Stars talk diversity, Debbie Reynolds at Palm Springs Film Festival

Stars Talk Diversity, Debbie Reynolds at Palm Springs Film Festival

The Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala is the glitzy side of the two-pronged festival, which began its 28th year Monday at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

The daily screenings, beginning Thursday night at Palm Springs High School, present the best of international cinema. The Awards Gala provides the Hollywood stars, klieg lights and screaming fans.

At the first awards gala ever held on an official holiday, the Palm Springs International Film Society celebrated both the new year and the apparent results of the year-long dialogue on the need for more diversity in Hollywood. This was probably Palm Springs most diverse gala, one that truly reflected the international nature of its festival programming.

The less-than-three-hour ceremony officially launched the 2017 movie awards season, just three days before Motion Pictures Academy members begin voting for Academy Award nominations, as 11 awards were presented to actors, directors and films contending for Oscar nods. The ceremony featured appearances by 11 actors, a director and one composer who have been nominated for the Golden Globe awardsbeing presented Sunday in Los Angeles.

The evening’s diversity was evident from the start when writer-director Jeff Nichols and actor Joel Edgerton of the film, Loving, actually commanded the attention of the sold-out crowd of 2,400 people to present their lead actress, Ruth Negga, with the Rising Star Award.

Negga, who was born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland, surprised many in the crowd with her Irish brogue while thanking the team behind her “role of a lifetime” as an African-American woman who marries a white man in early 1960s Virginia. She said they are a reminder of what can be achieved when people work toward “our common heritage and what unites us: Love.”

Janelle Monáe, a six-time Grammy nominated singer who has won Breakout Performance and Rising Star awards this year for her performances in Moonlight and Hidden Figures from the African-American Film Critics Association and the Black Film Critics Circle, respectively, described Mahershala Ali as “my brother” while presenting him with the Breakthrough Performance Award.

Ali, who noted he’s been finding reward in his work for 20 years before his recent “discovery” by awards presenters, talked about his father, who spent most of his short acting career in the back lines of Broadway and taking extra roles in Hollywood. He thanked him for his patience and for introducing him to the arts.

'Hidden Figures,' said Octavia Spencer, "serves as a reminder of what we can do when we get rid of isms... I hope it serves as a reminder that we can achieve the extraordinary." (Photo: Chris Pizzello, Invision/AP)
‘Hidden Figures,’ said Octavia Spencer, “serves as a reminder of what we can do when we get rid of isms… I hope it serves as a reminder that we can achieve the extraordinary.” (Photo: Chris Pizzello, Invision/AP)

Later in the evening, Monae was honored with the cast of Hidden Figures, including Octavia Spencer, and suggested that that film, also starring the absent Taraji P. Henson, “serves as a reminder of what we can do when we get rid of isms… I hope it serves as a reminder that we can achieve the extraordinary.”

Andrew Garfield, who was born in Los Angeles and raised in England, accepted the Spotlight Award for his performance as a pacifist Seventh Day Adventist who becomes a World War II hero. He offered a New Year’s wish for unity framed as a remembrance of the character he played in Hacksaw Ridge, Desmond Doss.

“He had a knowing inside of himself that we are all brothers and sisters, and that if I injure you, then I’m actually injuring myself,” said Garfield, who also is up for a Golden Globe. “He was a personification of love. And I think, in this often troubling world, he is a terrific reminder of what’s possible: to live a humble life devoted to loving and serving our fellow man as we would have them love us. We need more Desmond Dosses in this world. That’s my wish and prayer for this new year.”

Garfield, of Polish Jewish descent and speaking with an English accent, was one of many multi-national personalities at the ceremony. Nicole Kidman, the International Star Award winner for her work in Lion, was born in the United States and raised in Australia. She was introduced by another Golden  Globe-nominated actor from Lion, Dev Patel, who was born in London to parents from Kenya of Gujarati Indian descent.

Kidman, one of several past award winners from the gala, remembered coming to this gala with her late father in 2005, when she won the Chairman’s Award. It was shortly after divorcing Tom Cruise and just before she would marry country star Keith Urban. She said she had to reassess her priorities, focusing on quality of life and quality time with her family. She said her character in “Lion,” who adopts a lost boy from Calcutta, aligned with the person she wants to be in real life.

