The film provides a fascinating, on-the-ground account of people struggling with situations that range from challenging to horrific.
SANTA MONICA, Calif. - "Election," "Boys Don't Cry" and "Being John Malkovich" were multiple award winners Saturday at the 15th annual Independent Spirit Awards - but 79-year-old Richard Farnsworth stole the show while winning as best male lead for his work in "The Straight Story."
"My agent told me this role would get me lots of auditions," he told the audience, which gave him a standing ovation. "So far, all I've been offered is a job as a dialogue coach for Bartles & Jaymes."
Farnsworth is also an Oscar nominee for his performance as a man who travels from Iowa to Wisconsin on a power lawn mower to visit his dying brother. "After I get my hip replacement next month, I'll be back riding horses on the ranch and thinking of all of you," he said.
There was a gap of more than one generation between Farnsworth and most of the Indie Spirit celebrants under a big tent on the beach in Santa Monica. Young Hollywood and off-Hollywood mingled at a ceremony that spilled over into parties hosted by the Independent Film Channel, Entertainment Weekly and the British Film and TV Academy.
The Spirit Awards are run by the IFP-W, which stands for the Independent Feature Project West, although emcee Jennifer Tilly said she thought it stood for "Insufficiently Funded Projects" or "Irritatingly Fuzzy Pictures."
In recognition of the revolution in low-budget digital filmmaking, this year's awards added categories for first productions under $500,000 and other first-time categories.
"Election," which starred Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick in the story of a high school overachiever and the long-suffering teacher who tries to deal with her ambition, won three big awards, for best feature, best director (Alexander Payne) and best screenplay (Payne and Jim Taylor).
"Boys Don't Cry" perhaps provided a preview of tonight's Oscars. It won for best female performance (Hilary Swank) and best supporting female (Chloe Sevigny); both women are strong contenders for Oscars.
"Being John Malkovich" won for best first feature costing more than $500,000 and for best first screenplay (Charlie Kaufman). The Spirit Award for best first feature under $500,000 went to the category-breaker "The Blair Witch Project," which cost about $24,000 before post-production, grossed about $140 million, and opened a new era in which low-tech, low-cost filmmaking proved it could compete with Hollywood's big budgets - if the material was right.
Best supporting male was Steve Zahn, who played an escaped convict posing as a gay ballet teacher in "Happy, Texas." The best debut performance was by Kimberly J. Brown, who played Janet McTeer's exasperated daughter in "Tumbleweeds."
"Run Lola Run," the hugely popular nonstop time-loop German chase comedy, won as best foreign film, and "Three Seasons," the first American production shot entirely on location in postwar Vietnam, won for best cinematography (Lisa Rinzler). The Truer Than Fiction Award, for best documentary, went to Owsley Brown, for "Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles."
The Movado Someone to Watch Award went to Cauleen Smith, whose "Drylongso" tells the story of a poor black Oakland woman whose photography class changes her life. And the Motorola Producers Award went to Pam Koffler, producer of "I'm Losing You" and "Office Killers." The Indie Spirits are a low-key, funkier version of the Oscars, with about 1,500 guests helping themselves to lunch from Lazy Susans on their tables. But the star power shines almost as brightly as the academy event.
Under the big top, in addition to the winners, were directors Robert Altman, Steven Soderbergh, Mike Leigh, Kevin Smith, Spike Jonze, Kimberly Peirce, Quentin Tarantino, David Lynch, Gregory Nava, David O. Russell, Allison Anders and Harmony Korine, and actors Diane Lane, Janet McTeer, Reese Witherspoon, Harvey Keitel, Forest Whitaker, Terence Stamp, Sarah Polley, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Gina Gershon, Rosanna Arquette, Jeff Bridges, Alfre Woodard and Steve Buscemi.
Biggest laugh of the evening: presenter Teri Garr, who said her agency, William Morris, "has me under the actor's protection program. They've changed my face and my name and keep my address a secret." Second-biggest laugh: "Being John Malkovich" writer Charlie Kaufman read from an actual report submitted to a major studio by a first reader assigned to cover the screenplay: "Probably would be hailed as an inspired piece of work on the planet on which it was written."
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