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"Birdman" Wins Big at Independent Spirit Awards

It may be just an award show in the middle of the day held in a big circus tent as co-host Kristen Bell joked in the opening montage of the Film Independent Spirit Awards, but this casual, star-studded affair is not only the premier awards show for the independent film community, it’s also increasingly becoming a forecaster of the more formal Oscars which follows the day after with top honors given to "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" for Best Feature and "Boyhood"’s Richard Linklater awarded Best Director. 

Held in a tent on Santa Monica Beach, arriving stars were happy to take selfies and sign autographs to the cluster of fans lined up before making their way down the magenta carpet, and mingling amongst sponsor tents backstage, sampling champagne and gelato before heading inside to nibble on platters of salads and cold cuts.  

For the first time the show had two co-hosts, Fred Armisen and Kristen Bell, and was broadcast live on IFC (rather than the late night tape delay of the past years). Armisen (star of IFC’s “Portlandia”) and Bell, who dubbed themselves “a little bit indy, a little bit commercial” set a comic irreverent tone with an opening pre-taped segment spoofing “Birdman”.

Acting categories had a familiar award ring to them with “Boyhood” supporting actress Patricia Arquette, “Whiplash” supporting actor J.K. Simmons and “Still Alice” lead actress Julianne Moore all taking home awards. The three actors have been virtual locks throughout the award season.

When presenters Jessica Chastain and Andy Samberg, named Michael Keaton Best Actor for “Birdman” a resounding applause echoed the room (his fellow nominees were Jake Gyllenhaal for “Nightcrawler”, David Oyelowo for “Selma”, John Lithgow for “Love is Strange” and Andre Benjamin for “Jimi:All is By My Side”, but main competitor, Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything” was not in the category as it is a British production). Keaton said in his acceptance speech: “I would be remiss if we didn’t thank narcissus right now,” noting the self congratulations of award season, but added that he was blessed to be a part of a film that is “bold cinema. This is a game-changer.”

Waving the flag for independent cinema was on the mind of most award recipients. An emotional Julianne Moore, accepting for her role as the Alzheimer's stricken linguistics professor  in “Still Alice,” thanked the independent community she has been a part of for twenty-five years, noting that “Still Alice” was made “in 23 days for $4 million. I had to even bring my own bras and my own food.”

Ethan Hawke accepting the award for Best Director on behalf of an absent Richard Linklater, addressed the audience by saying the director’s twelve year opus “Boyhood” was like a “flare gun for anyone with a radical vision. It’s still the wild west and the stories will not be told by corporate America but by you.”

With Hollywood studios increasingly stacking their budgets on tentpole movies, writer-director Dan Gilroy who accepted the honor for best first feature, as well as screenplay for the compelling “Nightcrawler” struck a chord when he noted how important it was to “hold out against the tsunami of superhero movies that have swept over this industry.”

Oprah Winfrey lent gravitas to the afternoon’s proceedings when introducing Best Feature nominee, “Selma”. “To me 'Selma' is more than just a movie because we all need to know where we've been so we can move forward together. The struggle for equality is not easy. It never was,” she said. While “Selma” garnered five nominations it did not come out a winner in any category.

Justin Simien, thrilled to be taking the prize for first feature for his satirical campus culture war “Dear White People” exhorted: “If you don't see yourself in the culture, put yourself there, because we need you. We need to see the world through your eyes.”

While organizers like to encourage an “anything can happen” event, they certainly didn’t count on director Paul Thomas Anderson, who accepted the 8th annual Robert Altman Award on behalf of himself and his ensemble cast for “Inherent Vice” blurted out “not to fly American Airlines. They lost my luggage.” The airline is one of the event’s main sponsors. It was normally somber director/producer Bennett Miller, who surprisingly showed a quick knack for comedy when accepting his Special Distinction Award for “Foxcatcher” saying that Anderson was apologetic for his remarks and that “it was actually United who lost his luggage.” 

The Spirit Awards, now in its 30th year is known for giving talent their first industry recognition. Past recipients who received awards early in their career include filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, Spike Lee, Oliver Stone, Robert Rodriguez, David O. Russell, Neil LaBute, Darren Aronofsky and actors Hilary Swank,  Zach Braff, Amy Adams and Edward Burns.

Grants are also given to encourage new filmmakers. Rania Attieh and Daniel Garcia, directors of H., received the Kiehl’s Someone to Watch Award. The award recognizes talented filmmakers of singular vision who have not yet received appropriate recognition while the 2015 Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation Fellowship which includes a cash grant of $10,000 was awarded to Christina Choe. This annual award is given to a filmmaker currently participating in a Film Independent Artist Development program with the mission of diversity in mind. Choe, a participant in the 2015 Directing Lab, is currently in active pre-production on her first narrative feature film, Nancy. 

Katherine Tulich

Katherine Tulich is an Australian-born entertainment journalist now living in Los Angeles, where she covers music, movies and television. She is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times.

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