Palm Springs film festival: Downey, Duvall, Pitt, Witherspoon at gala

Palm Springs film fest's awards gala brings out stars and top awards-season contenders

Putting the holiday season fully to rest and switching the machinery of awards season back into high gear, the Palm Springs International Film Festival held its awards gala Saturday night with Reese Witherspoon, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Keaton, Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Brad Pitt and Robert Downey, Jr. in attendance.

The Palm Springs Convention Center was filled with a crowd whose members took the notion of black tie quite seriously -- there were more tuxedos and gowns than you’d see just about anywhere -- and who also got to share air with an impressive roster of talent.

The list of films being honored included “Gone Girl,” “Selma,” “Whiplash,” “The Judge,” “Boyhood,” “Still Alice,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Birdman,” “The Imitation Game” and “Wild,” making for a strong survey of awards-season contenders.

“I’m in a business that invites narcissism, self-involvement and egos being blown out of proportion,” Michael Keaton said while introducing his director in the show-business satire “Birdman,” Alejandro G. Iñárritu. “And this is the time of year that pours gasoline on that fire.”

With the event not televised and many speakers assisted by teleprompters, there was something at once looser and more composed about the Palm Springs gala than other awards events. Remarks were more expansive than what would be allowed on a televised show (no one is played off the stage) and yet also at times took on a stump-speech feeling, as if winners were trying out turns of phrase they might use elsewhere in the next couple of months.

Festival Chairman Harold Matzner said from the stage (echoing remarks he made Friday at the opening-night event) that the Palm Springs gala in 2002 was an event for some 200 people. This year’s event would be for an audience of 2,400 and was expected to raise about $2.4 million for the Palm Springs International Film Society and the underwriting of educational and charitable programs.

The evening began with Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens introducing their “Gone Girl” co-star Rosamund Pike as the recipient of the award for a breakthrough performance by an actress. The pair likened Pike’s performance to those “iconic female screen villains we love to hate” -- Kathleen Turner in “Body Heat,” Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” and Glenn Close in “Fatal Attraction.”

Pike, getting back to awards campaigning after giving birth barely a month ago, referenced her "Gone Girl" character when she joked "I have no idea how to behave." She also noted that much of her resume -- a Bond girl in “Die Another Day” and roles in forgettable pictures such as “Doom,” “Wrath of the Titans” and “Johnny English Reborn” -- did not lend itself to being cast in a dark David Fincher thriller, “but after 12 years, bingo, he called.”

Brad Pitt received thundering applause and cheers when he came out to introduce actor David Oyelowo, recipient of the award for a breakthrough performance by an actor for his role as Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.” Pitt, an executive producer of the film through his production company Plan B, teased the idea of “controversy” around the film, saying: “It’s only fair we air it out tonight. And this question is how the hell do you pronounce his name? ... I’ve been there and I’m here to help.”

Pitt then led the audience in a call-and-response chant and even a bit of singing before bringing out Oyelowo, who said, “You know you’ve really broken through when Brad Pitt sings your name.”

Jason Reitman, who has cast J.K. Simmons in every one of his feature films, presented the actor with the spotlight award for his work in director Damien Chazelle’s “Whiplash.” The role has garnered acclaim and prizes since its premiere nearly a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival.

Robert Downey Jr. then came out to present the icon award to Robert Duvall, his co-star in “The Judge,” while joking, “My chopper’s idling on the roof.”

“Robert Duvall can do anything and he’s far from done,” Downey said. Just before bringing out the actor, Downey added: “This is generally where people stand up,” leading to a full standing ovation.

Duvall said that “little films help big films,” noting that his role in the independent film “Get Low” led to his role in the studio picture “The Judge.” He warmly recalled early days as an actor working with Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman and director Ulu Grosbard.

Steve Carell walked onstage to the theme music from “Get Smart” and joked, “That’s the theme to ‘Foxcatcher,’ ” before presenting the Desert Palm Achievement Award to Julianne Moore for her work in “Still Alice.” Carell singled Moore out from a long list of “fake wives and girlfriends" and added that she is “one of the most genuinely good people I have ever met. And I have met both Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep.” (He also sang Moore’s name to help with the pronunciation.)

Moore spoke of her role in “Still Alice” as a woman dealing with the early onset of Alzheimer’s, saying the movie was made “not in the spirit of loss or diminishment but in the spirit of really thinking about who and what we value and why we value it and really attempting to cherish it.”

Shirley MacLaine presented “Boyhood” director Richard Linklater with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award. She referred to many of the directors she has worked with -- Hitchcock, Wilder, Wyler, Nichols, Fosse -- but said she learned more from Linklater while making “Bernie” than she had from any of the others even though he answered every question with “I don’t know.”

Accepting his award, Linklater noted that when he says "'I don’t know' … what I say next is what I really want."

Moore came to the stage again to present a Desert Palm Achievement Award to Eddie Redmayne for his role as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” Redmayne, while thanking Moore for fighting to have him cast in his early role in “Savage Grace,” also thanked his “Theory of Everything” director James Marsh for “the confidence to fail.”

In accepting his director-of-the-year prize, Iñárritu spoke of his inner voices wavering between insecurities and explosions of ego. He did a pretty good impression of the grumbling “Birdman” voice from the movie while adding, “all of these characters, I know that I am one of them.”

“The Imitation Game” director Morton Tyldum introduced members of his cast to accept the ensemble performance award. Benedict Cumberbatch, Alex Lawther, Allen Leech and Matthew Beard came onstage while Cumberbatch said of their absent co-star, “Keira Knightley thought this takes place in Palm Beach.”

The evening wrapped up with the chairman’s award, which went to Reese Witherspoon for her performance in “Wild.” Both the presenter, co-star Laura Dern, and Witherspoon renamed it the “chairwoman’s award.”

Witherspoon said that with an Australian producer, British screenwriter and French-Canadian director, “Wild” was made by “this international group of people that were making this movie about an American woman’s journey across the Pacific Northwest. And in that way the film became more than just a woman’s film about a girl hiking, it became a human story of redemption and sacrifice and learning what true north is in this world.”

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