PALM SPRINGS -- Veteran Helen Mirren showed how to express gratitude like a pro, saying “thank you” in at least half a dozen languages. Fresh-faced Tom Holland, the 16-year-old actor from "The Impossible," charmed with his youth. But it was Sally Field who brought down the house Saturday night at the Palm Springs International Film Festival gala, an event that in many ways is the first dress rehearsal of Hollywood’s awards season.
Held a week before the Golden Globes and seven weeks before the Oscars, the gala gives celebrities a chance to practice strutting on the red carpet and speechifying onstage. Among the honorees this year were actresses Helen Hunt and Naomi Watts, actors Richard Gere and Bradley Cooper, and director Tom Hooper.
For years, the Palm Springs fete happened before Oscar nominations closed and thus was a final campaigning opportunity for a nomination. This year, Academy Award nomination ballots were due a day before the gala. Still, the evening offered opportunities for many prospective contenders to rub elbows with the scores of Motion Picture Academy members who live in the Palm Springs area. Assuming many of the Palm Springs honorees did land Oscar nominations, they were able to sow some goodwill with Academy Awards voters here Saturday.
Field, who has received accolades for her portrayal of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” this season and is seen as a strong contender for a best supporting actress Oscar, accepted the Lifetime Achievement Award from Martin Sheen as the crowd of nearly 2,000 at the Palm Springs Convention Center gave her a standing ovation.
The two-time Oscar winner, who grew up in Los Angeles in what she called a “working-class showbiz family,” charmed the crowd -- heavy with desert retirees -- with tales of visiting the sunny getaway as a child on vacation in the 1950s. “It was one long street, a dusty, wonderful street,” she joked. “That was it.”
She recalled landing her first professional acting job at age 17, apparently referring to her turn on the TV show “Gidget.” Before her first scene, the producer “looked down in my face and said very seriously, ‘You know, Sally, you can’t change your mind,’” she recollected. “I didn’t know what he was talking about. Change my mind?”
The idea, Field said, was utterly foreign to her. “I didn’t back into becoming an actor -- I was born one,” she said, going on to recount a host of her experiences -- many hilarious -- in nearly five decades of acting.
She told of “flying across the Cocoanut Grove into John Wayne’s arms wearing a pink taffeta culotte outfit that my mother had made for me” to present Dustin Hoffman with the best newcomer award at the Golden Globes ceremony in 1968. “How I survived that,” she quipped, “I don’t know.”
Over the years, she said, “I did a scene in a suit of armor, and dressed as a bear. I’ve done love scenes with a pelican. Yes, it’s true, I’ve done love scenes with a pelican. But I’ve also done love scenes with Paul Newman.... I’ve been weighed down with 150 pounds of period clothes. I’ve been fully clothed, semi-clothed and totally naked, and never once has it occurred to me to change my mind.”
Field, 66, wore a lacy black dress, but blue seemed to be the color of choice for the evening, with Watts, Hunt and emcee Mary Hart donning gowns in shades between navy and cobalt.
Hart, the longtime host of Entertainment Tonight, was emceeing the event for the 10thtime. She led the audience in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” for Bradley Cooper, who turned 38 on Saturday. The “Silver Linings Playbook” star took home a Desert Palm Achievement Award for acting (presented by his director, David O. Russell), as did Naomi Watts, star of the tsunami drama “The Impossible” (who received her award from co-star Tom Holland).
The film festival was founded by Sonny Bono 24 years ago when he was mayor of Palm Springs; his widow, Mary Bono Mack, took the stage halfway through the ceremony and in a poignant moment, noted that Saturday marked the 15th anniversary of Bono’s death, in a skiing accident. “I miss Sonny every day,” Mack said.
The cast of “Argo” received the Ensemble Performance Award, presented by Tony Mendez, a CIA agent portrayed by Ben Affleck in the film; Affleck was joined onstage by cast members Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston.
Other honorees included “Life of Pi” composer Mychael Danna, who was presented with the Frederick Lowe Award for Film Composing by director Ang Lee; Gere, who received the Chairman’s Award (presented by Diane Lane); and “Les Miserables” director Hooper, who was given the Sonny Bono Visionary Award by his cast member Redmayne. Mirren received the International Star Award. [Update, 11:50 a.m., Jan. 7: "Flight" helmer Robert Zemeckis was named director of the year.]
Organizers said the event raised $1.8 million for the nonprofit Palm Springs International Film Society.