The Palm Springs International Film Festival held its annual Awards Gala on Saturday night, raising $1.3 million for the Palm Springs International Film Society, giving a moment in the spotlight for more than a dozen awards contenders, and leaving one big question in the minds of attendees:
Where's Mariah Carey when you need her?
Last year's gala provided one indelible moment: Carey, who was being honored for her performance in "Precious," launching into a disjointed, rambling speech that immediately became a YouTube sensation.
This year, there was no Carey to seize the spotlight. What was left was an awards presentation that PSIFF chairman Howard Matzner insisted ranked behind only the Oscars and the Golden Globes in the "aura of glamour" and amount of international press attention it attracted.
Unlike those events, though, the winners in Palm Springs are announced ahead of time – and instead of being chosen by a secret vote, they're the product of negotiations and jockeying between studios and publicists anxious to showcase their contenders in front of what one wag called "just another precinct," and a festival that needs big names to attract the town's moneyed elite to its annual fundraising event.
So "The Social Network" got an award for its ensemble cast, and "The King's Speech" and "Black Swan" got some visibility because Colin Firth (above, with Helen Mirren) and Natalie Portman (below) received the Desert Palm Achievement Awards for Actor and Actress, and "The Fighter" director David O. Russell was named Director of the Year – which didn't stop two other directors from also getting kudos, "127 Hours" helmer Danny Boyle receiving the Sonny Bono Visionary Award and actor/writer/director Ben Affleck taking home the Chairman's Award.
A hirstute Affleck joked about the name of that award, saying that he'd grown "a chairman's beard" for the occasion. But that's what happens at events like Palm Springs gala: categories are flexible, and it's always possible to squeeze in one more big star with one more award.
Other honorees included Jennifer Lawrence, Carey Mulligan, Javier Bardem, Robert Duvall and songwriter Diane Warren.
Timed only a week before Oscar ballots are due and situated in a desert resort city that has always had a sizeable entertainment community, the Palm Springs gala is taken seriously enough that, for instance, Danny Boyle flew in straight from London, where he's in rehearsals for a stage version of "Frankenstein" that he's directing at London's National Theater.
"I'm in theater mode, so it's hard to change my focus and move back into this world," he told theWrap at a party that followed the ceremony. "But Fox Searchlight has been so great with this movie that I had to come back for this."
As for the Gala itself, the lack of a wild-card like Carey made for a long and fairly staid but affectionate evening, where any qualms about the real motives behind the awards can be ignored because the people being saluted were all eminently worthy.
For the eighth consecutive year, "Entertainment Tonight" anchor Mary Hart served as host. Hart is certainly a mainstay in Palm Springs and a pro at this sort of thing, but three hours of her preternatural perkiness gets a bit wearying, particularly when she introduced people like Helen Mirren and David Fincher in exactly the same exaggerated tones she used to deliver lengthy shout-outs to sponsors like Cartier.
The event, staged in the cavernous Palm Springs Convention Center, kicked off with Oliver Stone presenting the Rising Star Award to Jennifer Lawrence, who betrayed one of the night's purest glimpses of emotion at the beginning of her speech.
"I guess I'm supposed to pretend that all of this is really normal," she said. "but inside I'm jumping up and down like a five-year-old, because Oliver Stone just gave me an award, and that's my Saturday."
Mulligan received the Breakthrough Award (question: wasn't her breakthrough in 2009, with "An Education"?) from her "Never Let Me Go" co-star Andrew Garfield, who called her "a rare gift" to her co-stars, and added, "She's ludicrously beautiful, of course, but she's lacking in vanity enough to rock a mullet with pride."
Javier Bardem (left) was the one real international star honored by the international film festival – receiving, appropriately enough, the International Star Award from Natalie Portman, who said Bardem took her to "every gay bar in Madrid when the two were making "Goya's Ghosts." "He really is the best actor of our lifetime," she said after clips of Bardem's work played.
Bardem, who admitted to theWrap before the show that he was nervous about giving a speech in English, immediately turned the tables on Portman: "Let me talk about 'Black Swan' for a moment," he said. "You are totally amazing in that. I wish I could do all the things that you do in that."
Songwriter Diane Warren admitted to being nervous as well – "this isn't my natural habitat at all," she said – when she accepted the Frederick Loewe Music Award for her more than 100 movie songs over the years, including Cher's anthem "You Haven't Seen the Last of Me" from "Burlesque." A six-time Oscar nominee, she's never won – though last year Palm Springs honoree T Bone Burnett went on to take home the Oscar for his song from "Crazy Heart," so maybe there's an omen in that.
A few minutes later, congresswoman Mary Bono Mack – the widow of singer, songwriter and former Palm Springs mayor Sonny Bono, who launched PSIFF – said she'd just been backstage with Warren, who told her that as an aspiring teenage, songwriter her father had taken her to meet Sonny, who blew her off rather than listening to her songs.
"I'm so very sorry about that," Mary Bono Mack said, "but for what it's worth, Cher kicked ass with your song. So I hope that makes up for it."
As the evening stretched on, David O. Russell paid tribute to the people from the Massachusetts town where "The Fighter" is set: "This is for the people of Lowell, all the people who live and sweat, who are roofers and street sweepers." A jetlagged Colin Firth accepted his award from Helen Mirren and joked about how there could never be an English community named Palm Springs: "There's just nothing it applies to." And Jake Gyllenhaal Franco brought down the room with a blunt appreciation of Portman's "emotional, moving and, honestly, really f___ing great performance in 'Black Swan.'"
He also claimed that he'd first met Portman at a Star Wars convention when he waited in line to get her autograph on a Queen Amidala doll. "I'm really hoping that she wins the Oscar," he said, "because if she does that doll will be worth a s___load of money."
The final award of the night went to Robert Duvall (right), who just turned 80 and said, "You never get too old to get things like this." He singled out director Francis Ford Coppola and playwright Horton Foote, called his last film "Get Low" "a true Southern tale, without being patronized by either of the two coasts," and added to earlier presenter Amy Ryan's description of Ben Affleck as "our generation's Orson Welles, except with better abs."
"I'm about to work with Billy Bob Thornton," said Duvall. "I think he's the hillbilly Orson Welles."
Duvall ended with a story about an old Argentinian who told the actor, in broken English, how much he admired Duvall's work. "Thank you, Mr. Duvall," the man said. "I give you great pleasure."
Duvall told the story, and laughed. "Whether we give it or they give it," he said, "it's a great profession."
(Photos by John Shearer/Getty Images)