Palm Springs Film Fest Awards Gala brings Depp, Blanchett, Damon and more to the desert

The Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala took place Saturday night at the Palm Springs Convention Center. It made for an evening of unusual juxtapositions, a glitzy event for a room full of finely dressed, well-to-do people to celebrate movies on financial collapse, emotional despair, the struggle to survive and the like.

The event, in a room of some 2,400 people, brings in about $2.4 million for the Palm Springs International Film Society. The event has also become increasingly important within the larger picture of awards season, because over the last three years 28 of the event’s 31 honorees have gone on to an Academy Award nomination in that year.

Palm Springs Film Society chairman Harold Matzner noted in a speech that there were 27,000 individual orchids in the centerpieces around the room and then transitioned to speaking about increased security measures around the evening.

“This is not what we should have to do here in America, but is the right thing to do at this time,” Matzner said.

The first award of the evening found Amber Heard presenting the Rising Star award to her co-star in “The Danish Girl,” Alicia Vikander.

As Vikander spoke, there was a large ovation when she said the name of co-star Eddie Redmayne. She thanked director Tom Hooper “for giving a Scandavian actor a chance, even though it’s called ‘The Danish Girl.’ ”

Set in artistic demi-monde of 1920s Copenhagen, in “The Danish Girl” Vikander plays Gerda Wegener, whose husband transitions from male to female in one of the first known sex assignment procedures.

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Vikander added she wanted “to give thanks to all the people that I met in preparation for this film. I was met by such generosity and honesty from people from the trangender community, from their friends, from their loved ones, from their partners, and that experience made this film a very special one … to try to give the authenticity that Gerda deserves."

Michael Keaton was played onstage by the olestra to the tune of TV’s “Batman.” He was there to present the Sonny Bono Visionary Award to his “Spotlight” director Tom McCarthy.

He heralded Sonny Bono as “a poster child for diversification. He did a little bit of everything” before talking about “Spotlight” and the deep collaboration with the Boston Globe reporters the story is about.

The most heartfelt and unexpected moment was a tribute video to producer Jerry Weintraub, a friend and advisor to the festival who died in 2015, made by Steven Soderbergh. Featuring video and still photos of Weintraub, Soderbergh in a voice-over spoke about his relationship with the producer of the “Ocean’s” trilogy and the Liberace picture “Behind the Candelabra.”

“We were the perfect partners,” Soderbergh said. “I didn’t want to do his job, and he didn’t want to do mine.”

Director Lenny Abrahamson and young co-star Jacob Tremblay presented the Breakthrough Performance Award to Brie Larson for her role in “Room.” Larson came onstage to a jaunty version of “Big Rock Candy Mountain” from the orchestra after a plaintive version she sang was heard in a clip from the film.

Larson said, “ ‘Room’ is one of my favorite books, and there was no way I could ever imagine myself playing one of my favorite literary characters.”

She concluded her speech by saying, “I send my love, and enjoy your dinner.”

After that presentation, host Mary Hart noted something that has been following the film a bit as it has made its way through awards season when she said, “I have to admit I was a little bit reluctant to go watch ‘Room,’ because I was afraid I would have this dark feeling and it would stay with me. Can I tell you something, those of you who have not seen it, and I would have to guess that’s most of you: Go see it, it’s a beautiful film.”

Next Ben Mendelsohn introduced Rooney Mara for the Spotlight Award for “Carol.” He referred to her performance as “a quiet storm” before comparing Mara’s enigmatic screen presence to Greta Garbo and Faye Dunaway.

In a brief speech Mara she said she initially turned down her role in “Carol” but that “now I can’t imagine not having the experience.” Of director Todd Haynes, she said “he inspired me to want to try.”

Kate Winslet came onstage to present the International Star, Actor Award to her “Steve Jobs” co-star Michael Fassbender.

After the actor came out to great applause and a big hug from Winslet, he said “Kate just told me not to ... this up.” In his remarks he thanked the executive team at Universal Pictures, who released the movie, and added, “I believe that you have a movie that will stand the test of time. Unfortunate about the box office figures, but thank God for ‘Jurassic World.’ ”

Paul Dano, himself having some awards season momentum for his portrait of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in “Love & Mercy,” presented the International Star, Actress Award to Saoirse Ronan for her performance in “Brooklyn.”

