PALM SPRINGS – The 26th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival lit up the desert night sky Saturday night with an awards gala recognizing top prospects in this year's Oscar race. Talent from films like “Gone Girl,” “Birdman,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Still Alice” and “Wild,” among others, was on hand to ring in the new year with towering statues dished out on a massive stage that seemed to scream out, “This is a serious awards season stop!”
Early honors went to breakthrough performances from Rosamund Pike (“Gone Girl”) and David Oyleowo (“Selma”). The latter was introduced by “Selma” producer Brad Pitt, who said he wanted to broach a subject that everyone was thinking about. No, it wasn't recent criticism of the film's historical accuracy, but rather, how to pronounce Oyelowo's last name. “You're going to be referencing this name for years to come,” he exclaimed. “You have to learn this!”
Pitt then led the audience on a singalong to help nail the pronunciation in the key of Spanish football anthem “Olé, Olé, Olé.” He also praised Oyelowo's work as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as “a masterclass performance that transcends imitation.” Taking the stage, Oyelowo was all smiles. “You know you've broken through when Brad Pitt sings your name,” he said.
Pike, meanwhile -who gave birth barely a month ago and was introduced by “Gone Girl” co-stars Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens – was reminded of a sentiment from her character Amy Dunne in David Fincher's dark film: “I've forgotten how to behave.” On the “rare occasions” when she's been at a podium such as this, Pike offered, “I have no idea how to behave.”
She remembered adoring Fincher's 1995 film “Se7en” and, around the time of her work on the 2002 James Bond extravaganza “Die Another Day,” expressed an interest in working for the filmmaker. “David Fincher never casts Bond girls,” she was told. So she set off on a series of “calculated career decisions,” she joked, roles in “Doom,” “Wrath of the Titans” and “Johnny English Reborn.” After 12 years, “Bingo. He called,” she jested.
Director Jason Reitman captured the essence of “Whiplash” honoree J.K. Simmons by describing how fun it was to be in public with him and see who recognizes the character actor and for what role. With such a versatile portfolio, it's little surprise that Simmons once upon a time was shooting scenes as an incarcerated skinhead in HBO's “Oz” while taking the stage at night to belt out “I've got your horse right here, the name is Paul Revere” in “Guys and Dolls.”
And talk about capturing an essence. Shirley MacLaine gave one of the great awards season introductory speeches (if that's a thing) for “Boyhood” director and Sonny Bono Visionary Award recipient Richard Linklater. After thinking back on the processes of such legendary helmers as Alfred Hitchcock (“He hated actors”) and Billy Wilder (he would often ask you to do the same thing but take out “12 and a half seconds”), she noted Linklater's propensity to greet certain creative questions on set with a blasé, “I don't know,” often leaving performers to find their way into their roles without overt directorial intrusion. When it's all said and done, “You don't care about pleasing the director, you care about pleasing the character,” she said of how working with him impacted her. “Because of him, I discovered my inner bitch.” (She played a bit of a “b” word in Linklater's “Bernie,” you see.)
Julianne Moore (who also won an award for her “Still Alice” performance) beamed with pride as Eddie Redmayne, who owes plenty to her fighting for his cause when it came to casting 2007's “Savage Grace,” accepted his prize for “The Theory of Everything.” Icon Award recipient Robert Duvall pushed back against the notion that the spirit of 1970s filmmaking is dead by noting the symbiotic relationship between alive-and-well independent cinema and studio product in the business, and how he secured a part in “The Judge” due to his work in “Get Low.” “Birdman” star Michael Keaton told of how none other than the late, great Mike Nichols told directing award recipient Alejandro González Iñárritu, “Don't do this [movie]. You're heading for disaster,” but couldn't deter the filmmaker from his bold vision. And while we were at it, the cast of “The Imitation Game” and “Wild” star Reese Witherspoon also picked up hardware.
It was just one of a slew of dress rehearsals this season, as everything from the Governors Awards to Santa Barbara Film Festival tributes to the Critics' Choice Movie Awards have staked out territory on the awards calendar, making the long, purposeful march to Oscar night a busy one. Palm Springs board chairman Harold Matzner boasted of this particular gala's near-perfect track record of foreshadowing Oscar nominations last year (poor Tom Hanks). How will their prognostication – er, pure show of adulation no matter what the Oscar landscape (right?) – pan out this year?
We'll find out on Jan. 15.