Palm Springs Film Fest: Oscar Hopefuls Like David Oyelowo and Reese Witherspoon Audition Before an Enthusiastic Crowd

The big names headed 100 miles east of L.A. to court the votes of the hundreds of Academy members who live in the desert resort city
Associated Press
Brad Pitt plants a smooch on David Oyelowo at the Palm Springs International Film Festival

Brad Pitt sang David Oyelowo's name. Shirley MacLaine said the only direction she ever received from Richard Linklater was "I don't know." Michael Keaton darted across the stage to the theme of Batman, while Benedict Cumberbatch later ran across it in slow motion. Eddie Redmayne had other movie stars swooning over him while he spoke. And Robert Duvall rambled on about a wide variety of topics for roughly 15 minutes.

The 14th edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival's annual awards gala took place Saturday night in the desert resort city, and, as always, it was a strange evening. Held in the Palm Springs Convention Center, an airplane hangar-like venue where festival volunteers lined up and applauded the 2,400 guests as they entered, it was emceed by Mary Hart, who stopped hosting Entertainment Tonight in 2011, but still performed her ET routine, theme music and all, over the course of several hours. The whole event could be written off as just another of the endless pseudo-events that comprise the awards season — but it shouldn't be.

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That's because the fundraiser draws as many big-name Oscar contenders as any awards show of the season prior to the nationally-televised Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Awards ceremonies. The presenters and winners are all determined in advance, so the big names commute the 100 miles from L.A. not nervously wondering about outcomes, but either to practice their acceptance speech or to improve their chances of getting to give one by graciously introducing one of their colleagues. And with several hundred Academy members residing, full- or part-time, in town, and Oscar nomination voting currently underway, it was probably worth their effort. Last year, 10 of the 11 PSIFF honorees went on to receive Oscar noms.

The 2015 edition kicked off with Gone Girl's Rosamund Pike — who delivered a baby exactly one month ago — making her debut on the awards season circuit. The beautiful British actress accepted the Breakthrough Performance Award (Female) from her co-stars Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens, telling the audience that she'd wanted to work with the film's director, David Fincher, ever since she saw his film Se7en right after she played a Bond girl in Die Another Day, whereupon she was told, "Fincher doesn't work with Bond girls." Twelve years later, after proving that she was more than just another pretty face in a variety of other roles, she finally got her chance with Fincher, and she recalled her reaction to landing the role for which she has since received Globe, SAG and Critics' Choice noms: "Right after 'Bingo!' comes 'F—!'"

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Then Pitt, whose production company Plan B helped to make Selma — which opened PSIFF on Friday night — took the stage to introduce Oyelowo, who stars in the film as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as the Breakthrough Performance Award (Male) recipient. Sensing an opportunity to be funny and, in all seriousness, help people to remember the British-born actor of Nigerian descent's unusual name, he led the audience in progressively more silly call-and-response exercises featuring Oyelowo's name. (He even went so far as to slightly change a lyric of Coldplay's "Yellow," if you follow.) Eventually, he put joking aside and called up Oyelowo as "a man whose name will one day be synonymous with Poitier and Olivier." When Oyelowo stepped up to the mic he chuckled, "You know you've 'broken through' when Brad Pitt sings your name!"

Jason Reitman then took the stage to introduce Spotlight Award honoree J.K. Simmons, who has appeared in every one of the films that he has directed, but who was being recognized on this night for his work in a film Reitman executive produced, Whiplash. Simmons is widely regarded as the best supporting actor Oscar favorite — Reitman called his work "the role he was born to play." Simmons, showing much more humor than his character in the film, then thanked his wife, "Michelle Oyelowo," before more seriously thanking writer-director Damien Chazelle for casting him in "a wonderful film that I'm enormously proud to be a part of."

