Harold Matzner Helps Star Power Take Stage At Gala

By Bruce Fessier

Fans lined the street across from the Palm Springs Convention Center, waiting for a glimpse of the stars being honored Saturday at the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala.

When Bryan Cranston, a local favorite as part owner of the Cinemas Palme d’Or in Palm Desert, walked across the street to sign autographs, the fans chanted, “Bry-an! Bry-an! Bry-an!”

When Johnny Depp and his wife, actress Amber Heard, arrived in a limousine, Depp got out and opened the door for her and looked around. With his long hair covering the right side of his face, he walked into the cheering crowd and signed autographs while his wife waited at the car, and waited. And waited. Finally, she crossed the street and signed autographs, too. After 10 minutes, handlers had to pull them away so they could join the black tie-clad crowd at the gala.

When Scott Cooper, Depp’s director in “Black Mass,” finally got around to introducing Depp from the stage as recipient of the Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actor, some three hours later, Cooper said he himself was mesmerized working with Depp and watching him with his fans.

“I’ve never seen an actor interact with his fans the way John Christopher Depp does,” he said. “Johnny is truly an actor unlike any we’ve ever see or will likely ever see again.”

When Depp himself took the stage, looking a little heavy in his black tuxedo and black bow tie, perhaps for the next role in which he’ll physically transform himself, Depp sort of mumbled, “How are you guys doing? How was the beef?”

He explained, “I’m not good at this stuff” and, after a rather self-effacing acceptance speech, he got out his script to see what else he had to say, looked up and said, “Yeah, it’s over with. That’s it.” And that was pretty much the story of the festival awards gala.

More presenters and honorees wrote their own speeches than any festival gala in recent memory. Saoirse Ronan, in accepting the International Star Award, Actress, from Paul Dano for her performance in “Brooklyn,” said she Googled past Palm Springs award show speeches by Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep because “I just thought, aim high when you’re in doubt.”

And some of the speeches may not have lived up to past awards show highlights. Christian Bale, in accepting his trophy with the cast of “The Big Short” for Outstanding Ensemble, said, “I’ve never been to a film festival where the crowd ignored the speakers so much.”

But Kelly Harding of Perth, Australia, who made a point of coming to the gala as part of a vacation to the United States, called it, “Amazing. Compared to Australia, this is amazing. Believe me.”

Festival Chairman Harold Matzner called the event, “Just outstanding. A wonderful night.”

Matzner said before the show, the festival hired 300 security persons and consulted with police, sheriff and private security people since the terrorist shootings in San Bernardino. He told the crowd there had been “no known threat” to the gala, and the security people remained largely inconspicuous for such a large number.

With the Oscar races more uncertain than any time in recent memory, the presenters sounded like they were on the awards campaign trail and the honorees sounded like they were honing their acceptance speeches.

Voting for Oscar nominations by members of the Motion Pictures Academy began Monday and it closes Jan. 8 – two days before the Golden Globe Awards. The crowd of 2,400 attendees included 25 orchid-laden tables paid for by Hollywood studios, and the many Academy voters in the room could very well have been influenced by passionate speeches. Matzner noted that 28 of the 31 gala honorees of the past three years went on to receive Oscar nominations.

Heard opened the event while many in the crowd were noshing on a salad, presenting the Rising Star Award to her co-star in “The Danish Girl,” Alicia Vikander. Then Michael Keaton presented the Sonny Bono Visionary Award to his director in “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy. Vikander, one of five honorees up for a Golden Globe Best Actress for Drama Award next week, said, “I can’t really believe I’m in this room with some incredible talent, many of whom I looked up to since I was a young child.”

McCarthy, while praising his cast, took time to praise Sonny Bono, the festival founder who gained fame as half of Sonny and Cher and died while serving in Congress, “the poster child of diversification. He did a little bit of everything.”

Brie Larson, accepting the Breakthrough Performance Award for her starring role in “Room,” expressed how “humbled and grateful” she was to be back at a Palm Springs International Film Festival after she made her festival debut writing and directing a film called “The Arm” at the Palm Springs International ShortFest.

Larson has been discussed as the Best Actress Oscar frontrunner largely because pundits expect the co-stars of “Carol,” Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, to split their votes for Best Actress.

