The 35th annual Film Independent Spirit Awards saluted an array of winners that will likely be more diverse in race and gender, more adventurous artistically and less predictable than the winners at Sunday’s Academy Awards.
In the process, Spirit Awards voters still managed to leave the impression that they’d like to be the Oscars and will only settle for being a true alternative when the nominations leave them no other choice — right up until the final award of the afternoon, when they pulled an unexpected move and chose “The Farewell” over Oscar nominee “Marriage Story” and three-time Spirit winner “Uncut Gems.”
Coming not long after Zhao Shuzhen, the 85-year-old star of “The Farewell,” beat Jennifer Lopez in the Best Supporting Female category, the win put a wild spin on a show that until then had alternated between awarding Oscar nominees and saluting the Safdie brothers’ “Uncut Gems,” which won three awards.
By giving its biggest award to a heartwarming comedy over an Oscar nominee and a bracing indie sensation, voters made an odd but undeniably independent choice. And it made indie distributor A24 the big winner of the night, with three awards for “Uncut Gems,” two for “The Farewell” and two for “The Lighthouse.”
The only other film with multiple wins was “Marriage Story,” which won the previously announced Robert Altman Award and also took the screenplay prize.
The win for “The Farewell” ran against almost everything that had happened at the show up to that point — because until then, every Spirit Award that could have gone to an Oscar nominee, did. “Marriage Story” won Best Screenplay, Renée Zellweger won Best Female Lead for “Judy,” “Parasite” won Best International Film, “American Factory” won Best Documentary, “The Lighthouse” won Best Cinematography.
(One big question: If Jennifer Lopez had been nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars, as most people thought she would be for “Hustlers,” would Spirit Awards voters have felt compelled to vote for her rather than “The Farewell” actress Zhao Shuzhen, who was the biggest surprise winner of the show? I’m guessing they would have.)
This is par for the course in recent years. The Spirit Awards only matched the Oscar Best Picture winner once in its first 26 years, but since then the winners have matched five times in eight years. And the other three times, Spirit Awards voters picked the closest thing they could get to an Oscar winner: Best Picture nominees “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2012 and “Get Out” in 2017, and three-time Oscar nominee “If Beale Street Could Talk” last year, when none of the Academy’s best-pic nominees landed in their final five.
But “The Farewell” was something different, especially with Oscar nominee “Marriage Story” as one of the options in the top category.
And it shifted the focus of this Spirit Awards show from the one that tried to be an Oscar rehearsal to one that contained such thoroughly non-Oscary winners as Shuzhen for “The Farewell,” Adam Sandler for Best Leading Male in “Uncut Gems” and the Safdie brothers for Best Director, also for “Uncut Gems.”
Those categories, along with Best Feature, actually allowed the winners to hijack the Spirit Awards and turn it into an event with its own personality — not just more diverse and inclusive than the Oscars, but wilder and weirder, too. Anybody who was there or who watched it will remember it not just as the awards show where “The Farewell” scored an upset victory, but also the one where JLo didn’t win and Adam Sandler did, and then gave one of the most uproarious speeches in the history of a show that has had its share of uproarious speeches.
In about two-and-a-half hours on Saturday afternoon, the Spirit Awards changed its own narrative a bit, to the point where we don’t really know what its identity is. It was an awards show that gave big prizes to “The Farewell” and “Uncut Gems,” to “Booksmart” and “The Lighthouse,” to “Give Me Liberty” and “See You Yesterday.” It was, I guess you’d have to say, independent.