If there were a multiple choice exam for the various award shows honoring movies, the question for Film Independent’s Spirit Awards would look something like this:
At the Indie Spirit Awards, you are most likely to find:
a) Sandra Oh riding in a golf cart, hot pink mini-dress and all
b) A kangaroo on a leash leaving many journalists wondering if they had a little too much to drink in the Heineken Lounge
c) Teri Hatcher asking, during rehearsal, if she should go for the “ass shot” at the end of her song-and-dance number, evoking the stand-ins to promptly raise their hands in response
d) A totally uncensored six-minute speech from Mickey Rourke, where he reminds the film industry about Eric Roberts, thanks the Santa Monica Police Department and spews sleaze galore when referring to any and every woman in his life.
e) All of the above
The champagne and expletives flowed freely at Film Independent’s 24th Annual Spirit Awards on Saturday, February 21st. Held in a massive white tent in a parking lot adjacent to the Santa Monica beach, the Spirit Awards honor movies that were made for under a $20 million budget.
From the alternative blue carpet to the pulsating beats from the Elle Lounge, the Spirit Awards at once seemed quirky and zany, bold and spontaneous to the joggers, cyclists and weekend beach-goers crowded at the site’s exterior barricades.
Yet each of the winners, nominees, guests and volunteers present that day had their own personal connotation of the term “independent spirit.”
“It’s the chance to tell your own story,” said a winded yet pleased Tom McCarthy minutes after he won Best Director for The Visitor. “To really be left alone and get the people you want to get together and… to not have to worry about a lot of other things.”
For James Franco, winner of Best Supporting Male for his turn as Harvey Milk’s lover in Milk, it’s both the movies he admired since he was a child and the type of movies he would like to produce and direct in the future.
“When I think of the kind of movies I want to make, they’re the movies that Gus Van Sant makes,” said Franco. “ And when I go to the cinema, these are the types of movies that I go to see. This is my awards show.”
French writer-director Laurence Cantet, who captured the Best Foreign Language Award for The Class, described in broken English the moviemaking freedom of French cinema.
“We have a lot of producers that allow us to make the films we want to make and [in the] ways we want to make them,” said Claudet. “When we started to work on this film, we really didn’t know if it will be a film in the end. We just gathered 25 children in the classroom and improvised… Two years later, we are here. The only way to make this kind of film is the independence.”
And Charlie Kaufman, Best First Feature and Robert Altman award double-winner for Synecdoche, New York, claimed he didn’t know if he could define “independent spirit” at all, though he did give it a shot.
“[Independent spirit] is not adhering to some sort of formula. It’s not setting out to figure how to get a lot of people in the theater,” stammered the always-nervous Kaufman. “I think if you’re trying to do something honest and not looking at demographics but at trying to express something, then I would call that an interesting movie.”
Yet as the afternoon went on, backlash mounted as the smallest films out of the bunch went overlooked.
Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which was made on a $1 million budget, garnered its sole Spirit Award in the Best Female Lead category for Melissa Leo; while the riveting Ballast, which entered the white tent with six nominations, left empty-handed.
Even Kaufman, the notoriously indie and generally beloved moviemaker, was met with somewhat dismal applause when he entered the press tent for both of his post-win interviews. As Synecdoche received a slew of mediocre-to-horrible reviews, one couldn’t help but wonder if the popularity of Kaufman’s name robbed a lesser-known moviemaker of the coveted prize.
The Spirit Awards are a truly DIY event, with nearly 70 volunteers doing everything from gluing computer printed photographs of nominees onto wooden sticks to directing delivery trucks at six in the morning to setting the gift bags onto every chair in the tent in an extremely precise manner.
Yet even the Spirit Awards have turned into a popularity contest, which may or may not be the fault of the Film Independent members who admit they robotically check off the most recognizable name in each category on their voting ballots.
For indie film lovers or not, the volunteers grew increasingly giddy as they ogled at the A-list arrivals, gushed to Philip Seymour Hoffman how much they love his work and followed Anne Hathaway into the bathroom—the stars can’t even catch a break at the Spirit Awards.
Despite this inescapable presence of Hollywood, director Darren Aronofsky, who took home the top prize of Best Feature for The Wrestler, asserted that regardless of star power, all of the films nominated were truly made outside of the studio system.
“All the films are here because of the passion of the filmmakers,” said Aronofsky. “None of them got the magic wand of the studio that said ‘go.’ You can see all the blood and sweat on the celluloid.”
And though Jessica Alba and Mariah Carey were filling the seats in audience, the person with the highest rating on the applause-o-meter was undoubtedly the most un-Hollywood actor seated in the tent—Richard Jenkins.
When Jenkins’ name was announced in the Best Male Lead category, acknowledging his performance in The Visitor, the tent exploded with deafening applause, cheers and whistles that quite possibly competed with Rourke’s standing ovation, which followed a minute later.
As McCarthy said later that afternoon, “[Richard] is not only a tremendous actor but just a great guy. That’s why when they announced his name in there, the place went crazy. They’re acknowledging 40 years of tremendous work.”
In an industry as ostentatiously political such as this, sometimes a little acknowledgment is all that counts. Just ask Eric Roberts.