‘Argo,’ Sally Field and Helen Mirren highlight Palm Springs Film Festival Awards Gala

PALM SPRINGS – The talking points are getting a little repetitive, but some of the biggest players of the 2013 awards season charmed a packed Palm Springs Convention Center Saturday night for the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala. And, shockingly, longtime veterans of the event said 10-time host Mary Hart wasn’t as bad hokey as she’d been during previous ceremonies. That’s a scarier thought than anything on display in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D” this weekend, but I digress…

An annual stop on the awards season circuit, the Palm Springs International Film Festival bestowed honors to “Life of Pi” composer Mychael Danna, “Les Miserables” director Tom Hooper, “Hitchcock’s” Helen Mirren, “The Impossible’s” Naomi Watts, “The Sessions” star Helen Hunt, “Arbitrage’s” Richard Gere, “Silver Linings Playbook’s” Bradley Cooper, “Flight” director Robert Zemeckis, the acting ensemble of “Argo” with Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston in attendance as well as Lifetime Achievement Award winner Sally Field (“Lincoln”).  Normally, studios use this event as a last ditch effort to get contenders in front of retired or semi-retired Academy members who live out in the desert before nominations ballots are due.  The early deadline Friday ended up making the speeches, introductions and video montages more of an unofficial kick-off for phase 2. And while every honoree leaves Palm Springs an “official” winner, some potential Oscar nominees had better nights than others.

With that in mind, here are some observations from the star-studded night.

Familiar faces
There was actually a bit of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon” among the night’s presenters and honorees. Tom Hanks presented Zemeckis his award, but has starred alongside Field in the director’s “Forest Gump” and the 1988 dramedy “Punchline.” Hunt appeared with Hanks in Zemeckis’ “Castaway” and opposite Richard Gere in “Dr. T and the Women.” David O. Russell presented to his “Playbook” star Cooper, but previously directed Watts in “I Heart Huckabees.” Diane Lane, who presented to Gere, starred in “Hollywoodland” with Affleck.

Diane Lane celebrates her ‘dear friend’ Richard Gere
Clearly out of the best actor race, Gere was introduced by his “Unfaithful” co-star Lane who focused on his impressive resume of humanitarian work from battling AIDS in India,bringing the plight of the Tibetan people to light and fighting for “the rights of tribal people throughout the world” for over 25 years.  Segueing to Gere’s clip reel, Lane sly noted his “beautiful body of work” and then paused which got a nice laugh from the audience.  

Naomi Watts and Bradley Cooper win the clip reel honors
Summit Entertainment and The Weinstein Company were smart enough to just have the footage from “The Impossible” and “Silver Linings Playbook” for their winners’ reels. Each video montage highlighted the actors impressive performances and didn’t distract with previous work. For Gere, Hunt and Mirren the prepared reels appeared more like lifetime achievement which should have been left just for Field whose own video montage was pretty strong except for showing a bit too much “Steel Magnolias” (yes, you can show too much of that one). The “Argo” reel appropriately highlighted the entire cast, but Zemeckis’ featured critics quotes for “Flight” which was a tad cringe worthy considering the setting.

Touching intro by Tom Holland
One recurring theme of the night was how the introductions were often better than actual winner’s speeches. Whether it was Tom Hanks celebrating Zemeckis, Ang Lee championing Danna or the aforementioned Lane for Gere, the guest presenters actually kept the show from being a total snoozefest.  The best intro, however, had to go to 16-year-old Tom Holland who intro’d his “Impossible” co-star Watts. Holland admitted of all of Watts’ great performances his dad had only let him see “King Kong” and while they spent six weeks shooting in a water tank he didn’t know it was “difficult” because he actually “loved it” (Watts later said she thinks she “aged 20 years in that tank”).  Most important, this was Holland’s first film role and he sweetly noted, “From the moment I met you, you took my hand and you never let go.” Cue the “awwww” from the audience.

Dame Helen Mirren’s plea for International Films

Reflecting on the fact she won the “international film star” award, Mirren pleaded with the audience to “Please, please watch a film with subtitles.” The message: you make the world smaller by uncovering stories from different cultures. She even got the audience to say “Les Miserables” (“Now you’ve said something in French!”) and said “thank you” in a rolling cavalcade of different languages (all perfectly pronounced, mind you).

Mary Hart insists the audience sing happy birthday to Bradley Cooper

Appearing on stage after the first two presentations – whew – the former “Entertainment Tonight” legend started off going on a rant of self-congratulations claiming her 10-year participation help put the Palm Springs International Film Festival “on the map.” After the 44-year-old Naomi Watts humbly joked there are days she feels her face is falling to her navel, Hart said that comment made her want to “slit her wrists.” Hart also grabbed Hooper on stage and made sure he knew and the entire audience that she thought “Les Miserables” could never be made into a movie and he did an amazing job (gee, thanks for sharing Mary).  The worst, however, was after Bradley Cooper gave a sweet and classy acceptance speech she grabbed both him and Russell (who had revealed earlier it was Cooper’s birthday) and decided to lead the entire audience in a round of happy birthday. And yes, we were told she’d been worse previous years. Egad.

Hooper better the second time around
Unfortunately for Team “Les Miz,” the biggest whiffs of the night went to presenter Eddie Redmayne and honoree Hooper. The always charming Redmayne’s speech was much too long and felt chock full of talking points even though he supposedly wrote it himself. Strangely, Hooper’s acceptance speech wasn’t any better.  The former Oscar winner laid it on too thick revealing that the first time he saw the stage musical it made him think his father would die someday (we’re not cold-hearted, but it came off as a very strange anecdote).  However, when Hooper came back on stage to present for Mirren it was as though he was a different person. He gave a very self-deprecating intro noting “you don’t say no to the Queen” which got a big laugh. Hooper also admitted Mirren “revolutionized” how he directed.  They were working on the mini-series “Elizabeth I” and Hooper had planned for Mirren to give a big speech to a hoard of extras on a sort of stool. Mirren said “no” and that she should walk through the crowd of soldiers speaking to each of them instead. Hooper says Mirren was absolutely right and that day he learned to “listen to your actors.”

Standing Ovation no. 1: Sally Field
After a fine intro from her “Amazing Spider-Man” co-star Martin Sheen, Field gave a fantastic speech reflecting on her working class movie industry background (sometimes her parents were busy, other times they had a lot of time off waiting for work) and how when her family visited Palm Springs in the ’50s it was just “one dusty, long street,” but it always “made her smile.” Reading from prepared cards instead of a teleprompter, Field won the crowd over with lines like “It’s true. I had romantic scenes with a pelican. But, I also had romantic scenes with Paul Newman.” And, it was appropriately reflective of her whole career and her work in “Lincoln” was just a part of it. Well done.

Standing Ovation no. 2: Tony Mendez and the “Argo” cast

Actually, in a huge surprise, the real-life Tony Mendez – a true American hero – appeared to present Ben Affleck, Alan Arkin and a very “Braking Bad” looking Bryan Cranston the Ensemble Performance Award on behalf of the entire cast of “Argo.” While he strangely didn’t get a standing ovation, the more well-known trio did.  Each kept their speeches short with the always witty Affleck thanking Warner Bros. and busting on studio marketing chief Sue Kroll for wearing two different stockings by accident (well, he made it funny). Affleck’s one liners were a good way to end the night. Especially when Mary Hart appeared and he was vocally concerned she may make him sing happy birthday again.

The Palm Springs International Film Festival runs through Sunday, Jan. 13.