On the Beach: Backstage at the IFP Spirit Awards

By Paul Zimmerman
Posted 03/04/04 18:38:40

I’m standing beside a big white tent on a beach in Santa Monica California, site of the annual Independent Spirit Awards. A kind of Bizzaro world version of the Academy Awards, in this alternate universe that celebrates not the mainstream but the independent film world John Waters subs for Billy Crystal as host and MC and the trophy isn’t a gold bald headed man but a twisted bronze eagle that looks like it’s being strangled.

Welcome to the annual IFP (Independent Film Project) Independent Spirit Awards held annually on the Saturday afternoon before the Oscars. This year the IFP has much to crow about (they led the fight against the screener ban) and much to live down to (the increased security and shuffling of the press).

Limos are lined up down the beach and the stars of the indie world are filing in. Check it out: There’s Dennis Hopper sporting dark shades. There’s Joey Pantoliano with his trademark cap. There’s Jennifer Tilly vamping it up for photographers. There’s Naomi Watts in what looks like a schoolmarm dress. There’s Stuart Townsend and Charlize Theron looking casual. There’s a shorthaired Tom Cruise. Tom Cruise? Yeah, everybody wants to get in on the Indie Act and Cruises company produced Shattered Glass last year and Narc the year before that so they not only welcomed him they gave him an “Honorary Chair” position, whatever that means.)

Cocktails begin promptly at 11:30 AM inside the big tent and this is a press person’s first and last chance to get anything off the record. When the awards start at 2pm barricades are slid between the tents forcing the press folk to watch the action on monitors and then drop by an adjacent tent for a ho-hum gang Q&A. (With the exception of Bill Murray’s dry as a bone act where he turned a standard Q&A into a stand up routine.)

“I feel like I’ve just entered the Polish Ghetto during World War II,” cracks one writer while another says she needs to check her ID and figure out how she was so abruptly demoted to second-class citizen. Shut off from the movers, shakers, winners and losers it makes it mighty difficult to find anything spontaneous after about oh, 2:01. “With big stars comes big concessions and this little awards show is getting more like the Oscars every year,” says another writer shaking his head. But since this IS still better than Big Brother Oscar, Bill Murray wins Best Male Lead for Lost in Translation, not Sean Penn for Mystic River and Shohreh Aghdashloo is crowned Best Supporting Female for her quietly devastating work in House of Sand and Fog, not Renee Zellweger for her Beverly Hillbillies act from Cold Mountain.

By mid show IFP head Dawn Hudson takes the stage and after mentioning the screener ban getting lifted she welcomes all to those who “aren’t afraid of an awards show without a five second delay.” And crow she should. Indeed, indies were strong in 2003 but just what made an indie an indie to the IFP nominating board is cause for debate. No one would argue say Raising Victor Vargas or The Station Agent are triumphs of story over budget limitations but what are House of Sand and Fog and Lost in Translation doing slumming along?

This sort of no-you-aren’t yes-I-am what is an indie debate has been going on for at least five years. At one point an unofficial $10 million cap was put on the films in consideration but controversy erupted when Woody Allen’s $22 million Bullets Over Broadway was in the running several years ago. Now Hudson explains the figure is NOT official but if it was it would be around 15 or 16 million. Which explains Sand and Fog at $15 million but not 21 Grams at more than $20 million. Indeed the nominating committee of Special Dozen seems to have tossed up their hands as 21 Grams gets a Special Distinction Award. Huh? “What the hell is that?” blurts out a studio intern sitting to my left in the press tent.

And so it goes. I think Buck Henry put it best when he told me “Indie films are like pornography, I’m not really sure what it is, but I know it when I see it.” By now Spirit dwellers have come to expect certain things each year. Waters delivering a hilarious opening speech (which he insists on writing himself), goofy musical “parody” sung by the likes of Kyra Sedgewick and heartfelt acceptance speeches (Charlize Theron manages to actually sound surprised picking up her umpteenth statue for her startling portrait of Aileen Wuornos in Monster).

For the humor record here’s a sampling of the sing-a-long lyrics:

Shattered Glass (sung to the tune of Mr. Ed)

A source is a source
Of course, of course
A journalist talks to a source, of course
That is, of course, unless the source
Is a source for Stephen Glass

Needless to say Billy Crystal doesn’t have to worry losing work no how tired and lame his Oscar bits get. While the speeches roll by effortlessly one longs for past glories like when Ally Sheedy spent more than seven minutes having a combo thank-a-thon / mental breakdown when she accepted Best Female Lead for High Art. Instead we get tasteful, heartfelt thank-yous and in one moment of spontaneity when In America director Jim Sheridan accepts the Best Cinematography Award for an absent Declan Quinn he turns it into a sing-a-long for In America star Sarah Bolger who’s celebrating her 13th birthday. Shielding her face with a program the scene stealing Bolger does one thing no one else does today, she shows modesty and humility.

The big winner of the day is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (which sweeps the top three awards Best Male Lead, Best Director and Best Screenplay) with Monster and The Station Agent also fairing well.

And when all is said and done you’ve got to like this Rebels Without a Pause gang where Joey “Pants” and Jennifer Tilly get (at least ONE day of the year) to act like the two most popular kids in high school. And just so we leave on an indie note Waters closes the show by yelling, “Next time you see a movie and they show a commercial boo!” Yeah, that’s the Spirit.

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