Blanchett, who stayed Friday night at Matzner’s guest house with her husband and four children, including her recently adopted baby daughter, received the festival’s longest-running award, Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress. Mara, who could possibly be placed in contention for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, received the Spotlight acting award that was recently divided by gender. J.K. Simmons received the award last year and went on to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

Ronan, another likely Best Actress nominee for “Brooklyn,” presented the Desert Palm Achievement Award to Blanchett, recalling that she worked with her in the 2011 film, “Hannah,” and learned from watching her prepare for a scene at 4 or 5 in the morning when Ronan was playing the title role of a teenage assassin.

“For me to witness that at 15 years old was so important,” she said. “I never told Cate that, but it stayed with me. She reminded me why we were all there. I’ll never forget that image of her – in the dairy aisle – ready and waiting to take her place in front of the camera. A true actor.”

Of her performance in “Carol,” Ronan said, “An Oscar nod on Jan. 14 would surprise no one.” Depp is likely to go up against three actors honored Saturday. Cranston received the Spotlight Award, Actor, from his co-star in “Trumbo,” Helen Mirren, Michael Fassbender accepted the International Star Award, Actor, from his co-star in “Steve Jobs,” Kate Winslet, and Matt Damon received the Chairman’s Award from his director of “The Martian,” Ridley Scott. Only Depp failed to receive a Golden Globe nomination.

Mirren praised Cranston as an actor who can “show sanity in madness and madness in sanity.

“He is an actor that we other actors watch with awe and admiration and yes, (a) bit of jealousy,” she said. “His range is truly brilliant. However, we also watch with great fondness and pride, because Bryan shows us not only how to do it, but also howtodoit–howtoworkwith honesty, kindness and generosity.”

Cranston provided humorous and serious highlights with the speech his “non-speech.”

“I didn’t write a speech today,” he said. “I was nervous. But I’m going to look in the teleprompter anyway for inspiration. … There’s nothing there.”

But he added that the Palm Springs festival gave him a screening of a small film he wrote, directed, produced and starred in as a gift to his actress wife, Robin Dearden, titled “Last Chance,” and he said, “I will be forever grateful.”

Getting serious about “Trumbo” and the civil liberties his lead character, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, had to sacrifice during the Red Scare of the 1950s, he said the movie’s message that resonates most significantly to today is that in America, “We don’t just tolerate differences of opinion, we embrace them.”

Cranston last appeared at the festival gala in 2013 as part of the cast of “Argo” that won the Outstanding Ensemble Award and went on to receive the Best Picture Oscar.

This year, that honor went to the cast of “The Big Short,” represented by Bale, Steve Carell, Jeremy Strong and Finn Wittrock, whose director, Adam McKay, said were movie stars but “all actors first.”

Carell provided one of the comic highlights when he noted that Ryan Gosling didn’t come to Palm Springs to accept his trophy for being part of the Outstanding Ensemble.

“Ryan Gosling is not here this evening,” Carell said, “and, as an ensemble member, I think we can all agree, we all really hate Ryan Gosling. I think we’re happy he’s not here today to accept this award.”

The final “headlining” position in the gala this year went to Matt Damon, one of Hollywood’s biggest box office stars who received the Chairman’s Award for his starring role in one of the biggest grossing films of the year, “The Martian.”

Its director, Ridley Scott, called Damon, “one of the highest-grossing actors of all time,” but added, “Matt never just receives, he also gives back.”

He cited his foundations – ONE Campaign, the H2O Africa Foundation, Feeding America, Water.org, One By One Foundation and Not On Our Watch Project. Damon co-founded the latter nonprofit organization with his producer on the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy, Jerry Weintraub, who was saluted earlier in the evening with a career highlight reel introduced by Matzner, who like Weintraub belongs to the gala’s presenting sponsor, Bighorn Golf Club.

Damon said he thinks about Weintraub every day.

The sold-out gala, chaired by philanthropist Jim Houston and presented by the Bighorn Golf Club of Palm Desert, was expected to raise $2.4 million for the nonprofit Palm Springs International Film Society. That’s well over $1 million more than the McCallum Theatre gala raised last month, making it probably the largest one-night fundraiser of the season.

As posted in The Desert Sun, Sunday January 3, 2016