Inside the
16th Annual Independent Spirit Awards

While the entertainment events that invite my coverage usually are ones that are in some state of decline (e.g., the Video Software Dealers Association convention and ShoWest), the Independent Feature Project/West's Independent Spirit Awards has always been a grand exception. In the three years I've covered the event, I have witnessed only growth--not necessarily by leaps and bounds, but in smaller but no less notable degrees.

The most noticeable improvement from last year was one of basic organization. The awards area--a number of tents in a parking lot near Santa Monica beach, per tradition--was divided into numbered areas, which cleared up any confusion as to who had access where; each pass indicated the numbers of which areas the passholder was privy to. With guards parked at each "checkpoint" to enforce pass restrictions, security felt that much tighter--yet there also seemed to be a bit more freedom, for media members who traditionally were granted only press room access had a bit more room to maneuver with the new zone system.

While the event felt bigger, especially with so many Academy Award nominees also up for Spirits, there was a noticeable step down as far as the extra amenities at the awards site. With the demise of DLJ Direct also went the big hit of last year, the O2 bar that was all the rage in their garishly colored, computer-equipped lounge. Taking the downed dot-com's place this year was a lounge sponsored by DirecTV and the Independent Film Channel, and their set-up was decidedly more staid: no computers, furniture in tamer colors, bowls of Starburst fruit chews, and a traditional beverage bar. Needless to say, this lounge was pretty barren throughout the day, with the VIP guests opting to get their booze at Entertainment Weekly's private green room (where, as usual, they got to scope out the latest in cell phones from Motorola and pick up free Movado watches), and the press settling for the more conveniently located bar in the media's designated eating area.

With no flavored oxygen to sample, there was little to do in the dead time between my 10:30am arrival and the 11:30 start of the celebrity arrivals other than to claim my viewing position for the arrivals and watch Roger Ebert tape a television report about halfway between the photographer line and the big fan pit (which had been my traditional Spirits base of operations before I became "legit"). This actually proved to be mildly entertaining, thanks to the ebullient displays put on by Ebert's rather excitable producer. Not long after Ebert did a number of takes of his report and had a brief meeting with yours truly, it was time for the red carpet parade o' stars.

Once the ball got rolling with the appearance of Bill Paxton, it rarely slowed down for the next two hours. Among those showing up for the festivities: Allison Anders; Elizabeth Peña; Chris Cooper; Allison Janney; Isaiah Washington; Illeana Douglas; Joe Pantoliano; Gena Rowlands; Paul Reubens; Don Cheadle; Kirsten Dunst; Rosanna Arquette; James Woods; Christine Lahti; Stockard Channing; Holly Hunter; Gabriel Byrne; Daryl Hannah; Vondie Curtis-Hall and Kasi Lemmons; Christopher McDonald; Jenna Elfman; Dennis Hopper; Fisher Stevens; Andy Dick; Jason Lee; Leonard Maltin; Elvis Mitchell; Boys Don't Cry Spirit winners of last year, Hilary Swank and Chloë Sevigny (the former with hubby Chad Lowe, natch); reunited Untamed Heart co-stars Christian Slater and Marisa Tomei, and last year's bomb of a hostess, Jennifer Tilly. Then, of course, there were those obligated to appear. such as host John Waters; honorary co-chair Angela Bassett (the other co-chair, two-time Spirit winner Benicio Del Toro, was a no-show); and nominees and those involved with nominated films: writer-director Kenneth Lonergan and stars Laura Linney, Mark Ruffalo, and Rory Culkin for You Can Count on Me; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director Ang Lee, producer/co-screenwriter James Schamus, and star Zhang Ziyi; Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky and stars Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto (sporting the worst cornrow hairdo since Juliette Lewis at the Oscars those years ago), and Jennifer Connelly (with steady Josh Charles); for Chuck & Buck, director Miguel Arteta, writer-star Mike White, and co-star Lupe Ontiveros; Love & Basketball writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood and screen/real-life item Sanaa Lathan and Omar Epps; The Contender stars Joan Allen and Gary Oldman; Love & Sex stars Famke Janssen and Jon Favreau; Before Night Falls' Javier Bardem and director Julian Schnabel; future Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock; The War Zone director Tim Roth; Shadow of the Vampire's Willem Dafoe; The Gift's Giovanni Ribisi; The Visit acting nominees Hill Harper and Billy Dee Williams; Tigerland Supporting Male nominees Cole Hauser; Songcatcher acting nominees Pat Carroll and Emmy Rossum; Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai director Jim Jarmusch and star Forest Whitaker; the entire young cast of George Washington; and Restaurant star Adrien Brody, winner of the Laziest Fashion Statement award for showing up in some kind of jogging suit. Another unofficial award--the Pre-Awards Niceness Trophy--goes to Bardem, Lee, Elfman, and Woods for taking the time out to give up-close greetings to the fans across the way, with Lee earning even more special mention for willingly making the sacrifice of hanging out and chewing the fat with me for an extended spell as the celeb parade was in full swing.

