'Leaving Las Vegas' Arrives in Big Way at Spirit Awards

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Savoring the sunshine on a breezy Saturday afternoon, more than 1,000 devotees of independent film flocked to a tent on the Santa Monica beach to attend the 11th annual Independent Spirit Awards--or the "alternative Oscars," as they have come to be known.

Stars such as Nicole Kidman, Sean Penn, Jeff Goldblum, Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne and Jodie Foster attended the Independent Feature Project/West event, celebrating the growing influence of the independent genre in the Hollywood mix--as well as the elements that set it apart.

"We're honoring the strange, the eclectic, the visionary, the new blood--those who have been dancing to a different beat for years," host Samuel L. Jackson told the crowd. "They make us think about ourselves and our lives . . . and not about how little we get for our seven or eight bucks."

"Leaving Las Vegas," a $3 1/2-million film turned down by every American independent and major studio before it was financed in France, was the big winner with trophies for best feature, best director (Mike Figgis), best actress (Elisabeth Shue) and best cinematography (Declan Quinn). In the best actor category, however, Oscar front-runner Cage lost out to the irascible Penn ("Dead Man Walking"), who deadpanned, "I guess this means you tolerate me . . . you really tolerate me," as he accepted his award.

A choked-up Shue recalled that being cast as a prostitute was a welcome change, "After years of playing strong, 'together' women, it was a relief to play someone vulnerable," the actress said.

In the best supporting actor category, Benicio Del Toro won for his work in Gramercy's "The Usual Suspects," for which writer Christopher McQuarrie captured the best screenplay prize. Mare Winningham was named best supporting actress for her portrayal of a singing star coping with an alcoholic younger sister (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in Ulu Grosbard's "Georgia."

"Jennifer Jason Leigh is the heart and soul of 'Georgia,' the reason I'm up here," Winningham said. "I love that I'm not separated from you today," she added--an allusion to the fact that she will be competing for an Oscar Monday night while her critically acclaimed co-star will not.

Among the newcomers, writer-director Edward Burns won best first feature for "The Brothers McMullen," Paul Auster's "Smoke" was chosen best first screenplay and Justin Pierce was named best debut performer for his portrayal of an amoral teen in the NC-17 "Kids." Christopher Munch received the Swatch Someone to Watch award for his World War II drama "Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day," and Macedonia's "Before the Rain" was named best foreign film.

Sam Fuller ("Hell and High Water," "I Shot Jesse James") was given a standing ovation as the recipient of the first special distinction award.

"In the early 1930s, when I started out, five people--Harry Cohn, Jack Warner . . . the studio chiefs--could get a movie made," the 83-year-old director observed after the event. "You pitched an idea, they said 'OK.' These days, people talk too much--and not about making movies."

Figgis was one of those sporting a pink, black and yellow ribbon--part of an Oscar protest outlined by the Rev. Jesse Jackson at a news conference Saturday.

"They told me it's to call for greater representation of racial and ethnic types in the film industry," the British director told The Times. "Jackson, with justification, has been calling for greater African American presence, but I'd like to give the Hispanic community a voice. They--along with Koreans, Japanese--are heavily represented in Los Angeles but even less visible than blacks. If you're going to deal with an issue, deal with the whole of it. Only the English are overrepresented."

Noting that last year's winner of the Findie (Friends of Independents) was Samuel Goldwyn Jr. (whose financially strapped company is about to be purchased by Metromedia), Samuel L. Jackson quipped that this year's recipients--Sony Pictures Classics co-presidents Michael Barker, Tom Bernard and Marcie Bloom--may be "a little worried" about getting the award.

While Barker dedicated the prize to "Crumb," "The Celluloid Closet," "Persuasion" and other independent films failing to make the Oscar cut, IFP director Dawn Hudson challenged the importance of academy "validation."

"Our goal is not to be 'accepted' but to make sure tough movies get made," she said. "Studio distribution increases the audience for a 'Leaving Las Vegas,' but that movie's success doesn't necessarily make it easier for dark, difficult films to get financed."

During a post-show question-and-answer session, however, Penn downplayed the distinction between studio and independent fare.

"I don't diminish a film because it's big," the actor said. " 'Deerhunter' was big. 'Coming Home' was big. There was a lot less [anti-establishment sniping] today and a lot less [resistance] coming from the other side. In the end, a great film is a great film."

The Spirit Awards came in well under two hours--a record by half, Hudson said. Cable's Bravo network will telecast portions of the event tonight during Oscar telecast station breaks.

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