Palm Springs film fest packs plenty of star power

Desert Scene staff reporters

Hollywood A-listers including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lopez and Joaquin Phoenix brought their star power to Palm Springs on Thursday as the city's 31st annual International Film Festival kicked off with the Film Awards Gala at the Palm Springs Convention Center.

A crowd of about 500 fans gathered at the entrance to greet stars as they walked the red carpet, hoping for autographs or a selfie with their favorite celebrities. Actor Adam Driver and actress-director Greta Gerwig were among those who obliged the adoring throngs. As flashbulbs popped, limousines and exotic cars deposited VIPs at the building's entrance.

The convention center twinkled with a starry ambiance, and tables for the 2,500 guests sparkled with rose and crystal centerpieces.

Actress, writer and producer Lena Waithe kicked off the evening with the Breakthrough Performance Award to Cynthia Erivo for her performance in the title role of the Harriet Tubman biopic, "Harriet."

"Not only did Cynthia breathe life into this mythical figure, but she reminded us that Harriet Tubman was human, she was skin and bones, she was a wife, she was someone’s daughter, she was someone’s friend in addition to being an activist and abolitionist," said Waithe. "Cynthia reminded us that even warriors can be wounded."  

Director-producer Todd Phillips, known for the "Hangover" movies, "Old School" and "Starsky & Hutch," presented the Chairman’s Award to Phoenix for his role in Phillips' 2019 film, "Joker."

Phillips gave Phoenix a good ribbing in his introduction. "If you’re lucky enough to actually know Joaquin, you know you are not allowed to say good things about him — ever. Not to him. And certainly not in public," said Phillips. "So when they asked me to do this, I knew I’d be in a tough spot.  So I thought instead I’ll mention some bad things about him."

Phoenix inched onto the stage, in a half-hearted and comic attempt to curtail Phillips' remarks, but the director was undeterred. Phillips continued: "He smokes a lot. His car is basically an ashtray that drives. He has zero ability to self-edit, it’s a real issue."

Despite such flaws, Phillips said Phoenix was "the ultimate collaborator and he's an absolute dream to work with."

"I probably should have prepared something," Phoenix said, when Phillips finally ceded the stage. "I had plenty of time to do it but I didn’t.”

"I have two minds about these things, these shenanigans we do," he said. "Part of me thinks this is absurd, ridiculous and embarrassing. And the other part of me realizes the power of the creative spirit."

Harold Matzner, longtime chairman of the board of the film festival, welcomed the crowd, noting that the gala raised almost $2.5 million for the nonprofit Palm Springs International Film Society and its cultural and educational programs. 

Matzner said the festival is seen as a reliable barometer for Oscar nominations.

"Last year ... 10 of our 11 honorees were nominated for Academy Awards, and six of those went on to win, including those for best actor and actress, and best supporting actor and actress," he said. 

He also paid tribute to the late Jim Houston, who chaired the gala for many years and died in 2018 at age 84. "He was a great friend and a great man," said Matzner.

The festival title sponsor was the City of Palm Springs.

American Express returned as the film awards gala presenting sponsor for the third consecutive year, while major sponsors of the awards and festival are AT&T and Entertainment Tonight. Presenting sponsors were the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, Spencer's Restaurant at the Mountain, and The Desert Sun.

Mary Hart, making her 17th appearance as emcee, thanked Matzner and the other underwriters, who each contributed at least $50,000 for the gala: Patti and Jack Grundhofer, Arlene and Jordan Schnitzer, Helene Galen and Jamie Kabler, and JoAnn and Sean McGrath.

Platinum Angels contributing at the $25,000 level were the Auen Foundation, Bill & Carol Kaplan, Donna MacMillan, Fred Noble, Bob DeVille, Eisenhower Health, Greg & Stacey Renker, Jan Salta, Linda Freedman, Linda Shirvanian, Lu Barnes, Marie Pinizzotto, Maryann Labahn, Slovak, Baron & Empey, and Palm Springs Resorts.

Producing sponsors were Eisenhower Health, Bighorn, the city of Cathedral City, Bank of America, IHG Hotels and Resorts, Regal and Wintec. 

Matzner also thanked honorary chairpersons of the film awards: Palm Springs Mayor Geoff Kors, Agua Caliente Tribal Chairman Jeff Grubbe and, in memoriam, former tribal chairman Richard Milanovich.

Actress Salma Hayek presented the International Star Award to actor Antonio Banderas, whose performance in "Pain and Glory" has earned him multiple awards this season. Hayek credited Banderas — with whom she has acted in multiple films — for opening doors for Latino actors and actresses in Hollywood. "Thanks to him, things have changed," she said.

Laura Dern receives the Career Achievement Award during the Film Awards Gala of the 31st annual Palm Springs International Film Festival in Palm Springs, Calif., on January 2, 2020.

Laura Dern received the Career Achievement Award from Noah Baumbauch, the award-winning writer-director of such films including "The Squid and the Whale," "Frances Ha," and this season's dramedy, "Marriage Story." 

In "Marriage Story," Dern plays a sleek and successful divorce lawyer. Dern also starred in this year's classic period drama "Little Women," directed by Gerwig.  

In one of the evening's most touching moments, Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz, the writers and directors of "The Peanut Butter Falcon" presented the Rising Star Award to Zack Gottsagen, the lead actor in the film. Gottsagen, who was born with Down Syndrome, received a standing ovation and delivered heartwarming thanks to his mother for never giving up on him and his dream of being an actor.

Quentin Tarantino was named director of the year for "Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood." Gerwig presented him with the award.

