In the 1930s, when Hollywood was still a ten-mogul town and the big studios were fiefdoms whose decrees felt like gospel, it was decided generally among the ruling classes that no studio head, major producer, or precious ingénue should ever vacation farther than 100 miles away from a film lot. The work was too important and transportation not yet advanced enough, and so the industry chose Palm Springs—99 miles down the coastline—as the preferred retreat.
The lavish estates from that time feel mostly abandoned now—as I pulled up to Casablanca, a sprawling property guarded by huge blue Spanish doors where I was to meet my local hostess, I sensed a slight twinge of what William Holden’s character might have felt driving up to Gloria Swanson’s brokedown palace in Sunset Boulevard. The interior had the grand minimalist-jungle aesthetic endemic to Old Hollywood—giant blackwood monkey statues, zebra rugs, Zulu masks, and walnut tables. “When Elvis lived here,” explained the woman I had come to meet, who was borrowing the place, “there is a legend that he called a plumber in the morning to fix a leak or some problem. By the end of the night, the plumber was invited to join a huge party by the pool, with all these beautiful women. That’s the kind of place this was.”
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The opening night of the Palm Springs Film Festival gala retains a trace of that old glamour, a major Hollywood event that now draws stars like Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood, Anne Hathaway, and Sean Penn. The festival gala is the Iowa caucus of celebrity: with the Academy ballots still out, it is the stars’ first chance to convince voters that they are worthy of later accolades, and to show industry heavyweights that they are ready to charm the hell out of the viewing public come the Oscar broadcast. As a notable publicist mumbled to me during the dinner ceremony, “They all came two hours to give a speech.”
Because making a flattering impression at the festival is so important, it even draws out the notoriously red carpet averse, who were on their best behavior last night. Sean Penn mugged for cameras and walked in the main entrance—a rare occurrence. At the after party, held court inside the main tent with Josh Brolin and Clint Eastwood (who also tends towards the curmudgeonly) for over an hour, the trio posing with guests in snapshots, signing autographs, and whispering in each other’s ears. This is a chance for Penn to nab another Oscar and he knows it, and so he glad-handed like a champion. During his acceptance speech during the gala ceremony (he won for his role in Milk), he cleverly equated himself with the last Best Actor winner, stating that when he saw “Daniel Day-Lewis in that movie last year…it was challenging. It made you want to work a little harder. So I worked harder.”
The gala is less of a traditional awards show and more of a Hollywood love fest—the most casual coming together of the season. Clint, Anne, and Leo sat scattered at tables near civilian party guests (the classic Palm Springs mix of septuagenarians and natty gay couples). The dresses were, for the most part, short and glittery. On the red carpet, the stars were open and emotional: Benjamin Button’s Taraji P. Henson, having just found out that Denzel Washington had sent her congratulatory flowers for her performance, started to weep a little. “You do work and you don’t know how it’s going to affect people,” she said. “And then Denzel and Pauletta! I mean, Denzel.”
James Cromwell was in a less grateful mood—having made W. earlier in the year, he came ready to rail on the Bush administration. “You can make a joke of it ending, but look at the damage done,” he said. “Four thousand lives lost, our economy in shambles, the environment on the brink of implosion, industries failing, people out of work, civil rights abnegated, the Constitution shredded, wars going on.”
Still, after the missive, he admitted that he did not vote for the great Barack hope. “I voted for Cynthia McKinney, a black woman. But now we all need to make sure the neocons are put out to pasture as soon as possible never to return.”
Mad Men and Rachel Getting Married’s Rosemarie Dewitt was in better spirits, and mused on the Diablo Cody dialogue in her new Showtime series, The United States of Tara: “She is writing for grown-ups now after Juno, which is exciting. But there are still of course lines like, ‘What’s up, slutwaffle?’”
Actors celebrated each other’s work without hubris, directors spoke about making great art, and Sean Penn was actually enjoying himself.
Frieda Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire—a painfully beautiful woman up close—said that she was so glad that “someone went out and showcased Bombay as true to life as possible.” She later won the Breakthrough Performance award, moving Danny Boyle’s little film ever closer to Oscar territory.
