Inside the
17th Annual Independent Spirit Awards

At first, it appeared as if the traditional "independent spirit" of the Independent Feature Project/West's Spirit Awards would have been lost post-9/11. Usually the most freewheeling and casual of the big awards show, early signs indicated that the dressed-down demeanor had diminished in the wake of terrorist paranoia: surrounding most of the perimeter of the traditional venue--a large tent on a parking lot next to Santa Monica beach--was a high fence barricade; and all guests had to pass through a metal detector and security check point before entering the awards area.

In the hours leading up to the traditional red carpet parade of celebrity arrivals, there were omens of uptightness. Press had to be escorted from the entrance to the press tent area, and should anyone take a step out of the area privy to them as designated by their pass, they simply couldn't turn the other direction and go back from whence they came; they had to exit the awards area and go through the entire entrance ritual all over again. The whole security issue was put into wonderfully comic (unintentionally so) visual terms by a sign posted in every corner of the awards area that decoded the multitude of different pass classifications and what exact privileges came with each.

Only those specifically credentialed to cover the red carpet were allowed anywhere near the arrivals area, so a number of press people had to content themselves with watching the parade on a monitor in the press room. This proved to be a lackluster substitute, for the cameraperson certainly wouldn't fix their focus on the more obscure actors and filmmakers that attend the event, not to mention the camerawork itself was shoddy at best. Shaky cam may be an in thing for indie film, but to use the approach to shoot the indie film awards was taking the trend a bit too far.

Once the celebrities started to pour in, however, all worries about access and overly strict security went out the window. This is not to say that the lines that were drawn weren't enforced or respected; as instructed, non-VIPs steered clear of places such as the large Entertainment Weekly lounge; the more casual DirecTV/IFC lounge, where Starbucks coffee was served; or the Motorola tent, where the special people received phones. But while there were stretches where non-special people such as myself had to make do with watching Nicole Kidman and Roger Ebert chew the fat inside the EW lounge, as usual, the backstage area between the main awards tent and the press tent was a hotbed of celebrity schmoozing, spotting, and shooting (as in photos).

No celebrity shot was more actively pursued than one of Kidman, who co-chaired the event with Ang Lee. Nicole arrived early and did a fair amount of roaming throughout the course of the entire afternoon and hence provided a variety of poses and pairings: Nicole with Eric Stoltz! Nicole walking with Joe "Joey Pants" Pantoliano! Nicole hugging Ang! Nicole and Naomi Watts entering the tent holding hands! And so on--and it never got old, not for the press, and apparently not for Kidman, who truly appeared to be having fun with it all and the event as a whole.

All the others spotted roaming about also appeared to be having a good time. Among the minglers: Gillian Anderson, Selma Blair, Benjamin Bratt, Ellen Burstyn, Don Cheadle, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming (a nominee for The Anniversary Party), Vondie Curtis-Hall and Kasi Lemmons, Peter Falk, Andy Garcia, Heather Graham, Rachel Griffiths, John Hannah, Ethan Hawke, Jill Hennessy, Dennis Hopper, Bonnie Hunt, Scarlett Johansson, John Leguizamo, Sir Ben Kingsley, Sir Ian McKellen, John Cameron Mitchell (a multiple nominee for Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Joaquin Phoenix, Kevin Pollak, John C. Reilly (another Anniversary Party nominee), Christina Ricci, Michelle Rodriguez (freshly out on bail), Mark Ruffalo, James Schamus, Leelee Sobieski, and Blair Underwood.

The press tent itself was a jumping place, with a number of good soundbites, particularly about the Academy Awards the following day. Leguizamo felt confident about Moulin Rouge!'s Best Picture chances, believing that the A Beautiful Mind and The Fellowship of the Ring vote would cancel each other out somehow. Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, who respectively won the Female Lead and Male Lead Spirit Awards for their Academy-nominated performances in In the Bedroom, downplayed their Oscar chances. Wilkinson said the expected thing about how being in the top five is a big thing, but what was unusual was the class, grace, and panache with which he was able to recite that old chestnut. Spacek was a little more facetious at her press conference; when asked if she was nervous about Oscar night, she responded that she was still nervous about that afternoon's ceremony, even after winning. The best Oscar comment, however, came from Steve Buscemi, who took the Supporting Male Spirit Award for his work in Ghost World and was widely considered to be unfairly overlooked for an Oscar nod. One person in the press room asked if he is waiting to receive his Academy recognition for a future project (yes, this was the general softball-level line of questioning in the press room), and Buscemi said he was still waiting for an Oscar nomination for his work in Ghost World.

Of course, that off-the-cuff nature was in larger supply in the outlying mingling area, where there were no shortage of spontaneous moments. When swooped in on their private conversation, Ricci and Blair turned their faces the other direction, only to have the shutterbugs then move to their other side, where they were facing. When Wilkinson's win was announced, a publicist literally shrieked with delight and went running from one end of the awards area to another. Strangest of all, though, was seeing Ang Lee getting accosted somewhat by one of the skateboarders featured in the Spirit-winning documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys. The skater, while shaking Lee's hand, kept on telling him how he wanted Lee to tell him his life story, to which Lee said with a slightly uncomfortable-looking smile, "My life is very boring," before going on his way.

I had my own unusual, spontaneous moment with Kerry Washington, the talented young actress who appeared in Save the Last Dance and Our Song, and was no less than a Female Lead nominee at these awards for her performance in the good little indie Lift (airing on Showtime later this year). After we finished talking, a TV reporter butted in and asked her, "Hello, were you in a film?" I just had to turn to this uninformed soul and say, "She was nominated for BEST ACTRESS here!" Am I too idealistic to think that people covering this event should do some bare minimum homework to familiarize themselves with the nominees in at least the major categories?

I will sum up this year's edition of the Spirit Awards report (the seventh year and counting, believe it or not) with a first for me: a report on what goodies were in the very nice IFC briefcase bag given to all the guests in the main tent.

  • issue of Daniel Clowes' comic Eightball
  • Ghost World DVD
  • The American Astronaut soundtrack CD
  • Samuel Adams keychain bottle opener
  • bottles of Kiehl's body cleanser and facial moisturizer, and a tube of Kiehl's lip balm
  • Total Bitch feminine wipes
  • bottle of mood changing nail polish
  • Oscar guide issue of Entertainment Weekly
  • issue of IFC Rant
  • Audi mousepad
  • a stainless steel coffee thermos
  • a large Rubbermaid insulated jug, with the IFP/West logo
  • official Spirit Awards baby doll T-shirt
  • bag of Starbucks house blend
  • bottle of Turning Leaf Coastal Reserve cabernet sauvignon

17th Annual Independent Spirit Award Winners

Inside the 17th Annual Independent Spirit Awards/© Michael Dequina
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