Film: One Industry; Two Ceremonies

Awarding Sideways a record-tying six awards, the Indie Spirits proved itself better than the Oscars

Mar 2, 2005 at 2:06 pm
Alexander Payne's Sideways won a record-tying six awards at the 2005 Independent Spirit Awards, held the day prior to the Oscars.

LOS ANGELES — Nothing at the Independent Spirit Awards ceremony on Feb. 26 in Santa Monica was as thrilling as watching Sean Penn upbraid Chris Rock's mean-spirited joke about Jude Law at the Oscars on Feb. 27.

But nothing at the Indie Spirits was as funny as watching Antonio Banderas and Carlos Santana mangle the best-song winner from The Motorcycle Diaries at the Oscars, or sitting through Beyoncé's flat renditions of other nominated tunes.

True, the Indie Spirits featured intentional parody songs lampooning its Best Feature nominees — a rendition of Kinsey set to the tune of The Association's "Wendy" sparkled. But the Oscars' unintentional parodies — of good singing — were far more memorable. In a way, those Oscar high points (or low points depending on your point of view) confirmed the prevailing opinion of movie-land dwellers — the Indie Spirits is the better of the two awards ceremonies. The Indie Spirits had a sense of purpose and momentum. While it united around Alexander Payne's Sideways with a record-tying six awards, the Oscars were moving backwards into tastelessness.

The community of independent-filmmakers and supporters who gathered on a warm afternoon at a huge white tent on the beach for the Indie Spirit awards was comfortable with itself and its vision. (It was the 20th anniversary of the event, sponsored by the nonprofit Independent Feature Project — Los Angeles.)

The independent film community also was riding high on the commercial success of Sideways.

Made for just $16 million with non-stars, it so far has grossed $63 million and is still going strong. By Hollywood standards, Sideways' cost is cheap. But for the independent-film community, the film's success has shown it can be in touch with what American moviegoers want. (Its budget just barely qualified for an Indie Spirit, where "economy of production" is a criterion for qualification.)

"I keep hearing people say it's human amid the normal torrent of Hollywood product," Payne explained in the Indie Spirits press tent.

His producer, Michael London, explained further after winning the Best Feature prize on Feb. 26: "The funny thing about the movie is how mainstream it has turned out to be. But it's probably not mainstream enough for the Academy Awards." That observation proved correct, although Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor did win an adapted-screenplay Oscar.

The 2005 Oscars had other problems, besides neglecting Sideways. There, the operating word wasn't "community" but "fear." The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was afraid that too many of its nominated films skewed too old (or too square) for the kids ABC wanted for high television ratings.

So producer Gil Cates hired Rock to emcee to coarsen things for the youth audience. Rock succeeded, but without either bringing much humor or knowledge of movies to his game. The 40-year-old comic was also tone-deaf to his surroundings, which might explain why he shouted so much.

Take the opening of Rock's monologue, the harsh "Sit your asses down" shout to the applauding audience. Real classy, huh? Especially to an audience including the likes of Million Dollar Baby's Clint Eastwood, The Aviator's Cate Blanchett and Hotel Rwanda's Don Cheadle. It was bluntly charmless, as if merely saying "ass" marked Rock as daring.

Now compare that to the Indie Spirit awards, where one of the Best Feature nominees was Baadasssss! Directed by and starring Mario van Peebles, the film was a loving, sometimes troubling, look at the way Melvin van Peebles (Mario's dad) fought to make the low-budget black indie Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song in 1971. At the Indie Spirits, people knew what to do with the word that was shocking, funny ... and right for the spirit of the event.

Wearing matching outfits, the two Van Peebles were given a hero's welcome by the audience that included Kevin Bacon, Jeff Bridges, Salma Hayek, Quentin Tarantino, Regina King and John Waters. It was touching to watch Mario help his elderly dad around, considering that his movie shows how his father often neglected his son's feelings to get his picture made.

The celebrity presenters and the audience loved playing with their Baadasssss! Jodie Foster elongated the title seemingly forever while announcing Best Director nominees. And Robin Williams (who upstaged Rock at the Oscars with his short riff on cartoon characters) went even further. After welcoming the attendees to the "Van Peebles' Bar Mitzvah," he started announcing Best Picture nominees: "Baadasssss! Let's move on, motherfucker ..." (He also described Sideways as "the way the country is going.")

At the Indie Spirits, as Best Actress winner Catalina Sandino Moreno (Maria Full of Grace) noted, the audience was comfortable with diversity. Host Samuel Jackson looked casually elegant with a suit and backwards Kangol cap. When he took swipes at the movie Primer ("What the hell was that about?") or at the changing indie scene ("the only thing that hasn't changed is Jim Jarmusch's hair"), it was witty and informed.

Sideways went six for six, tying the Coen brothers' Fargo and 1988's Stand and Deliver, Edward James Olmos' labor of love about a tough-love teacher, for most awards. It won for Best Feature, Best Director (Payne), Best Male Lead (Paul Giamatti), Best Supporting Male (Thomas Haden Church), Best Supporting Female (Virginia Madsen) and Best Screenplay.

For Giamatti, who unlike his cohorts was not nominated for an Oscar, the victory was a touching moment. "This is one of the first times I've ever been allowed into a situation that's truly collaborative. What's nice about that is I've made a lot of friends."

The Indie Spirits have become a big event as well as a cool party. The afternoon ceremony was broadcast live over the Independent Film Channel and then edited for an evening telecast on Bravo. With that exposure has come the swag, increasingly the bane of the celebrity-heavy entertainment industry.

Award presenters were allowed to choose from items on display in a gift-lounge tent that were valued at $33,000 by the company that put the gifts together, On 3 Productions. I was allowed to tour the inner sanctum before the ceremonies started, and watched as Tom Arnold, Patricia Clarkson, Jackson and Hayek toured the facilities as if slowly admiring a museum exhibit. Some had handlers following behind them, carrying expandable nylon carry-on bags for stashing their presents. Clarkson tried on a lovely white Banana Republic jacket before walking away without it, and Hayek showed keen interest in a pair of Lee jeans.

The gift-lounge organizer, Samantha Haft, was especially excited because Hayek had said she might wear onstage a piece of jewelry crafted by Stunning Details. That's what the gift-givers live for, she said. For such consideration, 12 companies displaying products in the lounge had paid $5,000-$10,000 plus the cost of their products. Another 20 had paid less to put products in gift baskets. Haft said some 160 companies had expressed interest in participation, but she narrowed the list to "fit with the spirit of the show."

Yet the Indie Spirits ceremony wasn't exclusively a glamorous affair with chicly dressed, high fashion guests. There was room for blue jeans and sneakers, the way it used to be 20 years ago. And some outfits could have been borrowed straight from the tourists who usually populate the beach on Saturdays — or from their Goodwill bags.

The best belonged to Rick Rosenthal, a producer of the teen drama, Mean Creek, which won the John Cassavetes Award for Best Feature Made for Under $500,000. Under a black-leather jacket, the scruffy, gray-bearded Rosenthal wore a T-shirt with the slogan "Be the Person Your Dog Thinks You Are."

That's good advice to live by — especially for whoever produces next year's Oscars.

Los Angeles-based Steven Rosen is a contributing writer for CityBeat. His last story was an interview with Vera Drake actress Imelda Staunton and the film's director, Mike Leigh.