Palm Springs Film Fest 2005: More Stars Than in Heaven

Kirk Douglas said it best: “If you want to see a star, don't go to Hollywood, come to Palm Springs.” And indeed, the gala awards dinner, on Saturday night, saw no less than nine star-honorees, all of whom showed up, and a larger number of presenters, not to speak of the vet stars that were in the audience, including Jean Simmons, Diane Baker, Celeste Holme, Anne Francis, and Jack Klugman.

Kicking off on Thursday night, the 16th edition of the Palm Springs International Film Festival world-premiered “Coach Carter,” Paramount's inspirational tale starring Samuel L. Jackson, who was one of the fest's honorees.

Despite bad weather, the stars and their fans came in droves to the Convention Center, where the elegant dinner took place, a black-tie gala that accommodated a capacity crowd of over 1200 people.

Emceed by Mary Hart, vet host of “Entertainment Tonight”, the evening boasted a warm, relaxed tone, a combination of formal attire and informal, friendly speeches. And at one point, when Anjelica Huston presented the top award to Kirk Douglas, the evening assumed a big family affair. Huston referred to all those Hollywood royal families: The Barrymores, the Douglases, the Redgraves, and the Hustons, of course.

Though Mary Hart was the emcee, the unintentional centerpiece was Kevin Spacey, who took the stage for the longest time to recall his past, acknowledge the people responsible to his career, and then do four impersonations that had the crowd in stitches. Known for his impersonation skills, Spacey mimicked four personalities reading “letters” honoring Samuel Jackson from Christopher Walken, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, and, best of all, former President Clinton.

The unifying element of the evening was the gracious presence of Kirk Douglas, a favorite star and son, who has lived in Palm Springs for 42 years, and recently saw his name emblazoned on a major avenue, along with those named after Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. With no exception all the honorees made personal preference to Douglas in his various capacities. Douglas, the actor, Douglas, the citizen, Douglas, the industry fighter who broke the Blacklist and hired Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, to work on his movie.

Most of the presentations and speeches were film-oriented, acknowledging major directors and collaborators, the power of film as a medium, and so on. However, Nicole Kidman stood out, not only for being the most elegantly dressed, but the only honoree who made explicit references to politics and the world at large. Kidman asked the audience not to forget “the disaster victims halfway around the world, as well as those around the corner.” Her notes were greeted with huge applause.

Speaking of around the world, Kidman then mentioned that her dear father, Anthony, was in the audience, flying half a way around the world to be with her on that special night. (Read Emanuel Levy's exclusive two-part conversation with Nicole Kidman posting Tuesday on EmanuelLevy.com).

The first honoree was Bryce Dallas Howard, recipient of the Rising Star Award, due to her breakthrough performance in last year thriller's The Village. Oscar-winner Adrien Brody, who also appeared in “The Village,” presented the award to Dallas, who's the daughter of Hollywood fave son, director and former TV kid actor Ron Howard.

Said Dallas: “I am extremely honored to be invited to this prestigious festival,” before adding, ” and I will do everything to live up to the encouragement this evening has provided.”

Virginia Madsen, who has swept most of the supporting actress award from the critics groups for her bravura comeback performance in “Sideways,” playing a savvy waitress, introduced her director, Alexander Payne, who also co-wrote (with Jim Taylor) the road wine serio-comedy. “Alexander has always been a man ahead of his time,” said Madsen, “this year I had the privilege of using his bountiful prose in the critically acclaimed 'Sideways.' Alexander is one of the most original and imaginative writers working in Hollywood today.”

Payne, known for his modesty, acknowledged his debt to American cinema of the 1970s, stressing, “I am very very proud to be an American director.” Then came the witty punch line that sounded as if it were spoken by one of his screen characters: “I'm very humbled and flattered, but I question when a small film without violence or special effects is considered such a great achievement.”

The brilliant Howard Shore, who has won three Oscars for the “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, was the recipient of the Frederick Lowe Award for Film Composing. Shore was honored for his astounding score for Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, one of this year's Oscars top contenders. Scorsese sent a telegram from Paris, apologizing for not being in Palm Springs, while noting how gifted and hard-working Shore is, he has no doubts that he is already working on a new film. Scorsese was right: Shore is hard on the eagerly anticipated new version of “King Kong,” directed by “Lord of the Rings”' master, Peter Jackson.

