Spirit Awards Embrace 'Beale Street' in an Oscar-Alternative Ceremony

The top acting prizes went to Glenn Close and Ethan Hawke for 'The Wife' and 'First Reformed,' respectively.

If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins' adaptation of James Baldwin's novel about a young couple whose love is tested by prejudice, got a big embrace at the 2019 Film Independent Spirit Awards, held Saturday afternoon in a tent on the beach in Santa Monica.

Not only was the film, from Megan Ellison's Annapurna, named best feature, but Jenkins took the best director prize and Regina King collected the award for best supporting female. For Jenkins and his producing partners, it was a return to the same stage where just two years ago they won the same honor for Moonlight.

The afternoon's other top prizes went to Glenn Close, voted best female lead for playing a woman who has sublimated her life to her more famous husband in The Wife, and Ethan Hawke, chosen best male lead for playing a minister undergoing a crisis of faith in First Reformed.

While there was overlap in some categories with the nominations for Sunday night's Oscars, none of the five Spirit Award nominees for best feature received best picture nominations from the Academy. So instead of feeling like Oscar-lite, which has sometimes been the case in the past, this year's Spirit Awards played more like a genuinely alternative awards show. As the afternoon's acerbic host Aubrey Plaza said at the beginning of the ceremony, broadcast by IFC, the Spirit Awards celebrate "the movies that are too important to see."

When her name was read out as best female lead, Close risked being upstaged by bringing her small dog Pippin up onstage with her — and upstage her he did to her delighted laughter. With a nod to the other women she's encountered during the course of this awards season, Close attested "no matter what you're wearing, no matter what red carpet you walk on, the important thing was telling "stories that really make a difference in the world."

Hawke was not present, and so his award was accepted in his absence by his co-star, Amanda Seyfried.

In accepting his directing award, Jenkins confessed, "I didn't want to win this damn award with everything going on in the world," and so he used his time at the microphone to call for the industry to hire more women filmmakers. "I'm going to take this," he said, "but I want to take it by thanking all the women involved in If Beale Street Could Talk that made it the film that it was."

For playing a loving, supporting mother in the movie, King picked up the supporting actress award. "I have not done a film in almost 10 years, and to be here receiving this for such a beautiful piece of art," she exclaimed, almost at a loss for words.

While Beale Street ended up getting the most time in the spotlight, the Spirit Awards were actually spread amongst an array of films.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of literary forger Lee Israel, earned Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty the honor for best screenplay. After calling the film's director, Marielle Heller, to the stage, Holofcener said, "It's so wonderful that this movie about two crazy, untrustworthy lonely gay alcoholics got made. It just proves that outlier characters, who you would rather not spend time with, who aren't likeable, can still be entertaining and worthy of our love."

The pic's Richard E. Grant was named best supporting male for as performance as Israel's accomplice. He cited the late British actor Ian Charleson, who appeared in Chariots of Fire and died of AIDS at age 41, as his inspiration for the role, calling the movie "an homage to that generation of men who were wiped out by that disease."

Boots Riley's satirical Sorry to Bother You, in which an Oakland telemarketer discovers how to succeed in business, was hailed as best first feature. "I think that there's been a lot said about the new diverse voices that are happening in film, but we can't take away from the fact that that's happening because there are real movements happening out there in the streets," he said. "Film is responding to that." Riley also injected one of the most political moments into the afternoon when he went on to say, "The CIA is trying to have a coup in Venezuela, and we should all be putting our voices out to stop the U.S. from having regime change for oil in Venezuela."

Writer-director Bo Burnham was awarded best first screenplay honors for Eighth Grade, the account of an insecure girl navigating the last week of middle school. Onstage, Burnham lauded the movie's young star Elsie Fisher, saying "she's the entire reason I'm up here," and confessed that in his previous career as a comic, "I was told very often I was like a comedian for only 13-year-old girls," he said. "They deserve to be paid attention to and to be taken seriously."

While Roma wasn't eligible in other categories reserved for American films, it was recognized with the prize for best international cinema. In his brief acceptance, the film's auteur, Alfonso Cuaron, who may have been saving remarks should he be called to the stage at the Oscars, said, "I'm optimistic right now that we are reaching a moment where greater diversity is happening in cinema."

Morgan Neville's hit documentary about children's TV host Fred Rogers, Won't You Be My Neighbor?, failed to secure an Oscar nomination, but it was celebrated as best documentary at the Spirit Awards. "Hi, neighbors," Neville greeted the crowd as he stood at the podium. Citing Rogers' example, he said, "Fred knew that kindness was more than something that sounded good on a bumper sticker. Real kindness, radical kindness, which means civility, is something like oxygen. We need to have it to survive."

Armie Hammer presented the Robert Altman Award, given to a film's helmer, casting director and ensemble cast, to his Tell Me by Your Name director Luca Guadagnino for the feminist horror fantasia Suspiria. Although he wasn't present, Guadagnino sent a message thanking his casting directors and actors that concluded, "Cinema is wonderful." Sharing in the award were casting directors Avy Kaufman and Stella Savino, who called the pic "a great portrait of women's power," and a cast that includes Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton and Jessica Harper. 

Suspiria's director of photography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom also was cited in the cinematography category, while the honor for best editing went to Joe Bini for You Were Never Really Here.

The John Cassevetes Award, which goes to a film made for under $500,000, went to En el Septimo Dia, which concerns undocumented Mexican workers living in Brooklyn. The film was written and directed by Jim McKay and produced by McKay, Alex Bach, Lindsey Cordero, Caroline Kaplan and Michael Stipe.

As previously announced, Debra Granik won the second annual Bonnie Award, named for first female pilot to fly for a major U.S. airline and recognizing a mid-career female director, which comes with a $50,000 unrestricted grant sponsored by American Airlines. Accepting at the event, Granik, whose films include Winter's Bone and Leave No Trace, said, "I'm so elevated and shored up and encouraged to be in a tent with people who like to fly with women. It's a great feeling."

Shrihari Sathe received the Producers Award, honoring emerging producers who, despite highly limited resources, demonstrate the creativity, tenacity and vision required to produce quality, independent films. The annual award includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant.  

Alex Moratto, director of Socrates, received the Someone to Watch Award, recognizing talented filmmakers of singular vision who have not yet received appropriate recognition. The prize also includes a $25,000 unrestricted grant. 

And Bing Liu, director of the Oscar-nominated Minding the Gap, received the Truer Than Fiction Award, presented to an emerging director of non-fiction features who has not received significant recognition, which also carries with it a $25,000 unrestricted grant. 

Thanks to Beale Street and Sorry to Bother You, Annapurna earned boasting rights among distributors, with four wins for its films; Amazon, credited with Suspiria and You Were Never Really Here, took home three; and A24 and Fox Searchlight each notched two wins.