Feather bow ties, fringe hemlines, bejeweled brocade, beaded lace, statement necklaces, animal prints, fur, fur, fur. It’s not necessarily a matter of which embellishment one might wear, but how many one can wear simultaneously.
Such seemed to be the line of logic at the Palm Springs International Film Festival awards gala, where the aesthetic inside the city’s sizable convention center is always the epitome of “extra.” The excessive ensembles are so notoriously expected of the annual event that anyone in muted, modest or monochromatic garb (without at least a boldly-patterned pocket square) might feel somewhat underdressed.
“Bling is the thing!” said Kelly Bruner, a lifelong Palm Springs resident in attendance for an 11th consecutive year. She lifted her glittering silver gown to show The Times her gemstone-encrusted heels. “Yes, it’s black tie optional, but with the volume turned up.”
Robert Moon agreed. “I’ve been coming to this for 15 years,” said the former Palm Springs mayor, dressed in an intricately embroidered blazer. “I always special-order something every year for this.”
Thursday night’s event served as the glitzy kickoff of the desert’s film festival, which runs through Jan. 12 and spans 188 films from 81 countries. Over the years, it’s become a routine stop on the awards campaign trail; this year, it took place on the first day of voting for Oscar nominations and just days before Sunday’s Golden Globes.
But among the industry’s many yearly confabs — including various guilds’ honors and critics groups’ ceremonies — the evening is the rare celebration that the public can attend. This year it was again a sold-out soiree, entertaining more than 2,200 (mostly middle-aged or older) attendees.
Tickets to the seated dinner start at a partially-tax-deductible $500, a price that includes the chance to pose for photos in front of a logo-laden banner, sip free cocktails among crystal-covered centerpieces, and line up along the velvet ropes to watch the stars walk in, waving at them like kids on a parade route. One minute you’re shoving forkfuls of short rib and snap peas into your mouth, and the next you’re cheering and clapping for your favorite actor, right there in the room with you.
“I’m enjoying it, but I’m a little overwhelmed because I’m quite star-struck,” said Thomas Cook, a first-timer at the fete. “Everybody is just so fabulous. It’s not something we do every day.”
Occasionally, you’ll find yourself lauding a famous person alongside even more famous people, as was the case when the entire crowd — including honorees Renée Zellweger, Martin Scorsese, Cynthia Erivo, Adam Driver and Jamie Foxx — rose to their feet to applaud “The Peanut Butter Falcon” actor Zack Gottsagen. The audience grew loudest whenever a speech included a hometown shout-out, like when Laura Dern saluted Hadley’s date shakes and Quentin Tarantino shared that he spent the day drinking Wild Coyote margaritas at the Blue Coyote Bar & Grill.
Pamela Smallwood has attended the event six or seven times, but doesn’t take its proximity to Hollywood for granted. She usually brings along a grandchild or two: “A night out with Nana is like the thrill of a lifetime!”
Also embedded in the ticket price, apparently: the ability to walk right up to an Oscar winner and take a photo of them, as one woman shamelessly did to Charlize Theron in the middle of the ceremony. Or the freedom to move to a table closer to the stage to get a better view of a beloved celebrity, as two men did when Jennifer Lopez tearfully accepted her honor. For an extra thousand bucks, you can even hang out near them at the after-party at the Parker hotel (near them, not with them, as presenters and honorees are separated into a special VIP section).
“I like that it’s so personal — you get to be up close with all of the stars,” explained Bruner. “They’re very accepting if you want to go up to them and say hello, as long as you don’t bother them.”
For some actors, the awards circuit can grow repetitive and tiresome. “I’m of two minds about these things — these shenanigans we do,” said honoree Joaquin Phoenix, who has been making acceptance speeches for his performance in “Joker” since September. “Part of me thinks this is absurd and ridiculous and embarrassing. Another part realizes the power of the creative spirit and of art, and what we do at our best.”
But for others, its prestige does not waver. “People say no one cares about awards; I do care about awards. I’ve been a nominee for many years, and I never get here,” said “Pain and Glory” star Antonio Banderas, pointing at the stage. “When I sit down in those tables and I hear the name of somebody else, I just say, ‘To be a nominee is a very important thing.’
“But you wanted to go up there,” he said with a smile. “So I am very thankful that you guys put me up here just to pick up this piece, this symbol, this icon. … It’s an honor and a privilege to me.”