by jasmin rosemberg | January 3, 2014 | Lifestyle
Ben Affleck signing autographs for fans at the 24th annual Palm Springs Film Festival Awards Gala.
Long before the Palm Springs International Film Festival became a preeminent A-list event and one of the most attended US film fêtes, veteran festival Director Darryl Macdonald recalls a time in the late 1980s when it was merely “a gleam in the eye of Sonny Bono.” While now serving as a precursor to the Oscars, consistently predicting a good number of winners and screening the bulk of the Best Foreign Language Film category, the prestigious 25-year-old festival’s timing as a prelude to awards season was actually quite fortuitous.
“[Mayor Bono] was looking for a way to jumpstart Palm Springs in the January season. The town emptied out after New Year’s, and there was hardly any tourism traffic to speak of,” says Macdonald, who, in 1988, was directing the Seattle International Film Festival he had cofounded, as well as the one in his native Vancouver, Canada. “It occurred to him to pursue the idea of a film festival.”
With its “proximity to LA’s avid film industry and the second-biggest media market in the US,” 70-degree winter, and allure as an Old Hollywood retreat (favored by the Rat Pack, the Hopes, and the Douglases), the event “was a smash success from day one,” Macdonald says. In 1989, a whopping 17,000 people came to see 62 films—which, amid festival skepticism from major studios, focused on the emerging American independent genre, documentaries, and primarily the international cinema they aspired to introduce. Today, the festival boasts more than 135,000 attendees and nearly 200 films, debuting important new talents (like M. Night Shyamalan, who later made The Sixth Sense, or Love in the Time of Hysteria-turned-Gravity director Alfonso Cuarón), and celebrating the best of Hollywood filmmaking with an unrivaled black-tie awards gala.
“When you pull down that street, you think you’re at the Oscars,” says Harold Matzner, the chairman of the Palm Springs International Film Society, of the “glamorous, glittering night” that honored Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra in its early days and now routinely acknowledges heavyweights like Ben Affleck, Helen Mirren, Sean Penn, and Nicole Kidman—while raising more than $2 million toward festival education programs. Says 2010 Career Achievement recipient Morgan Freeman, “I’m proud to have been associated with the festival and to witness its growth firsthand.” Scarlett Johansson, 2004 Rising Star, notes, “It’s such a boost for any young actor to be highlighted at an event that will put him or her on the industry radar.”
That concentration of contemporary talent on one stage has been the norm, says Macdonald. “A few years back, we had George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Michel Hazanavicius, Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer, Glenn Close, and Howard Shore. And each of them won an Oscar nomination.” The 2012 Breakout Performance recipient, Octavia Spencer, remembers that year as “surreal.” She adds, “I had been working for at least 15 years and had never received such praise.” Glenn Close, 2012 Career Achievement honoree, was “extremely moved by the extraordinary support of the Palm Springs community and their obvious enthusiasm for all things film.”
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club) is set to descend upon Palm Springs this year.
On January 4, Gravity star Sandra Bullock and Dallas Buyers Club’s Matthew McConaughey (Desert Palm Achievement acting honorees) will join 12 Years a Slave’s Steve McQueen (Director of the Year), Bruce Dern (Career Achievement recipient), and others at the 25th annual awards gala, presented by Cartier and hosted by 11-time emcee Mary Hart of Entertainment Tonight. An anniversary video series will honor past galas; Hart’s favorite moments are the playful ones, like when she handed off her microphone to Amy Adams to conduct interviews or led an onstage birthday serenade to 2013 honoree Bradley Cooper of Silver Linings Playbook. She jokes, “I got to give him a glorious birthday gift of a black trash bag.” Robert Zemeckis, 2013 Director of the Year, confirms the night’s carefree tone. “The festival is serious about honoring the entertainment industry,” he says, “but the event is always casual and enjoyable.”
Macdonald is jazzed about this year’s 10-day lineup of “emotionally, intellectually, and viscerally” stimulating films that explore relationships, societal changes, genre lines, and new technology. Among his picks is Palo Alto—Gia Coppola’s directing debut based on James Franco’s stories of high school and privilege, starring Franco, Emma Roberts, Val Kilmer, and son Jack Kilmer. “I’d kind of liken it to Fast Times at Ridgemont High meets Short Cuts. It’s incredibly smart and insightful. I just think it’s a terrific first film.”
Another highlight is Patch Town, a Disney-esque live-action film about a doll’s search for his mother, which gained momentum at the Palm Springs International Shortfest. Inspired by Russian fables of babies hatched in cabbage patches, first-time Canadian director Craig Goodwill employs musical numbers to broach deeper topics of love and abandonment. Bristel Goodman, exploring the dangers of the Internet, also breaks new ground with what first-time New York director Dan Harnden coins “transmedia cinema.” When the viral murder-mystery video he made with Richard Ramsdell was perceived as an alternate-reality game, the pair created the feature film and related online storytelling devices.
Macdonald also champions Ralph Fiennes’s The Invisible Woman, starring Fiennes as a Victorian-era Charles Dickens opposite a paramour played by Felicity Jones—who “may just have a shot at the Best Actress category this year.” He calls Le Week-End, the new film by Roger Michell of Notting Hill, “a dream.” Among the international offerings, Omar, by Hany Abu-Assad in the Palestinian territories, offers “a direct insight into that troubled part of the world.” The Past, from Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi and starring The Artist’s Bérénice Bejo, reflects the European trend of focusing on character much more than plot. And Wadjda by Haifaa Al-Mansour, a groundbreaking female filmmaker from Saudi Arabia, tells of repression through the eyes of a 10-year-old girl. “I would not be surprised if it ends up in the eventual five nominees,” he predicts.
Macdonald’s vision for the next quarter century is for the festival to encourage even more “adventuresome” filmgoing. “The world is just a much richer place when you open your eyes to what people are experiencing in other places.” The 25th Palm Springs Film Festival runs from January 3–13. The Awards Gala will take place on Saturday, January 4, at the Palm Springs Convention Center, 277 N. Avenida Caballeros, Palm Springs, 760-322-2930
photography by jason merritt/getty images for palm springs film festival (affleck); anne marie fox/focus features (dallas buyers club)