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Oscar Hopefuls Hammer Home Talking Points at Palm Springs Int'l Film Fest Gala (Analysis)

The fest's gala was held after the close of Oscar nominations voting this year, but several top contenders still schlepped out to the desert to accept awards at it.

Palm Springs International Film Festival - Martin Sheen, Sally Fi
Getty Images

The 24th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival's awards gala was held in the desert city's convention center on Saturday evening, drawing A-list presenters and stars who were willing to make the two-hour drive from Hollywood -- or 20-minute flight by private jet, the preferred means of travel for some -- in order to be seen and heard in a room packed with a considerable number of the hundreds of Academy members who have a home here.

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For A-list Oscar hopefuls, the appeal of the gala, which was long held during the Oscar nominations voting period, was somewhat diminished this awards season after the Academy moved up the deadline for members to submit Oscar nomination ballots to the day before it. But, while showing up at Palm Springs can no longer boost contenders' Oscar nomination prospects, it does still offer a nice opportunity to reach Academy members -- with clips of films they may not have seen yet and/or looking like a gracious presenter or winner -- who might still end up sitting in judgment of them during phase two.

Best original score hopeful Mychael Danna was presented with the Frederick Loewe Award for Film Composing by his Life of Pi director Ang Lee, a best director hopeful; best actor hopeful Richard Gere was presented with the Chairman's Award by his friend and three-time costar Diane Lane; best director hopeful Robert Zemeckis was presented with the Director of the Year Award by actor Tom Hanks, his friend and two-time collaborator; best actress hopeful Naomi Watts was presented with the Desert Palm Achievement Actress Award by her The Impossible costar Tom Holland, a best actor hopeful; best supporting actress hopeful Helen Hunt was presented with the Spotlight Award by her The Sessions costar John Hawkes, a best actor hopeful; best actor hopeful Bradley Cooper was presented with the Desert Palm Achievement Actor Award by his Silver Linings Playbook director David O. Russell, a best director and best adapted screenplay hopeful; best director hopeful Tom Hooper was presented with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award by his Les Miserables star Eddie Redmayne; best actress hopeful Helen Mirren (Hitchcock) was presented with the International Star Award by her two-time director Hooper; best supporting actress hopeful Sally Field was presented with the Career Achievement Award by her friend and one-time costar Martin Sheen; and the cast of best picture hopeful Argo -- represented by Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston -- was presented with the Ensemble Performance Award by Tony Mendez, the former CIA agent whose story inspired the film.

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The aforementioned presenters and contenders have been honing their "talking points" at various Q&As, parties and awards shows over the past few months, figuring out, like a politician on the campaign trail, which resonate most strongly with voters. Unsurprisingly, many of these oft-repeated remarks were unloaded again tonight: Russell shared why he so deeply connected to Silver Linings and its subject matter (noting that his own son has bipolar disorder, as do people close to Robert De Niro); Cranston and Affleck emphasized that there are hundreds of actors who had speaking parts in Argo (which may impress the actors in the Academy, who form its largest branch); and Redmayne and Hooper both reminded people that the actors' singing in Les Mis was recorded live on the set (a fact that may prove music to the ears of the Academy's acting branch, but has also been stated so many times that it is becoming a punchline -- Affleck later joked from the stage that Arkin wanting to try singing live on the set of Argo).

Somewhat surprisingly, several honorees also chose to use their acceptance speeches to champion causes or beliefs that had little or nothing to do with what they were being honored for: Gere spent considerable time urging people to speak up about Tibet; Field called for a revival of high school drama departments; Arkin celebrated a non-violent foreign policy approach; and Mirren encouraged people to watch films with subtitles ("It's not so difficult!" she exclaimed).

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And, in the category of "a bit odd": the gala was interrupted twice, at inopportune times, by video montages that seemed to go on forever, one a promo for festival sponsor Cartier and the other an Entertainment Tonight-produced segment previewing the most widely-anticipated films of 2013; Mirren, as part of her thank you to Hooper for introducing her, emoloyed the audience to chant the name of his film ("We all learned a little French this year, thanks to Tom. I want you all to say with me, 'Les Miserables! Les Miserables!'"); and TV personality Mary Hart hosted the gala for a tenth consecutive year with a through-the-roof level of enthusiasm -- God love her, but she was sort of doing her old E.T. shtick, only for the Jeopardy! set, and it was a little weird.

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But, at the end of the night, my main takeaways were as follows: people still like Field, they really like her (she was treated with reverence by the otherwise rowdy audience, receiving a standing-O when she was introduced and when she ended her speech, and considerable applause when she mentioned Lincoln); Watts may be emerging as something of a "grown-up" alternative for people who find it premature to award the best actress Oscar to relative newcomers Jennifer Lawrence or Jessica Chastain (the classy blonde had the audience enraptured as she talked about the tragedy that inspired her film and tactfully reminded people of the many great directors who have seen it fit to cast her in their films, including Russell, David Lynch, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, David Cronenberg, Peter Jackson and Clint Eastwood); people like Mirren more than they like Hitchcock (though the movie has been dogged upon, her big blow-up in the film, in which she tells Hitchcock what it's like to be his wife, was featured in her introductory reel and elicited loud applause, and people couldn't say enough about what a class-act she is); people are very fond of Argo and the folks who worked on it (the first mention of the former generated louder-than-usual applause and there was a standing-ovation as the latter were introduced); and Holland is quite possibly the most poised 16-year-old in the history of film (his articulate, humble and gracious introduction of Watts wowed audience members and had her in tears).