The Spirit Awards have long fashioned themselves as an antidote to the Oscars and the mainstream Hollywood those prizes represent.
But Saturday afternoon, under a beachside tent in Santa Monica, the ceremony looked like a possible preview of its weekend counterpart, as Academy Awards front-runner “Birdman” came away the day's big winner.
Written and directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu, the dark comedy — which is the favorite to win Oscar's best picture — nabbed three Spirits, including the top honor of best feature and male lead for Michael Keaton.
“We'd all be remiss if we didn't take a moment and thank Narcissus. He doesn't get enough of a shout-out,” Keaton quipped in accepting his prize, adding of the visually audacious film, “This is bold cinema. This is a game-changer.”
Richard Linklater landed best director for “Boyhood,” his epic coming-of-age movie that was an early-season Oscar front-runner but has recently lost ground to “Birdman.”
Even there, however, the Spirits may prove to be an Oscar indicator — many pundits are predicting the Texan filmmaker will take the director prize on Sunday over Inarritu.
The acting category winners also had a Dolby Theatre feel to them: “Boyhood” supporting actress Patricia Arquette, “Whiplash” supporting actor J.K. Simmons and “Still Alice” lead actress Julianne Moore took home the respective performance prizes in Santa Monica. All three are near-certain winners on Sunday.
Last year, the Spirits actually mirrored the Oscars in all four acting categories. But this year, Academy Awards front-runner Eddie Redmayne, Keaton's main rival in the category, was ineligible for a Spirit nomination because his “The Theory of Everything” is a British production.
The Spirits (full name Film Independent Spirit Awards, after its backing organization), is celebrating its 30th year as a venue commemorating movies that the studios have little appetite for. But in recent years the Spirits and Oscars have come into closer alignment, as the big studios either have gotten out of the prestige-film game or made those movies at dramatically smaller budgets.
That shift was a recurrent theme at the Spirits.
In accepting the honor for best first feature, “Nightcrawler” writer-director Dan Gilroy made a pointed remark about modern Hollywood, lauding those who “hold out against the tsunami of superhero movies that have swept over this industry.” The moment landed particularly well given “Birdman's” explorations of that theme.
Gilroy also took the prize for screenplay. He is nominated in that category at the Oscars as well.
The Spirit Awards are voted on by several thousand citizen members of Film Independent, after a small blue-ribbon committee chooses the nominees.
This year's festivities, broadcast live (on IFC) for the first time in recent memory, were hosted by Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell. The two were well-received by the in-tent audience, especially for a musical riff poking fun at how she's “a little bit studio” and he “a little bit indie.”
There was also a dose of uncommon star power as Oprah Winfrey, who produced the best feature-nominated “Selma,” turned out to introduce the movie.
“To me 'Selma' is more than just a movie because we all need to know where we've been so we can move forward together. .... The struggle for equality is not easy. It never was.” Unfortunately for the filmmakers, the movie was shut out in its five nominations Saturday.
Other topical movies fared better. “Citizenfour,” Laura Poitras' look at Edward Snowden and governmental surveillance, took the prize for documentary. In accepting the award, investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who figures prominently in the film, said that “really brave whistle-blowers” such as Daniel Ellsberg, Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden “deserve not decades in prison but our collective gratitude.”
But it was a night largely for the stylized world of “Birdman.” The film's director of photography, Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, a favorite to win cinematography at the Oscars, took the prize at the Spirits. Speaking after the best feature victory, Inarritu then nodded to the infrastructure of independent film “where we can get together to celebrate the cinema that is being forgotten.”
The show featured a number of comments about the independent nature of the awards.
Presenting supporting actress, “Boyhood” costar Ethan Hawke said, “People in Hollywood may be keeping the industry afloat, making these big-shot movies. But people in this room are keeping the industry alive.”
And in accepting the director prize for an absent Linklater, Hawke quoted the filmmaker by saying, “there's so much to be done [in cinematic storytelling] and it's going to be told not by corporate America but by you.”
The most amusing line on that subject may have come from Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, who after winning won the foreign-film award for his period drama “Ida" deadpanned that, “I realized I was at an independent film event when I was queuing up for the toilet.”
Others struck a more serious note in touting indie film's virtues. Justin Simien, taking the prize for first feature for his campus-race satire “Dear White People” offered an exhortation to the audience.
“If you don't see yourself in the culture, put yourself there, because we need you. We need to see the world through your eyes.”