George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Michelle Williams and more turn out for Palm Springs awards gala

Posted by · 1:05 am · January 8th, 2012

I’ve never attended the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala. It’s a key stop along the Oscar trail this time of year, very competitive with the Santa Barbara Film Festival. The two duke it out for honorees, one reticent to honor talent that the other has chalked up for an award. Which is obviously silly. But it seemed time to give it a go.

The evening was a nice enough one. Good whiskey, tasty spare ribs, yummy dessert. But the heathens at my table nearly tore it. I don’t quite know what their business was there, but it appeared that most were friends of one of the festival’s sponsors. Fine, fair enough, bring your friends. But maybe chastise them for gloating over snapping photos of Angelina Jolie in the bathroom? Earlier I heard another conniving over “getting my picture with George [Clooney].” Ugh.

Poor Howard Shore — I couldn’t even hear him through his acceptance of an award deep into the evening. Little to no reverence seemed to be paid. Chatter, chatter, chatter. But that, I gather from the vets I’ve spoken to this evening, is the Palm Springs way. Alas.

Anyway, things started with the presentation of the Breakthrough Performance Award, presented to “The Help” actress Octavia Spencer by “Bridesmaids” star Melissa McCarthy. Spencer took to the stage amid instant emotion, particularly choked up when she mentioned her co-star, Jessica Chastain.

Next up was Tom Hanks and the creepily precocious Thomas Horn to present the Director of the Year Award to “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” director Stephen Daldry. Daldry was one of two honorees this evening to pay homage to film publicist Ronni Chasen, who was brutally murdered in the middle of the season last year (the other being Howard Shore).

“9/11 is not taught in any national curriculum in America,” he said, referring to the subject matter of his film. “So let’s tell these stories.”

Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight fame once again served as host of the festivities. She introduced the aforementioned Howard Shore, recipient of this year’s Frederick Lowe Music Award for his contributions to Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo.” I wish I could convey a quote of note, but I couldn’t hear over the self-involved chatter of the crowd.

Al Pacino was on hand to present the Spotlight Award to the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain. The famed actor recalled when he first saw the actress in action six years ago during an audition. “I was so struck by her delivery and acting,” he said. “I turned to a producer, Robert Fox, who has been in the business almost as long as I have, and he had the same look on his face: ‘What are we witnessing here? Is this a prodigy?'”

Pacino recently cast Chastain in “Wild Salome,” which came before her epic slate of films that released in 2011. Chastain called Pacino her “acting godfather” for the break he gave her.

Michel Hazanavicius accepted the Sonny Bono Visionary Award from “The Artist” stars Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, taking the words right out of my mouth by offering (humbly), “I wasn’t comfortable with the word ‘visionary.’ I’m not sure I have vision.” Of course, he charmed the crowd by following it up with, “But as I look out at you now, you are a vision. So today, thanks to you, I am a visionary.” He was in black and white on the big screen behind him as he spoke. Aw, how cute.

Olivia Wilde presented the Vanguard Award for Creative Ensemble to “Young Adult” director Jason Reitman, writer Diablo Cody and stars Charlize Theron and Patton Oswalt. Oswalt spoke for the group, his usual funny, affable self. Meanwhile, Adrien Brody was on hand to present the International Star Award to Gary Oldman.

Which brings me to a point. Oldman’s reel blew everything else out of the water. We’re clearly fans around these parts, but to see what this man has done on screen throughout his career, and what he’s done this year in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” it’s time for him to be out of movie jail already. It’s a blight on the Academy that he doesn’t have an Oscar nomination, and it will be an even bigger blight if he goes without this year. Wise up, already.

And Brody was with me on that score. “Oh, shit,” he said. “That’s a reel.” Oldman noted the odd sculpt of the unique award: “I’m going to smoke out of this later.”

Moving right along, Kenneth Branagh presented the Desert Palm Award for Best Actress to his “My Week with Marilyn” co-star Michelle Williams. “He was the most extraordinary partner,” Williams said of Branagh. “The only hard part was laying down my awe that I was in a scene with him.”

Williams also noted that it was suggested to her at the start of her career that she employ alliteration in her professional name, much like Marilyn Monroe. She almost, therefore, changed her name to Michelle Montana once upon a time. “I came this close to a career as a porn star,” she quipped.

The porn references didn’t end there. Jonah Hill presented the Desert Palm Award for Best Actor to Brad Pitt, honored for his work in both “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life.” The actor said of his co-star in the latter, Jessica Chastain, “Seven films this year, five films next year. You have to be in the porn industry to see that kind of success.”

Jeff Goldblum was on hand to present the Career Achievement Award to his “The Big Chill” co-star Glenn Close and Shailene Woodley presented the Chairman’s Award to George Clooney, who I’m sure had something charming to say, but I left in order to make the after party. Here’s hoping that craven attendee was able to get her photo with him, though.

And that was the awards gala of the 23rd annual Palm Springs International Film Festival. The after-party was okay. I was happy to catch up with Jason Reitman (who really wants Patton Oswalt to get his due this year) and to meet Jessica Chastain (who cutely dragged Octavia Spencer out onto the dance floor early on). What else can I say? It happened.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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