Then the two Roberts who have been working the awards circuit together, The Judge co-stars Robert Downey Jr. and Duvall, went through their well-rehearsed routine: Downey gave a humorous and reverent intro of the 83-year-old legend, to whom he was presenting the Icon Award, saying, "Robert Duvall can do anything and he's far from done." And then Duvall, following a standing ovation, got up and gave a speech filled with free-association and improvisation, but also moments of humor ("I'm the oldest guy in the house! And my wife's the most beautiful!"), profundity ("Little films help big films," noting that his work in the indie Get Low led Downey to cast him in the studio film The Judge) and charm ("I've got a few left in me. … It's a great way to make a living).

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Steve Carell really got the room laughing when he introduced Desert Palm Achievement Award (Female) honorees Julianne Moore, with whom he has just co-starred in a movie, and who was being honored for her work in Still Alice, for which she is the prohibitive best actress Oscar frontrunner. He remarked, "There is no one more wonderful than Julianne Moore. I have met both Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, and she makes them look like assholes." More genuinely, he added that he had seen all of her work but, "I don't really think Julianne Moore acts, per se. I've never seen her 'acting.' "

Then MacLaine, still a firecracker at 80, took the stage to a standing ovation, thanked the audience "for your recognition that I'm still alive and well" and proceeded to offer Boyhood writer-director Linklater — who directed her in Bernie four years ago and was being honored as the Sonny Bono Visionary Award winner — just about the biggest backhanded compliment one can imagine. She told a long story of how every question she ever asked Linklater when they worked together was answered "I don't know," but that she ultimately realized that this was "absolutely brilliant" because it freed her to find answers out for herself. She said, "I learned more from him than any other director I ever worked with," a list, she noted, that includes Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and William Wyler. Linklater laughed it off, noting that he had to pinch himself when he realized that he was getting an award at a major festival from a legend, while thanking everyone who made possible "this wonderful life of telling stories" he "really cares about," especially Boyhood.

Then Moore was back, this time as a presenter, to honor Desert Palm Achievement Award (Male) recipient Redmayne, who was being celebrated for his work as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. She first worked with the young actor — and was instrumental in his casting — eight years ago in the indie Savage Grace, for which he thanked her profusely from the podium. The handsome and charming Brit had the audience wrapped around his finger — even Wild co-stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who appeared to be blushing and gushing over him like schoolgirls at their table — as he spoke self-deprecatingly about his performance, thanked the Hawkings for their trust and acknowledged his wife, whom he married only two weeks ago.

Interestingly, Redmayne was immediately followed by Keaton, probably his chief competitor for the best actor Oscar, who on this night presented the Director of the Year Award to his Birdman guru Alejandro G. Inarritu. "To be in the world of someone who is truly original is awe inspiring," he said before introducing footage that I'd never seen before of Inarritu on the film's set, motivating his giant ensemble to dare to do things that had never been done before. It was one of the most effective featurettes of the night. Inarritu then came out and cracked, "My personal 'Birdman' told me, 'You don't deserve this, you are a piece of shit,' " but that he had repressed him and was honored to receive the accolade.

Morten Tyldum, introduced as "The Hollywood Film Award-winning director of The Imitation Game," came out next to talk about the impressive cast of his own film, a "group of incredibly talented actors" who had been tapped for the Ensemble Performance Award. Speaking on their behalf, after the cast mimed a slow motion Chariots of Fire-like run to the podium, Cumberbatch called Tyldum a "fantastic, powerhouse director." He also acknowledged his co-stars who were not in attendance (including Keira Knightley, who, he joked, had mistakenly thought the ceremony was in Palm Beach) and then went on at some length about how all of the actors were delighted to be a part of the project to help celebrate the life of its principal subject, Alan Turing.

Finally, Dern, acting on behalf of PSIFF chairman Harold Matzner, took the stage to present the Chairman's Award to Witherspoon, "my co-star, my producer and my friend" from Wild, praising her work and her social company while emphasizing, "I want to be a part of any party Reese Witherspoon is throwing!" Witherspoon, who this year also appeared in The Good Lie and Inherent Vice and was a producer of Gone Girl, emerged to a partial standing ovation and returned the compliment, saying of Dern, "She became the heartbeat of our movie." She said of Wild and those with whom she made it, "We walked and shared stories of our lives. It was a wild and beautiful journey, probably — definitely — the most moving journey of my career."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg