The Film Independent Spirit Awards—Hollywood’s irreverent lunch on the beach in Santa Monica the day before the Oscars—has a long tradition of giving the finger to the Academy. The ceremony is held in a gigantic tent with a red carpet that’s actually pink. Many of the nominees are under-the-radar films like Keep the Lights On or Safety Not Guaranteed. Guests arrive not by limo, but sometimes on bike. The crowds of fans waiting outside are as small as the films recognized. The plumbing consists of portable toilets that don’t completely flush, and there’s even a warning sign not to drink the sink water.
This year’s awards show host, Andy Samberg (who was presumably picked for his starring role in Celeste and Jesse Forever, not That’s My Boy), carried the Spirit baton as well he could. He gently ribbed the attendees, including more famous nominees like Bruce Willis (Moonrise Kingdom), and did a funny skit with Jack Black (Bernie). He roasted Anne Hathaway (not a nominee and not in attendance) for her string of earnest acceptance speeches at other awards shows. Then he did something really brave. “We have one thing to say to Hollywood,” he said during his opening monologue. “Fuck you.”
“Oscars, fuck yourself,” Samberg continued. “This is our Oscars, and even if we were invited, which I was not, we will not be going … Everybody say it with me: Hollywood, fuck you.”
This daring proclamation was followed by—total silence. This gathering Saturday afternoon was primarily Hollywood. Many of the Spirit nominees are attending the Academy Awards on Sunday and have been dutifully campaigning to win that prize for months.
“There are countless awards being handed out to a Goliath,” presenter Dennis Quaid said later. “But today we are honoring David.” The best-picture prize went to a Goliath anyway—Silver Linings Playbook, the Harvey Weinstein–produced dark comedy that’s grossed $100 million and landed eight Oscar nominations; it won over Beasts of the Southern Wild, the Sundance sleeper that was the real indie success story of the year. Jennifer Lawrence, the favorite to win the Academy Award for playing Tiffany in Silver Linings Playbook, won Best Female Lead. David O. Russell grabbed both Best Screenplay and Best Director statuettes. When somebody asked him backstage about the indie status of his film, he noted that he didn’t have his own trailer on set. (But he’s just the director!)
The Best Male Lead prize went to John Hawkes (The Sessions), who was snubbed for the Oscar nomination. The best-supporting-acting winners were Helen Hent (The Sessions) and Magic Mike’s Matthew McConaughey, who wryly noted in his acceptance speech: “I have to take my pants off to win a trophy. Fuck yeah.” He called his stripper wardrobe a cross between Baryshnikov and Richard Simmons.
The presenters, including Jeremy Renner and Salma Hayek, were just as A-list as the winners. About an hour into the show, Jason Bateman tried to leave early and was mobbed by fans chanting his name in the parking lot. He reluctantly went over and started signing autographs.
And that brings us to a larger conundrum of the Spirit Awards. Even though the ceremony prides itself as being the rambunctious anti-Oscars, in recent years, it’s been feeling more like the pre-Oscars. When the awards launched in 1984, many of the films were so small—Sex, Lies, and Videotape or The Player—that you had to see them at an art-house theater. Last year, for the second time, the Spirits and the Oscars both awarded their top prize to the same film, The Artist.
Some of the show’s identity erosion comes from the now long slog of Oscars season. There are so many awards, they’re all starting to blend together. And just imagine how it must feel to be nominated: your voice growing hoarse, thanking the same people over and over again. On Saturday afternoon, many of the big stars arrived late and glided through the press line, answering as few questions as possible. Although alcohol was available at the lunch, it didn’t flow freely. Saturday night is packed with more dinners and galas, not to mention the actual Oscars on Sunday and the post-Oscar festivities. One publicist noted that the Spirit Awards needed a new date, with so much other partying scheduled for the weekend.
“We didn’t call it independent when I was making it,” said John Waters, a former Spirit Awards host, on the pink carpet, wearing a red suit. “We called it underground movies.” But now there’s not much clarity about what the word “independent” means. Is it a quirky studio movie? Or the kind of tiny film that only plays in a few theaters and on Video on Demand? “I think that it’s just as hard as it ever was,” says Ira Sachs, the director of the gay love story Keep the Lights On. “There’s not capital to make these films—films that are ornery and different.” But he conceded: “I think what’s happening to Beasts has never happened before. A Sundance film has never quite exploded like that film has. That’s very good for all of us.”
Craig Zobel, the director of the small-budget drama Compliance, noted that independent films have been around for so long, “the question of what is an independent film doesn’t have to be defined anymore.”
When I told him I don’t consider Silver Linings Playbook an independent film, he laughed. “I understand why you think that,” he said. “It’s like indie film used to be the neighborhood in town that you didn’t want to move into. And now the yuppies are moving in.”