PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — It was no exaggeration to say the stars truly came out in force Saturday night for the 27th annual gala of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, one of the first big “award season” galas celebrating the best of 2015 cinema. The lineup of luminaries included Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, Alicia Vikander, director Tom McCarthy, Brie Larson, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Saoirse Ronan, Bryan Cranston, Johnny Depp and the cast of “The Big Short” — toasting the filmmaking achievements of “The Martian,” “Carol,” “The Danish Girl,” “Spotlight,” “Room,” “Steve Jobs,” “Brooklyn,” “Trumbo” and “Black Mass” as well as “The Big Short.”
Again hosted by former “Entertainment Tonight” anchor Mary Hart, who called the event “the ground zero of the award season, which starts right here,” the evening featured award presenters as stellar as the recipients themselves. For example, Amber Heard honored her “The Danish Girl” co-star Vikander, Michael Keaton presented an awards to his “Spotlight” director McCarthy, Helen Mirren did the honors for her “Trumbo” partner Cranston, and Kate Winslet was her “Steve Jobs” co-star Fassbender’s presenter.
As the 2,000 guests looked on, humor reigned in both the presenters’ and honorees’ speeches. McCarthy noted his award was named in memory of Sonny Bono, the entertainer who went on to serve as mayor of Palm Springs, a California congressman and founder of the film festival. “Outside of Palm Springs, I don’t think a lot of people realize Sonny was the poster child for diversification,” quipped the director.
When director Adam McKay came out to present members of his “The Big Short” cast (including Steve Carell and Christian Bale), the filmmaker and writer quoted the late Federico Fellini as saying, “The one essential to putting together a great ensemble cast — and this is key! — is to tell everyone that they’re the lead [actor] in the film!”
As he accepted the International Star Actor Award, Fassbender thanked his “Steve Jobs” collaborators including Winslet and Jeff Daniels, “who has a sense of humor that matches the dryness of this desert.” Plus, in a backhanded zinger about the film’s less-than-stellar performance at the box office, Fassbender joked it was “unfortunate the box office was disappointing. … Thank goodness for ‘Jurassic World’!” — the blockbuster released by Universal Pictures, which also distributed his “Steve Jobs” film.
When Saorise Ronan came out to accept her International Star Actress Award for “Brooklyn,” the American-born but Irish-bred actress joked she had “Googled Sandra Bullock’s speech — plus Meryl [Streep’s] as well,” from earlier festival galas to come up with something clever to say. “But when all else fails, just read what’s in the [TelePrompTer],” said Ronan with a big smile.
Damon noted how difficult it sometimes is to know if a movie is going to be a hit, noting “John Krasinski and I wrote and starred in ‘Promised Land’ — a film we were so passionate about — and it was seen by like eight people. … But then along comes ‘The Martian’ and you make a movie just about everybody saw. Go figure.”
Along with the quips and jibes, the evening also included some messages with substance. When Cranston accepted his Spotlight Award, he pointed out his “favorite line from ‘Trumbo,'” his film about Dalton Trumbo and the other “blacklisted” Hollywood writers from the McCarthy anti-Communist witch-hunting era of the early 1950s.
“I love the line from the scene with John Wayne where Trumbo tells him, ‘The point of this fight [for freedom of speech] is about us both having the right to be wrong!’ ”
Among those with current or former Chicago ties at the festival gala, which helped raised $2.4 million on Saturday night, were Brenda Sexton and Greg Nye, LiliAnn and Ricky Zisook, Linda and Richard Robin, Susan and Sheldon Good, Ellis Goodman, Sally and Jonathan Kovler, Tere Britton, Stanley Paul, Mamie Walton, Sherrill and John Bodine, Vicki and Bill Hood, Nancy Lindsay and Grant Linsky, Linda Usher and Deborah Chapman.