Showing passion for his labor, Shore said: “It's really a blessing to be able to do things that you really love.” Then, acknowledging the rich Hollywood tradition his work is building upon, Shore talked about the fact that “in 2004 we lost so many of our great artists” (among them Elmer Bernstein, another Scorsese collaborator). Nonetheless, looking ahead, Shore was confident about the future of film music due to “all those young composers working today.” (Read Emanuel Levy's exclusive conversation with Howard Shore on EmanuelLevy.com, posting Friday)

“Kinsey's” two stars, Laim Neeson as Laura Linney, received the Desert Palm Achievement award and the Career Achievement Actress, respectively. Linney was introduced by the film's writer-director Bill Condon, who began with a quote from the “N.Y.Times” praising Linney's latest theatrical work as genius. Condon then said: “This versatile actress is a two-time Emmy winner, Tony nominee, and her film credits include the Oscar-nominated role in “You Can Count on Me,” and now comes her critically-acclaimed performance in “Kinsey.” Condon captured the essence of Linney as an actress when he said: “Laura is brilliant with the word, but her real genius is what lies underneath the word.”

Like the other honorees, Linney said she was deeply blessed, but added a personal touch when she said, “If someone told me I'd be standing here, I never would have believed it.” She concluded by talking about the work experience and how every film is built around a family-like community of artists. “It's a fantastic community to be a part of and share your life with.”

Lynn Redgrave, who has a small but impressive part in “Kinsey,” introduced leading man Liam Neeson, who plays the challenging role of Dr. Alfred Kinsey and claims to his credit such heroic roles as Oskar Schindler, Michael Collins, Rob Toy, and others. Neeson is married to Natasha Richardson, Vandessa Redgrave daughter and Lynn's niece.

Before beginning his speech, Neeson cracked, “Lynn, you're a bitch.” He then said: “I have been in some films that were good, and some that were so-so, but I have found that some films are being used for educational purposes to teach something about ethics and morality.” For Neeson, this is one of the most forceful functions of the film medium, “and to see the effects of these movies on so many different people humbles me.”

Samuel L. Jackson, the recipient of the Career Achievement Award, recalled his past as an actor, bringing out the work aspect of the glamorous profession. “People say I am a workaholic, because I do so many films, but I grew up in a house where people got up and went to work everyday.” There's nothing that pleases Jackson more “than going to work every day, get regular coffee breaks, with two-week paid vacation! Being an actor has given me more pleasure than anything else.”

Nicole Kidman was the recipient of the Chairman's Award for Challenging Roles, an honor that befits the risk-taking actress, recently seen in “Dogville,” “Stepford Wives,” and “Birth.” Kidman was introduced by Alejandro Amenabar, who directed her in “The Others,” one of her most stunning performances, in town with Javier Bardem, the star of his new film, “The Sea Inside,” a frontrunner for the Oscars as Spain's submission.

After talking about the troubled times we live in, Kidman said: “I love acting, I absolutely love what I do. To receive awards for something that you really love to do, it doesn't seem fair.”

The evening concluded with s standing ovation for Kirk Douglas, honoree of the Life Achievement Award. Sidney Sheldon, Douglas' former Palm Springs neighbor, and Jean Simmons, his co-star in “Spartacus,” were called on stage to be with the 88-year- old legendary star that has miraculously survived a plane crash and a major stroke.

Dancing with his cane, Douglas was thrilled to be on stage; he was the only honoree to receive a standing ovation. In a disarming speech, Douglas recalled: “When I first came to Hollywood from Broadway, I was excited to see movie stars. But I didn't see any stars until one weekend someone invited me to Palm Springs.” The vet accomplished actor, three-time Oscar nominee and Honorary Oscar winner, recalled how excited he was to see Errol Flynn with “some beautiful girls” at the Racquet Club, and Edward G. Robinson, his hero from the gangster films.

Palm Springs has not changed,” Douglas concluded, “If you want to see stars, don't go to Hollywood. Come to Palm Springs.” It was a most befitting finale to a glorious evening that celebrated the old and new Hollywood.

Under the new artistic direction of Darryl Macdonald and Carl Spence (formerly of the Seattle Film Festival), the Palm Springs International Film Festival is emerging as one of the most invigorating and exciting film festivals, a Mecca for foreign-language cinema in the same way that Sundance is the Mecca for American indies.

With Palm Springs and Sundance festivals taking place back-to-back, January, usually considered a weak time for movies, emerges as the most important month in the movie calendar of movie lovers and festivals goers.

Palm Springs Festival continues through January 17.

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