Many of the presenters and awardees paid tribute to Palm Springs. Dern recalled spending time in the city as a child, enjoying time at the famed Racquet Club and sipping date shakes. Theron recalled visiting the city as a chaperone for her child's school field trip. 

The Spotlight Award, Actress, went to Jennifer Lopez, and the crowd gave her a standing ovation as she took the stage in a floral gown with a long train. "Hustlers" director Lorene Scafaria presented her with the award. Lopez thanked Scararia for the opportunity to shine a light on women "on the periphery."

New York University School of Law professor Bryan Stevenson presented the Spotlight Award (Actor)  to Jamie Foxx. Stevenson's 2014 memoir, "Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption" was the basis of "Just Mercy," starring Foxx and Michael B. Jordan. Stevenson spoke movingly about his criminal justice activism to address "a system that treats you better if you are rich and guilty than poor and innocent."

In perhaps the night's most poignant speech, Foxx spoke of growing up with a father who was incarcerated for seven years and how they were able to reconnect and watch Venus Williams play at the U.S. Open with tears rolling down their cheeks.

"Because of him teaching me not to have limits, here I am in this room with all of you," he said. 

The International Star Award went to Theron, who stars in this season's sexual harassment drama "Bombshell." Her award was presented by the film's director, Jay Roach.

Dern returned to the stage to present the Desert Palm Achievement Award (Actor) to Adam Driver,  who stars in "Marriage Story."  

Renee Zellweger receives the Desert Palm Achievement Award during the Film Awards Gala of the 31st annual Palm Springs International Film Festival in Palm Springs, Calif., on January 2, 2020.

"Judy" director Rupert Goold presented the Desert Palm Achievement Award (Actress) to his leading lady, Renee Zellweger. She recalled driving from Austin, Texas, to Los Angeles in 1993 and stopping along I-10 in Palm Springs to fuel up. "I could never have imagined I'd be invited back here under such special circumstances," she said.  

Scorsese received the Sonny Bono Visionary Award from his longtime friend and collaborator, Robert De Niro.  

Scorsese delighted in receiving an award in Palm Springs, which is "so much a part of show business history." He recalled that Howard Hawks and William Wyler lived in Palm Springs, and John Ford spent years in Palm Desert.

"We can't have a future of the art form without knowing its past," he said. He lamented how, in the 21st century, films are "slotted into consumer categories before they've even had a chance to breathe."  

Today, he said, "we can watch everything, anytime, anywhere, and that puts a burden on you, the viewer. ... We might be tilting the scales ... away from movies as an art form." He said the best films are like mysteries that take viewers into unknown worlds.  

Lori and G. Aubrey Serfling

"The art cannot survive without the business. But the business certainly is not going to survive without the art, which is made by people with something to say," Scorsese said. "Every individual filmmaker amounts to more than the number of awards they've won, or the amount of money the pictures made. And every individual viewer — that's you — amounts to more, much more, than the data that's being collected about them."  

Like the rest of the event, the award statues were innovative and fun. John Kennedy Studio provided "The Entertainer" awards, while Dale Chihuly provided the gilded emerald piccolo venetian with sunburst coils awards.

Hart expressed thanks to The Hess Collection, the official wine of the film awards and festival, along with official spirits Ketel One Vodka, Johnny Walker Scotch and Don Julio Tequila.

Guests dined on salads of petite hearts of romaine and baby kale with shaved vegetables, baby artichoke, heirloom tomato wedges, mini peppers and baby mozzarella. For the main course, diners enjoyed boneless beef braised short ribs with ana potato, mac & cheese style couscous with mushrooms and mascarpone, parisienne butternut squash, green beans, caulilini and snow peas. Desserts included a "movie candy soiree" white chocolate box with red velvet cheesecake, white chocolate peppermint pretzel, caramel bubble sugar wafer and movie candies.

Susan Stein and Debbie Green Miller, with Barbara Boxer and Helene Galen, show off their matching outfits.

Among the gala attendees were Jan Salta; Barbara Boxer; Barbara and Bernie Fromm; Carol and Jennifer Kaplan; Nancy Stone; Reid, Tristan and Melissa Milanovich; Katie Reed; Catharine Reed; Susan Stein; Peggy Cravens; Debbie Green Miller; Aftab Dada; Mark Anton; Carol Kaplan; Jess Kaplan;  Kelly Landry; Mary Ann La Bahn; Ryann Whalen,  Willie Rhine and Albert Gonzalez, Lili Rodriguez (artistic director); Albert Berger, Bo Burnham, James Duff, Mike Hatton, Phillip Keene, Udo Kier, Kasi Lemmons, David Permut, Charles Randolph, Alex RodriguezJane RosenthalFrank Goldstin and Paul Clowers.

Also among those enjoying the festivities were Palm Springs Mayor Pro Tem Christy Holstege; councilmember Lisa Middleton and Cheryl O’Callaghan; La Quinta Mayor Linda Evans; College of the Desert President Joel Kinnamon and Chris Parman, Rob Moon and Bob Hammack; Nona Watson; Sandie Netwon; Patrick Evans; Julie Makinen; Kate Franco; Winston Gieseke; and Bruce and Jane Fessier.  

The Palm Springs International Film Festival runs Jan. 2-13, presenting more than 500 screenings of over 200 films from more than countries. For tickets, call (760) 322-2930 or visit

31st annual International Film Awards Gala

Presented by the Palm Springs International Film Society

Thursday, Jan. 2

Palm Springs Convention Center