The tone of this year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards was set early, when host Aubrey Plaza kicked off the annual awards ceremony with a girl-powered pre-taped show opener, which featured Hollywood heavyweights like Marcia Gay Harden, Rosanna Arquette, Christina Ricci, Sharon Stone, and Marisa Tomei playing at summoning indie film-fueled power in literal witch garb. Putting the focus on women and their impact on the industry isn’t exactly groundbreaking these days, but the Spirits weren’t just going for cheap gags in service of a laugh or two.
Unlike other awards season to-do’s, the Spirits nominated plenty of women, including in the Best Director category, a space that still doesn’t typically find room to recognize the work of creators who happen to be female. Plaza’s opening monologue pointed out that 60 percent of the ceremony’s nominated directors were women, and though she admitted that really means just three out of five nominees, putting it in percentage terms “makes it sound way scarier to your uncles.”
While the Best Director win ultimately went to Barry Jenkins for his “If Beale Street Could Talk” — which also won Best Feature — the director didn’t sidestep the subject, telling the crowd that he didn’t want to win the award, especially given the current state of an industry that still struggles to award and recognize its female talents. “I’m not gonna lie, man,” Jenkins said. “I didn’t want to win this damn award. With everything going on in the world, it just feels strange to be up here.” Jenkins also used his acceptance speech to challenge the industry to work with more women and to tout the impact of women on his own work, including a special mention of fellow nominee Lynne Ramsay.
While the Best Director win did not ultimately go to a woman — in a category in which they were the majority, still to something to celebrate — the power of female filmmakers was felt throughout the awards ceremony, as female-directed features dominated a number of other categories.
The first win of the night may have gone to a man, but in his Best Supporting Male acceptance speech, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” star Richard E. Grant continued to tout the work of the film’s essential women: director Marielle Heller and star Melissa McCarthy, thanking Heller for her “compassionate” creativity and directing and McCarthy for being the perfect partner for such a tricky film.
Backstage, he added that working with the pair was like “winning the jackpot, double times over.” Asked if the experience of working with a female director was different, Grant said, “Completely and utterly,” noting that the film he made before “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was the R-rated superhero film “Logan,” which involved “everybody being mean as shit” and cutting each other’s heads off with knives. “She’s a brilliant director, Marielle Heller,” he added.
The first female director to be honored at the show wasn’t a surprise — second annual Bonnie Award recipient Debra Granik had been announced weeks before the show — but the presence of the “Winter’s Bone” and “Leave No Trace” filmmaker was met with wild cheers and a standing ovation from the audience.
For the filmmaker, who was also nominated for Best Director, the Bonnie Award is about moving forward in a positive way. “The Bonnie Award is saying, ‘keep going, nose to the grindstone, get back to work, we like what you do, do more work,'” Granik said backstage. “It’s encouragement, it’s mainline encouragement.”
Best Screenplay went to another female director: Nicole Holofcener who, along with co-writer Jeff Whitty, won for their adaptation of Lee Israel’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
While Holofcener did not direct the film, which she had been attached to for many years before it was finally made by Fox Searchlight, the “Enough Said” filmmaker was not content to accept the award without sharing it with its eventual director, Marielle Heller. After inviting Heller on stage, Holofcener added, “She did this little thing called directing the movie.”
Speaking backstage, Holofcener was asked about being nominated for six Indie Spirits (including previous writing nods for “Please Give,” “Lovely & Amazing,” and “Enough Said,” all of which she also directed) and finally winning one for a film that she only wrote. “Someone else had to direct the movie, clearly,” Holofcener cracked.
Asked about Heller being consistently snubbed for her work during this awards season, Holofcener stayed honest. “I don’t know if this is because she’s female, I know this could easily happen to a male director, but it seems really unfair and strange, just strange,” she said. “I mean, I’m nominated for a million things, the actors are too, it’s like they didn’t direct themselves. I feel that Marielle was cheated, and I feel bad about that. And I know if I was in her shoes, I’d be pretty upset, too.”
Elsewhere, Best Editing winner Joe Bina won for his work on Lynne Ramsay’s “You Were Never Really Here.” Backstage, the frequent Werner Herzog collaborator also praised Andrea Arnold and touted his work with Ramsay as “the most symbiotic” relationship he’s experienced yet in his career. “I think we see things the same way, when she shoots films,” he said. “A large part of it is just finding the right people to work with. I did with her.”
Even films that were not directed by women were dominated by a distinctly women-centric spirit, including Glenn Close who won her very first Spirit for her turn in “The Wife,” based on the Meg Wolitzer novel of the same name and centered on a woman who lives in the shadow of her more famous husband (with a big twist on that concept that frames the film’s shocking final act).
The film was directed by Björn Runge, but it boasts a screenplay by Jane Anderson and a producing team filled with women, including Anderson and Nina Bisgaard.
Earlier in the afternoon, while accepting his Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay, “Eighth Grade” filmmaker Bo Burnham shouted out his female star, nominee Elsie Fisher (or, as he put it, “Elsie Fisher, Elsie Fisher, Elsie Fisher”). Backstage, the filmmaker told the assembled journalists that “any award for the film is really an award for Elsie.”
And when the “Suspiria” team hit the stage to accept their Robert Altman Award, it was only women who were on hand to accept the honor, as director Luca Guadagnino was not present. Along with casting directors Avy Kaufman and Stella Savino, the female-powered ensemble cast of the film filled the space, including Tilda Swinton, Chloe Grace Moretz, Mia Goth, Jessica Harper, and Dakota Johnson.
In their acceptance speech, Savino billed the Dario Argento remake as “a great portrait of women’s power.” This year, so were the Indie Spirits.
The 2019 Spirit Awards returned to their usual home inside the big white tent just north of the Santa Monica Pier on Saturday, February 23.