Inside, the speeches were almost too clever by half, as if the grand auditions for Oscar voters were in full affect. When Anne Hathaway was honored with the year’s Desert Palm Achievement award for acting, she launched into a three-minute speech about metaphysics and ontology, stating that she had learned from a book called The Daily Show and Philosophy that “creativity is a universal force that propels dynamic change in the world.”
“I think it’s pretty cool,” she went on, “That creativity is crucial to becoming. Not that all creativity is godly—I think we’ve all made films that prove that—but sometimes it can be sacred, and at best, divine.” To describe her Rachel Getting Married co-star DeWitt, she also used the curious phrase “flower of a love of a chocolate Hershey’s kiss.”
Doubt director John Patrick Shanley, presenting a Spotlight award to Amy Adams, mispronounced the fete twice as the “Palm Beach festival,” earning jeers from some of the hoarier audience members. Ron Howard, honored by his Frost/Nixon actor Frank Langella, accepted his lifetime achievement award with cheeky humility, adding that “someday you too might make a moment that ends up on a highlight reel at the Palm Springs Film Festival.”
Attendees from the cast of Revolutionary Road included Leonardo DiCaprio, Kathy Bates, Michael Shannon, and it-actress of the moment Zoe Kazan (a.k.a Elia Kazan’s granddaughter, who arrived with her indie-power couple boyfriend Paul Dano and cooed on the red carpet, “Aw, I love him so much. He’s such a good boy”). Monica Yates, whose father Richard wrote the novel, said that her father would be proud of the film. DiCaprio accepted the ensemble award on behalf of the cast with short comments about the movie being a true actor’s piece.
Later, Michael Shannon told The Daily Beast that DiCaprio had gone to see Shannon’s off-Broadway show after filming, and that “he wouldn’t be surprised” if DiCaprio’s next move involved the theater. Throughout the ceremony, Leo sat rapt, his eyes wide—he seemed to hang on the words of Ron Howard, Langella, Hoffman, Penn—and he barely acknowledged his Israeli model girlfriend, Bar Rafaeli, at his side. “That boy just loves acting and being an actor,” mused an industry veteran afterwards. “He is just so obsessed with the artistry of it.”
The inevitable stand-up portion of the evening came when Ben Stiller presented a lifetime achievement statue to Dustin Hoffman, stating that “he is the reason that short Jewish guys are allowed to be leads in movies. Seriously, there is a secret society of guys like me who worship his image.”
Taking over the mike, Hoffman sized up the evening well when he said, “The Golden Globes co-opted the Oscars, and now Palm Springs has co-opted the Golden Globes. But you’d better watch your back”—the Fairfax Avenue film fest was hot on Palm Springs’ heels.
The final award of the night went to Clint Eastwood and provided the rare treat of three minutes of unedited Clint in front of a crowd. After a standing ovation, Clint blanked on the names of his wife and daughter to thank—“At this age, you just take your time with things”—and lamented the fact that “I used to have great lines like, ‘Do you feel lucky, punk?’ and ‘Make my day,” and now I just stand there and go Grrrr.’”
He took pains to emphasize that Gran Torino is by no means his curtain call: “Usually when you get a lifetime honor, people start to wonder if you have a cough,” he said. “Well, I don’t have a cough. I’m here for a while, and I have a couple more rabbits in the hat.” He also added that eventually in the industry you’ll always “end up as an old car. But the Gran Torino is a good car. I just wish it ran on electricity instead of gas.”
Back at the Parker Meridian hotel, under heat lamps for post-show cocktails, everyone seemed in abnormally high spirits—“this is the happiest I’ve seen this crowd in well, maybe ever,” said an high-profile agent—and almost (gasp!) excited for the bigger ceremonies to come. The only signs of a looming recession were the lack of ostentatious evening gowns and the less-than-grand cheese cube towers in the corners. Actors celebrated each other’s work without hubris, directors spoke about making great art, and Sean Penn was actually enjoying himself.
Perhaps fun—and a dash of Hathaway’s beloved creativity—will define this awards season. But then, the stars could just not be worn down yet from the circuit. They still have to slog through Sundance, SAG, Santa Barbara, the Globes, and the Oscars before it’s all over. But for this one night, there felt like no better place to be, at least within 100 miles of Los Angeles.
Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.