The first standing ovation of the evening came during the presentation of the ceremony’s last award — to actor Tom Hanks, who received the Icon Award for his performance in “Sulley” as the pilot who landed a plane full of people on the Hudson River.

Hanks who received the Chairman’s Award in 2014 and was a presenter in 2012 and 2013, was a dominant presence at this gala. Garfield said he was responsible for making him want to go into acting, especially his work in Big and Joe vs. the Volcano. Hanks presented Natalie Portman with the Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress, Award, describing her as a “mystery we should know much more about” and announcing that she was expecting another child. Portman called Hanks “an inspiration to us all.” When Hanks finally accepted his own award, he said he was thrilled that Garfield and the Palm Springs International Film Festival “had finally given some love to Joe vs. the Volcano.”

Casey Affleck, receiving the Desert Palm Achievement Award – Actor, for his performance as the antihero in Manchester by the Sea, said his appearance in the Coachella Valley was actually a “really nice nexis of events.”

His first journey west of New England, he said, was to visit his father in Indio, where he worked with the nonprofit alcohol addiction rehab group, the ABC Club. Earlier in the evening, he said, a volunteer who was showing him around told him she had gone through the ABC Club when his father worked there. And Kidman, who he followed on stage, starred in the first movie he made, To Die For, which was directed by Guas Vant Sant, who was in the audience.

His award’s presentation represented diversity. Sir Ben Kingsley, born Krishna Bhanji in Yorkshire, England, to a Kenyan-born doctor, gave the award to Affleck, the father of two boys with his wife, Rain Phoenix (wife of Joaquin Phoenix) and the brother of actor, writer and director Ben Affleck.

Affleck said he didn’t think he could have effectively played his part in Manchester by the Sea without his life experience as a father.

“This is a movie about showing up for the people you love,” he said, “and that’s a nice reminder for all of us as we start the new year.”

Amy Adams, who received the Spotlight Award in 2009 for her performance in Doubt, accepted the Chairman’s Award from Garfield for her performance as a linguist in Arrival, followed with more New Year’s Eve messages.

Adams, who was born to American parents in Italy while her father was stationed in the Army and raised in a Mormon family in Colorado, said her New Year’s resolution was to practice gratitude, especially for her family and her acting community. She said “Arrival” celebrates hope and love.

“That’s why I am grateful,” she said. “This year I’m grateful for the love I got from my family and I got from this community.”

Annette Bening was another returning award winner. She received the Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress, for her role in American Beauty in 2000 and was presented the Chairman’s Award by director Mike Mills for her performance in 20th Century Women. She attended the gala with her husband, Warren Beatty, and expressed gratitude to everyone from those who made the festival to “20th Century Women” possible.

Jane Lynch, former star of the TV show, Glee, got one of the biggest laughs of the night when she presented the stars, director and composer of La La Land with the Vanguard Award by saying she didn’t have any connection to the film. But, she said, “I do believe that having worked for six seasons on television with a group of adults playing high school teenagers who unapologetically burst into song sorta qualifies me to do the honors here tonight.”

La La Land star Emma Stone, who is widely expected to receive an Oscar nominationfor her performance in La La Land, wasn’t able to attend due to a case of strep throat, but her director, composer and co-star, Ryan Gosling, received the Vanguard Award and Gosling echoed hostess Mary Hart’s remembrance of the late part-time Palm Springs resident, Debbie Reynolds.

“She was an inspiration to us every day,” he said. “We watched Singing in the Rain (starring Reynolds) every day for inspiration.”

Gala chairman Harold Matzner said the event raised $2.3 million for the nonprofit Palm Springs International Film Society and he said he was pleased with the way the event went despite the difficulty of presenting it on a holiday.

New Artistic Director Michael Lerman said on the red carpet his goal is to “build up the amount of diversity we have in the program.” That program begins Tuesday with “Books to Screen” panels and screenings and continues through Jan. 16.

For more information on PSIFF screenings and events, go to www.psfilmfest.org.

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