley’s biggest annual society event in a desert region of 300,000 year round residents. Remarkably, Palm Springs has the third-highest ticket sales of any U.S. film festival; only Tribeca and Seattle sell more. The gala, with attendance of around 2,500, raises over $1 million for the well-financed festival, which otherwise takes over all the movie theater screens and other part-time locations for 10 days. (The festival proper opens January 5 with Kenneth Branagh’s “All Is True.”)

The gala’s 11 awards, with designations that vary a little every year and all made to sound equally impressive, are an excuse to celebrate some of the top achievements of the film year. But whatever the context, the audience approaches the event with little cynicism and plenty of enthusiasm: Live coverage of the red carpet preempts two hours of evening news on one local TV station.

Hosted for the 16th time by former Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart, the awards got off to a quick start with Timothee Chalamet, a supporting actor candidate for “Beautiful Boy” receiving the Spotlight Award (Actor) from upcoming “Little Women” costar Laura Dern, who called him “Timmy” and said he was “her buddy.” (This was a return trip — he won a Breakthrough award last year). In his acceptance, Chalamet gave a shoutout to other actors who broke out after youthful performances (including Dern, who was 17 when she made “Blue Velvet”). He said his interest in acting came after he accepted early on that he didn’t have the build for athletics.

Next up was Rami Malek for the award Chalamet won last year. As the Emmy-winning “Mr. Robot” actor, breakout might be a stretch for him. But he was enthusiastically received after an introduction from “Robot” costar Christian Slater. He thanked a lengthy list of collaborators, including his makeup artist (“I looked at myself in the mirror sometimes and giggled — and I never giggle”). Conspicuously absent in his list of thanks was “Bohemian Rhapsody” director Bryan Singer.

The Chairman’s Award went to Regina King, with the Supporting Actress candidate introduced by her “If Beale Street Could Talk” director Barry Jenkins. He said that as a man adapting a novel written by a man, he needed a woman who could help him with the perception of this key female character. King described how as a child she aspired to multiple careers, then realized as an actress she had a chance to play at many of them. “It feels good to be Regina King,” she concluded.

PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 03: (L-R) Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Emily Blunt, and Nathanael Saleh accept the Ensemble Performance Award onstage at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 3, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Pixie Davies, Joel Dawson, Emily Blunt, and Nathanael Saleh accept the Ensemble Performance Award at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala

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“Mary Poppins Returns” was up next for the Ensemble Performance Award. Director Rob Marshall introduced some of his cast including Emily Blunt and several of the child actors, who had just flown in from England and seemed jetlagged. Curiously, this section was introduced with the orchestra playing “Supercalifragilistic” from the original film, spotlighting that so far no songs from the sequel have become familiar. Blunt gushed that Marshall was her “Nanny Poppins,” and Pixie Daniels, Annabelle in the film, said he was “practically perfect in every way.”

PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 03: Alfonso Cuaron accepts the Sonny Bono Visionary Award onstage at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 3, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Alfonso Cuaron accepts the Sonny Bono Visionary Award at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala

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Gary Oldman, an awards winner last year and now local resident introduced Sonny Bono Visionary Award-winner Alfonso Cuaron (“Roma”). Bono founded the festival in 1990 when he was mayor of Palm Springs as part of a drive to revitalize what had become a declining city. Cuaron credited the film’s vision to his two central actresses, Yalitza Aparicio and Marina de Tavira, both of whom attended but did not appear on stage. Though his film has had an easier availability to audiences than most of the others with its Netflix streaming, it was difficult to detect that many people in the center had seen it.

Melissa McCarthy, Spotlight Award Actress winner, was preceded by her “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” costar Richard E. Grant. He clearly revels in his own spotlight as a strong Supporting Actor contender. Witty, enthusiastic, and passionate in his praise, he said the two had connected at a high level, and he praised her as a totally committed actress. He joked that they were planning on having twins and to make all their future films together. McCarthy, also effusive in response, was more emotionally moved than other winners, seemingly a little teary at the end, particular while speaking of husband Ben Falcone and her daughters. She spoke of the irony of getting a “spotlight” award, since as a teen she suspected her only contact with one might be while making a break from prison.

Sam Elliott, easily the most popular of the presenters (one whom many of the older and equally silver-haired audience clearly identified with) gave Bradley Cooper his Director of the Year award for “A Star Is Born.” Cooper spoke of his awe that Elliott, Lady Gaga, and the rest of his cast and crew had been willing to trust him for his directing debut. He had last been in the same place when he shot the scene where his washed-up character performed at a pharmaceutical convention.

Emma Stone brought on Olivia Colman, her costar in “The Favourite,” for her Desert Palm Achievement Award for Actress. Another case of acclaim from a colleague (“Her performances leave me breathless — she doesn’t act, she is!”) Colman accepted while conveying an authentic feeling of someone not quite used to this attention. She described Palm Springs, which she was visiting for the first time, as a place she previously thought of as a fantasy like Narnia. In one of the evening’s most effective subtle political jabs, she described Queen Anne as “someone in whom resides all the madness, frustrations, confusions, and instability of a powerful person unfit for their job,” adding a slight tweak to her mouth so people got her point.

Spike Lee received his career achievement award from “BlackKklansman” actors Adam Driver and John David Washington. The assemblage of clips from his films going back over three decades made a strong case for both the award and other near-term accolades. Lee spoke of some of the major talents he had been lucky to direct who were no longer alive, including Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and others. Then he cited his 1963 Birmingham church bombing documentary “4 Little Girls” as the one film of which he’s most proud.

The Vanguard Award goes to a director and his cast, with this year’s winner “Green Book” introduced by Jim Carrey, who starred in Peter Farrelly’s “Dumb and Dumber” a quarter century earlier. (He said the intervening years have made its lead duo no longer seem so dumb.) Farrelly, the only one to speak among the large assemblage of cast and other collaborators on stage including Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, brought up again the same point about the trust he received as a director — in his case, lacking experience in dramas. In what felt like the most carefully crafted awards appeal, he cited the importance the film has in showing that people of wildly different backgrounds and beliefs could overcome that gap just by talking to each other, declaring that he hoped the film can be seen as a unifier in divided times. (It remains to be seen if that effective talking point arrives in time to effect the controversial film’s awards chances.)

PALM SPRINGS, CA - JANUARY 03: Glenn Close accepts the Icon Award onstage at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 3, 2019 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images for Palm Springs International Film Festival )

Glenn Close accepts the Icon Award onstage at the 30th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Awards Gala

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The final award, the Icon Award, went to veteran actress Glenn Close. Most of the audience rose to their feet for the only time during the evening after an introduction by Michael Keaton (her “The Paper” costar). His intro was peppered with Oscar-hinting words like “overdue.” Instead of a series of clips covering her lengthy career, the gala screened an extended scene from late in “The Wife,” which revealed the film’s surprise twist to anyone who had not yet seen it.

Close handled her acceptance with the grace and aplomb. She joked about being an icon, and how it is a word not unlike “emoji,” several of which she then acted out using facial expressions, to the crowd’s delight. She spoke at length of her eight-year commitment to getting “The Wife” made, and her pleasure that it has become an international success.

With that, the dinner ended and many attendees headed for Los Angeles for the AFI luncheon, the BAFTA tea, and the Golden Globes. Whoever speaks ahead, Palm Springs knows they heard its speeches first.

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