SANTA MONICA, CALIF. — Kevin Smith must be really jealous of Sarah Silverman for getting to be in last year's homage to the world's dirtiest joke, The Aristocrats.
Judging by his crude and filthy wisecracks about his wife, himself and others at Saturday's Independent Spirit Award ceremonies here, he was out to make the taboo-breaking comedian Silverman — the ostensibly "daring" choice for Master of Ceremonies — look like milquetoast for toning down her own act for the event.
And he did, but at a price. He probably will never be invited to present an award anywhere but a Friars Club roast. And especially not at home, if he still has a home to go home to.
Director/actor/writer Smith (Clerks, Dogma), who won a 1997 Independent Spirit Award for his Chasing Amy screenplay, was on stage to present the Best Director Award. He didn't endear himself to that profession, or to an even older one, with this observation: "Apparently, to be a director you have to be able to put on a dress and solicit blow jobs in Hollywood." It appeared to be a reference to the recent well-publicized arrest of a male director in drag by undercover police in Hollywood.
Noticing the audience discomfort, Smith added, "Which apparently I'm going to be doing based on the reaction to that."
When the winner of the award, the quiet, shy and exceedingly polite Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain), came onstage, he looked a little wary of getting too near Smith.
It should be noted that Silverman's own opening monologue was pretty risqué, anyway — an extended bit about douches brought some cringes and groans from the audience of independent-cinema elite.
Dawn Hudson, executive director of Film Independent, the nonprofit that sponsors the annual Independent Spirits, sounded a little ironic when she took the stage to thank Silverman for bringing her "feminine-hygiene humor" to the awards show. Silverman, in black party dress and red heels, looked proud, beaming her incandescent naughty smile all across the huge tent put up on perennially sunny Santa Monica Beach just for this occasion.
Truth be told, the Independent Spirit Awards needed its randiness, maybe even a few quick forays into tastelessness, to differentiate itself from the Academy Awards, which were held the next night in Hollywood. The awards started 21 years ago at a time when the gap between indie filmmaking and Hollywood was as wide as the Grand Canyon.
This year, there was tremendous overlap between the Independent Spirits and the Oscars in terms of nominees. Four of the five Oscar Best Picture candidates this year were independent productions — films with modest budgets released by independent companies or the specialty-film divisions of major studios. And one, Crash, won the Academy Award.
Of those four Oscar nominees, Brokeback, Capote and Crash each took two major Independent Spirit Awards — Brokeback for Best Picture and Best Director, Capote for Best Male Lead (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Best Screenplay (Dan Futterman) and Crash for Best First Feature (Paul Haggis) and Best Supporting Male (Matt Dillon). Transamerica, whose Felicity Huffman was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, took Best Female Lead and Best First Screenplay (Duncan Tucker). And Junebug's Amy Adams, an Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress, took a Best Supporting Female prize.
This overlap isn't because the Independent Spirits are going Hollywood, although one might think that judging from the star power on hand Saturday: George Clooney, Sean and Robin Wright Penn, Dennis Quaid, Naomi Watts, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, the Olsen twins (nobody had any idea why they were present, actually), a grungy Jason Lee and far more platinum blondes in low-cut dresses than you'd see at a typical screening of any of the nominated films.
Rather, it's because the Oscars keep moving to the left. Such quintessentially indie films as those mentioned above, plus Hustle & Flow, Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, the Palestinian foreign-language drama Paradise Now and Alex Gibney's documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room received both Independent Spirit and Oscar nominations. (Enron and Paradise won in Best Documentary and Best Foreign-Language Film categories at the Independent Spirits.)
Because of the nomination convergence, hoopla surrounding the Independent Spirit Awards was high-pitched and hysterical this year. Along the "red carpet" (it's actually gold), photographers and reporters from worldwide outlets crowded out and yelled at each other while fighting for sound bites and photo ops.
Many didn't really care about independent film, per se; this was just a chance to get "Film at 11" clips of Clooney, Huffman, Haggis, Dillon, Adams, et al. about their Oscar prospects. Not all the stars cooperated — Ledger and Williams wouldn't even look over at the screaming media throngs as they walked briskly down the carpet toward the tent.
I was standing near one TV guy who asked a genial Clooney, working his way down the noisy press line, "How crazy is this?" Clooney answered, "What do you mean, 'How crazy is this?' You ask me a question like that." It was a good answer.
But true to the event's independent-spiritedness, there were some real oddities in the press section: Something called FredTV was supposed to be next to me but didn't show, even though its Web site proclaims, "Where there's a red carpet, there's FredTV."
And at the very end of the carpet stood MarvintheMonkey.com, which was actually young Michael Biggie holding a well-traveled monkey puppet and a microphone up to the passing celebrities. "The Oscars turned me down," said a miffed Biggie. "I mean, if Joan Rivers can do it..."
In the press tent where Independent Spirit winners come to answer questions, the main concern on the inquiring journalistic minds often was what the women would be wearing to the next day's Oscars.
Still, among the winners in the smaller categories, there were some compelling stories. A young married couple who met in high school, Mora Stephens and Joel Viertel, won the John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature made for under $500,000. Their film Conventioneers, a love story shot surreptitiously during the 2004 Republican Convention in New York, has played only festivals.
Asked if they've been able to support themselves as filmmakers, Stephens ruefully acknowledged they make a "small living" at it — a poignant moment of revelation about how hard this life can be for those far removed from all the glamour and celebrity.
Another poignant moment came on-stage when Ian Olds, whose Occupation: Dreamland documentary won the Truer than Fiction Award (and a $25,000 grant), announced that co-director Garrett Scott had died just two days before in an accident.
The most interesting tidbit for me, personally, came when I asked James Schamus, co-president of Focus Features, which produced Brokeback Mountain, if he had a favorite Internet Brokeback parody.
Indeed, he had.
"One that I thought was really good was the recent Brokeback Redemption," he said. (It's a trailer that combines Shawshank Redemption footage with Brokeback Mountain music and narration.) "I went to high school with both Frank Darabont (Shawshank's director) and one of the guys who made the parody."
"It all comes back to high school, doesn't it?" ©