After a year that saw actors hit the picket lines for four months, it’s no surprise that the awards season has felt more urgent and emotional than previous years. That was no more apparent than at the 35th annual Annual Palm Springs International Film Awards Thursday. The event, hosted by Mary Hart, honored 9 acting nominees and one feature film (Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon”) that, no doubt, we’ll be hearing more of in the coming months.
The night was filled with tears and laughter, starting with Danielle Brooks, who won the Spotlight Actress Award for her role as Sofia in “The Color Purple.” The actress gave Oprah Winfrey a shout-out, praising her for taking Steven Spielberg’s advice while making the 1985 film and not losing weight. For Brooks, it allowed curvy women to feel they had a space in Hollywood. She also talked about the self-doubt she had early in her career (in spite of being nominated for a Tony Award. “Doubt was trying to take over,” Brooks said. “I do have the responsibility … that it’s not too good to be true.”
Honorees at this year’s gala included Paul Giamatti, Greta Gerwig, Colman Domingo, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Cillian Murphy, Emma Stone, Jeffrey Wright, Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell, Carey Mulligan, and Martin Scorsese and the cast of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Here are five moments that left the audience in tears, in stitches, and sometimes a combination of both.
1. Paul Giamatti Recounts How Teachers (Including Alan Rickman) Inspired His Performance in “The Holdovers”
The audience was primed for a blend of humor and heart the minute Sandra Oh stepped on-stage to present Paul Giamatti with the Icon Award, prefacing it by saying that before the pair starred in Alexander Payne’s “Sideways,” they acted together in the equally “iconic” film “Big Fat Liar.” (A movie that’s seen quite the resurgence this week.) From there Giamatti self-effacingly explained that he only assumed icons were Marilyn Monroe or Jesus Christ, and he is neither. The award “renders me somewhat speechless,” he said.
But he was moved to write his first speech with the award, explaining how teachers in his past inspired his work as the crotchety professor in “The Holdovers,” starting with a cruel teacher coming up to him in tears after seeing a 16-year-old Giamatti do his first play in a Connecticut boarding school. “We had connected,” he said. But the actor buried that moment, saying it was “too intense” and it wasn’t until he went to college, where he studied under the tutelage of Alan Rickman (yes, Professor Snape himself). “He was a wonderful teacher,” said Giamatti. “I have Alan Rickman to blame for me being up here!”
Giamatti also got a bit teary-eyed talking about how his older sister passed before he completed work on “The Holdovers.” “She’d have given me no end of shit for being called an icon,” he said.
2. Da’Vine Joy Randolph Gets a Breakthrough Award After a Decade of Breaking Out
Much like Giamatti’s award before, actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph discussed the power of encouragement, especially when working with Alexander Payne on “The Holdovers.” “Payne, I am now spoiled,” she said. But she pointed out the irony of receiving the Breakthrough Performance Award after what she calls a decade of breaking out (a sentiment echoed by Giamatti in his introduction for her).
“I have been intentional … about the roles I have taken on,” she said. For her, “The Holdovers” was a defining moment. “Mary Lamb [her character] is every woman,” she said. And, for her, the amount of men and women who have come up to her and said they’ve felt seen through her performance reminded the actress “this is why I do what I do.”
3. Emma Stone Tells How a Hollywood Executive Summed Up Sexism in the Industry
Despite having a feeling of “low-grade nausea” at being in front of the crowd, Emma Stone, who won the Desert Palm Achievement Award, said she was grateful that she is able to make choices in her career like playing the fearless Bella Baxter in Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things.” Stone said that when she first moved to Los Angeles an executive told her that, for men, Hollywood is a marathon, not a spring. But, for women “it’s a sprint, not a marathon.”
It’s an adage Stone said she doesn’t ascribe to considering talent in the room. “Life and work only get more interesting and more fulfilling” as one ages, she said.
4. Jeffrey Wright Discusses the Struggles of Black Representation in Film as “American History”
Jeffrey Wright, star of Cord Jefferson’s biting “American Fiction,” gave the audience a bit of Old Hollywood history during his speech. Introduced by iconic actress Leslie Uggams — whom Wright didn’t know was presenting the award — Wright explained how actors like Uggams and Sidney Poitier (who Wright worked with on the 1991 TV miniseries “Separate But Equal”) inspired him. Wright took it all the way back to silent film actor Bert Williams, a Black man who performed in blackface. “That’s not the history of Black folks, that’s American history,” Wright said.
“Without Leslie Uggams, I do not stand here,” said Wright. He admitted he was embarassed to get the Career Achievement Award at such a young age but praised directors like Ang Lee and Sidney Lumet as older people in his life who encouraged him as a performer. But it was Poitier and Burt Lancaster in “Separate But Equal” that a 24-year-old Wright was the most affected by. “I was standing with giants,” he said.
5. Meryl Streep “Puts on a Frock” to Introduce Carey Mulligan
The biggest surprise at the gala was easily actress (and icon in her own right) Meryl Streep dropping in to introduce Carey Mulligan before giving her the award for International Star. Streep said what makes Mulligan a unique actress is “what she withholds.”
But Mulligan wasn’t withholding anything when recounting the story of Streep actually agreeing to give her the award. Mulligan said she received an email from Streep confirming she’d “put on a frock” and come down to Palm Springs as the actress was coming home from the LA premiere of “Maestro.” Mulligan was so excited she yelled, “Fuck off” in the car, completely offending her driver. Mulligan had to explain to the driver why she was so excited but it didn’t seem to work.
The Palm Springs International Film Festival runs January 4 through 14.