Knowing better than to fix what isn't broken, Spirits organizers wisely retained the efficient backstage layout of last year. The entrance to the print/online room, the first stop for winners, was very conveniently located only a few steps away from an exit from the main awards tent; adjoining the print/online room was the still photographers’ room, which then led the way to TV crew cubicles for the likes of E!. The one kink in the otherwise fluid post-stage tour that has yet to be satisfactorily resolved is how one must to through the media dining and drinking area to get from the TV crews to the final stop, the ever-popular In Style magazine photo studio.

A brief but energetic performance by Brazilian showgirls direct from Rio and John Waters' rollicking monologue--in which he encouraged actors and filmmakers to be more "edgy" and gave hilarious suggestions on how to go about it (my favorite: be a bad loser at awards shows, that way you get more TV time)--set the stage for what was an unusually swift awards show. Undoubtedly contributing to the faster pace was the conspicuous absence of a keynote address; perhaps James Schamus' snooze-inducer of last year prompted IFP/West to do away with it entirely?

As usual, the press room was generally a venue for reporters to lob softballs at afterglow-basking winners. While this often means such oh-so-scintillating moments as Supporting Male winner Willem Dafoe being asked how he enjoyed working in Luxembourg (he liked it though he spent most of his stay there on the set or at the hotel), there were some genuinely interesting moments, the most amusing coming from Supporting Female winner Zhang Ziyi, who was quite the picture of glamour. As in the main tent, Mandarin-speaking Zhang took to the stage with an interpreter, to whom the question "Doesn't she have to speak English in Rush Hour 2?" was directed. Before the interpreter could open her mouth, Zhang blurted, "Just a little."

While the main awards tent was certainly the place to be, coming in a close second was the outlying area, where many celebs engaged in heavy duty schmoozing. At any given moment you could catch such interesting sights as Angela Bassett embracing her Waiting to Exhale director Forest Whitaker; Bill Paxton giving a bear hug to Giovanni Ribisi; Jon Favreau yelling compliments to a passing Andy Dick on his new MTV series; Josh Charles waiting patiently for the Jennifer Connelly to leave the restroom; Favreau and Darren Aronofsky having words (at separate times) with some obscure idiot online film writer (yes). In fact, a number of people spent most of the ceremony's duration out of the tent. The one face commonly seen hanging out was Cole Hauser's, who obviously bailed from the tent once his category, the first award given out, was done and over with. His publicist worked overtime to make the most of his mingling, snagging any media member she could spot for a brief meet 'n greet with her client.

The situation got expectedly worse once the final award of the day, Best Feature, was handed out to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and everyone who had stayed in the tent emerged to join the mingling masses. As usual, it was chaos as people went in all sorts of directions, some hurriedly heading to the pick-up spot for their cars or limos; a select few--Ellen Burstyn, Paul Reubens, Hilary Swank, and Chad Lowe--collecting Post-Awards Niceness Trophies for obliging the autograph hounds that had assembled at the barricade near the In Style studio; others catching up on the all-important networking. One of the more interesting sights from this post-show free-for-all had to be the George Washington cast going crazy when they spotted Dick and then excitedly running to the comedian for a pic (naturally, he agreed).

I, of course, was not immune to the schmoozing syndrome. I caught up with Aronofsky by the In Style tent, and he had no apparent objection to resuming the conversation we had began earlier in the afternoon; in fact, classy guy that he is, additional interruptions/distractions didn't deter him from returning to our comparatively trivial talk. An exchange of pleasantries with Hill Harper somehow developed into a deep discussion about his one-season recurring role on Married... with Children as the Al Bundy-worshiping Aaron. The big thrill, though, came with meeting Jennifer Connelly, who is as cordial as she is absolutely stunning. She didn't appear to mind as the words coming from my mouth devolved into mush-brained gushing (perhaps the smile on her face was holding in laughter, but I don't care), but Josh Charles didn't seem too pleased. He had stepped away when she and I started talking, and when he returned to find us conversing, he gave me the evil eye. Guess he keeps her on a short leash.

As was the case last year, I managed to come out of the Independent Spirit Awards without getting myself into a foot-in-mouth or redfaced moment. Perhaps I really am getting the hang of this event. We shall see next year...

16th Annual Independent Spirit Award Winners

Inside the 16th Annual Independent Spirit Awards/© Michael Dequina
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