Palm Springs Awards Gala Attracts Oscar Hopefuls Like Cate Blanchett and Johnny Depp

Actor Matt Damon accepts the ChairmanÂ’s Award onstage at the 27th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Film Festival Awards Gala at Palm Springs Convention Center on January 2, 2016 in Palm Springs, California.
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Matt Damon, one of the honorees, used the occasion, which took place amid unprecedented security, to argue that 'The Martian' director Ridley Scott deserves an Oscar.

Accepting a Desert Palm Achievement Award for her performance in Carol at the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s 27th annual awards gala, Cate Blanchett began her remarks by saying, “Thank you to the Palm Springs International Film Festival for reminding all of us honored tonight that if we are not nominated for any other award, not to feel like losers, we had a moment of glory. Thank you.”

Actually, if most of the honorees who made their way to the stage at the Palm Springs Convention Center on Saturday night don’t hear their names called out when Oscar nominations are unveiled on Jan. 14, they’ll probably feel as if something did go horribly wrong. As the evening got underway, Harold Matzner, chairman of the board of directors of the Palm Springs International Film Society, made the point that over the course of the past three years, 28 of the Palm Springs honorees went on to pick up Oscar noms. And as the relentlessly cheerful Mary Hart, who served as emcee of the event, reiterated, “It’s ground zero for awards season!”

While that was something of an overstatement, the honorees, all of whom had been announced ahead of time, did use the occasion to practice their talking points, roll-out a first-draft of their inevitable thank-yous and do some of the requisite campaigning. Although they didn’t always campaign just for themselves: Matt Damon, who received the night’s final honor, the Chairman’s Award, for his work in The Martian, was introduced by the film’s director Ridley Scott, and the actor used his time at the podium to make the case for why Scott, who has never received an Academy Award, despite three nominations, deserves a best director Oscar.

“What he’s given to cinema, it’s not an accident,” said Damon. “He’s just a master director. There are a handful of them on planet earth, but he is one of them. I was shocked to find out — look, awards, whatever, who gives a shit, except for this one — but I thought that he already had an Academy Award because he directed a best picture. Gladiator won best picture, but he wasn’t a producer on Gladiator. And so, the bottom line is, he’s given more than enough to cinema, so I hope that this is his year.”

The gala, which attracted more than 2,000 attendees to the cavernous Convention Center and raised $2.4 million for the Film Society, took place this year amid what Matzner called “unprecedented security, although there is absolutely no known threat.” He reassured the black-tie crowd that the location was encircled by SWAT team vehicles and “a solid shield” of police and sheriff’s deputies. “That is not what we should have to do here in America, but it is the right thing to do at this time,” he added.

The event went off without incident, though, and the biggest risk the assembled celebrities faced was overexposure to all the cell-phone flashes that went off.

Johnny Depp, who was presented the Desert Palm Achievement Award — Actor by his director Scott Cooper for his turn as gangster Whitey Bulger in Black Mass, took the time to greet fans before making his way into the hall. And though he threatened to commandeer the podium for 35 minutes, he wrapped it up in about five. Depp thanked Warner Bros., and "first and foremost" that studio's head of worldwide distribution and marketing Sue Kroll, for supporting the risky project, noting that in the past he'd experienced "unhappiness" from other studios "frightened about what you might be doing in terms of the character." At which point, he joked, "Is [former Disney head] Michael Eisner here?" And the actor added thanks to his wife Amber Heard "for living with all these characters. It's hard for me. It's got to be hard for her."

Adam McKay, director of The Big Short, presented the ensemble award to the cast of that film. On hand to accept were Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Jeremy Strong and Finn Wittrock. Cracked Carell, "Ryan Gosling is not here this evening, and as an ensemble we can all agree that we all hated Ryan Gosling."

Helen Mirren received one of the evening's biggest rounds of applause when she appeared to present a Spotlight Award to her Trumbo co-star Bryan Cranston, who acknowledged her by saying, "Dame Helen Mirren has a different meaning in London, England, than it does in the United States, but she is a great dame." Speaking of the movie, which documents how writer Dalton Trumbo fought the blacklist in the 1950s, Cranston went on to say, "The message of Trumbo is truly the message of America, that we not just tolerate differences of opinion, but we embrace them."

Another biopic, Steve Jobs, moved to the fore with Kate Winslet, who co-stars in the film, presenting the International Star Award — Actor to Michael Fassbender, who starred in the title role of the Universal release. He offered up thanks to her, writer Aaron Sorkin, director Danny Boyle, producer Scott Rudin and the Universal executive team. "I believe you have a movie that will stand the test of time," he said. "Unfortunate about the box-office figures, but, thank god for Jurassic World."

The evening's other honorees included Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, who was presented with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award by that movie's Michael Keaton; Brooklyn's Saoirse Ronan, recipient of the International Star Award — Actress, which was presented to her by Paul Dano, who appeared this season in both Youth and Love & Mercy; Rooney Mara, who received a Spotlight Award for Carol from Ben Mendelsohn, who stars with her in the upcoming Una; Brie Larson, who was honored with the Breakthrough Performance Award, presented to her by her Room director Lenny Abrahamson and her young co-star Jacob Tremblay; and Alicia Vikander, who received the Rising Star Award for The Danish Girl, presented by Heard, who also appears in that film.

Matzner dedicated the evening to the late producer Jerry Weintraub, with Steven Soderbergh (who directed Ocean's Eleven, among other films, for Weintraub) providing a video tribute he assembled. At the end of the night, Damon seconded the sentiment, saying, "Thank you for what you said about Jerry Weintraub."

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