“I know you’re all eating and would probably prefer to do that than listen to me,” said Ronan, “but tough.”

Noting she wasn’t sure what to say, she added, “I actually Googled Sandra Bullock’s speech from 2014… I Googled Meryl’s as well. Aim high when you’re in doubt.”

Arguably the biggest ovation of the night came for Helen Mirren, there to present to her “Trumbo” co-star Bryan Cranston.

Cranston began his speech by joking when he first heard he was getting the Spotlight Award, “maybe they were confused or maybe I was confused. I wasn’t in that movie.”

Of jailed writer Dalton Trumbo and the era of the Hollywood blacklist he added, “It is indeed a dark period not only in Hollywood history but American history when civil liberties were I jeopardy. And we’re bigger than that.”

Johnny Depp was introduced for the Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actor by his “Black Mass” director Scott Cooper. When Depp took to the stage, for the first and only time in the evening, the room fell dead silent, spellbound. After a joke about the dinner — “How was the beef?” — he noted he might go on for 35 or 45 minutes as he pulled out a piece of paper.

“I wanted to thank so many people, I had to write it down. But I can’t read, so there’s a problem there.”

Alluding to how studio executives are sometime unnerved by his unusual choices in characterization, most famously over his “Pirates of the Caribbean” performance, he said “I’ve experienced a little of that from studios, unhappiness.… Is Michael Eisner here?”

He then made a somewhat rare public statement about his wife, actress Amber Heard, who was also in the audience having presented earlier in the evening. He thanked her “for putting up with me, for living with all these characters, which can’t be easy. It’s hard for me, it’s got to be hard for her.”

After examining his note one more time — “yeah, it’s over” — he began to walk off and the orchestra began to play. He then walked back to the microphone, the music stopped and Depp thanked Matzner “for giving me this thing,” holding aloft the abstracted figurine award statue. “It has buttocks, I’m just saying.”

Director Adam McKay introduced his cast from “The Big Short,” who were accepting the Ensemble Performance prize. From the cast Finn Wittrock, Jeremy Strong, Steve Carell and Christian Bale all took to the stage.

Carrell took note that co-star Ryan Gosling was not there, so “I think as an ensemble we can all agree we all really hated Ryan Gosling. I think we’re in agreement that we’re happy he’s not here this evening.”

Bale added, “Let’s hope in some small way this can help the people who were … on by the fat cats and stop the people in the future from being … on.”

Ronan came back onstage to present the Desert Palm Achievement, Actress Award to Cate Blanchett for her performance in “Carol.”

Blanchett began by saying what a relief it was to be at an awards show where you knew you were going to win, “reminding all of us honored tonight that if we’re not nominated for any other award, not to feel like losers, we had a moment of glory.”

She spoke of how much she enjoyed Ronan in “Brooklyn,” then said, “on a night when we have honored you, to remember that tonight is also about me… Thank you, Saoirse, you can get off the stage now. You’re too young and too gorgeous.” With that Blanchett pushed back tight the skin at her temples, adding “a few of you understand what I’m doing.”

Speaking of her collaborators on “Carol,” Blanchett added, “I don’t really know where to go from here as an actress because you’ve set the bar for me so very, very high.”

Matt Damon used his speech accepting the Chairman’s Award to largely stump for director Ridley Scott, who presented his award.

“Awards, whatever, who gives a … Except for this one,” Damon said, before noting that he, like many people, incorrectly assumed Scott already had an Academy Award from when he directed “Gladiator,” which won best picture.

“The bottom line is, he’s given more than enough to cinema, so I hope that this is his year,” said Damon.

“I don’t know if we’re supposed to say that out loud,” Damon said, “but … when I did ‘The Departed’ we said it out loud a lot for Marty and it panned out.”

Damon finished the evening by thanking the festival for their recognition of Weintraub, adding “He’s one of the greatest people that I have ever known. He was an absolute original… I miss him every day.”

Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

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