It was with a festive, warm atmosphere inside a tent near the beach in Santa Monica, with just a touch of rebellious insurgency, that the Spirit Awards recognized Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” for best feature Saturday.
With a group of nominees that had very little overlap with Sunday’s Academy Awards, the event became a celebration of the diversity that is often missing from the rest of awards season.
In accepting the award, Wang noted the amplified conversation around women making movies, adding, “We don’t have to encourage women. There are lots of women making films who want to make films and are in film school…. What women need is the job. Give them the freaking job. Give them the money…. Don’t make them run through that many hoops.”
Backstage after the show, Wang expanded on her remarks, telling The Times, “I had to constantly have this battle in my head of, on the one hand, ‘Why do I deserve any money from people who don’t necessarily know me?’ … Why should I be entitled to that? As a filmmaker, you need that money to go make a film…. I want to encourage women to be entitled because men have been entitled for a long time. And we need your stories.”
In the biggest surprise of the afternoon, Zhao Shuzhen won the supporting actress award for “The Farewell,” for her role as a grandmother unaware of her terminal illness during a family reunion, upsetting Jennifer Lopez for “Hustlers.” For the first time in Spirit Awards history, all five nominees in the category were women of color.
In accepting the award, director Wang said Zhao could not be there because she was prevented from traveling out of China by the coronavirus outbreak. Wang thanked the audience for the recognition to grandmothers everywhere and for Zhao, “honoring a woman from China who a lot of people earlier in the year could barely pronounce her name.”
“Uncut Gems” — which, like “The Farewell,” was distributed by indie powerhouse A24 — won three prizes. Adam Sandler won for male lead, giving an uproarious speech in which he joked about “a few weeks back, when I was quote-unquote ‘snubbed’ by the academy” and recalled winning a best personality award in high school rather than best looking. The actor said “the Independent Spirit Awards are the best personality awards.… Their handsome good looks will fade in time while our independent personalities will shine on forever.”
The film also nabbed a directing prize for brothers Josh Safdie and Benny Safdie. In accepting the award, the siblings captured their film’s frenetic, unrelenting energy by simultaneously reading separate speeches. Benny Safdie and Ronald Bronstein also won for the film’s editing.
The female lead prize went to Renée Zellweger for her performance as Judy Garland in “Judy.” Zellweger was the only nominee in the Spirits’ four acting categories to also be nominated for an Academy Award.
The show was hosted for the second year in a row by actress and producer Aubrey Plaza. In a filmed opening to the show, she played herself and the spirit of Garland, who encouraged the anxious Plaza. Taking the stage with a six-piece band and two male dancers, Plaza sang Garland’s “Get Happy,” while playfully ribbing many notable faces in the room, including Lopez, Zellweger, Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Shia LaBeouf, Mary Kay Place and Netflix executive Ted Sarandos.
Dafoe won the first award of the day, picking up the prize for supporting actor for A24’s “The Lighthouse.” Jarin Blaschke also won for the film’s hard-edged, black-and-white cinematography.
The documentary prize went to “American Factory,” directed by Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert. The film looks at the modern-day workplace and tells the story of an Ohio factory taken over by a Chinese company.
In accepting the award, Reichert said, “Our film tried to ask the question, ‘Is this the way we want the world to be?’”
Best first feature went to Olivia Wilde’s “Booksmart.” Best first screenplay went to Fredrica Bailey and Stefon Bristol for “See You Yesterday.” In accepting the award, Bailey thanked producer Spike Lee, who was in attendance, as “the man, the myth, the legend.”
The John Cassavetes Award for a film made for less than $500,000 went to “Give Me Liberty,” directed by Kirill Mikhanovsky. Visibly moved to be accepting a prize named for Cassavetes, the independent filmmaking pioneer, Mikhanovsky said, “I think it’s really important that everything we do, even if it’s a job for hire, that it’s personal.”
Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite,” considered to be a major Oscar contender, won the international award, the only prize for which it was eligible under Spirit Award rules. Bong received a rousing ovation from the audience while accepting the prize.
Backstage, he wasn’t feeling the Oscars pressure, telling The Times, “What matters tonight is the Indie Spirit Awards, to be congratulated by Spike Lee, the Safdie brothers and all the great indie filmmakers that came before — that’s truly meaningful.”
Noah Baumbach won the screenplay prize for “Marriage Story” (which also won the previously announced Robert Altman ensemble cast award). It was the third Netflix title to win a prize, following “American Factory” and “See You Yesterday.”
In accepting, Baumbach noted that being called an independent filmmaker can often feel as if it puts one in the minor leagues but added: “To me, the movies we’re celebrating here today don’t need a special label. They are movies, they are as special as anything.”