'Precious' dominates Spirit Awards with 5 prizes

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 6, 2010

LOS ANGELES -- The Independent Spirit Awards -- which celebrated its 25th anniversary Friday night in a new Los Angeles venue but with the same old joyously casual approach to honoring the best in low-budget cinema -- played out in some ways like a rehearsal for Sunday's Academy Awards.

Oscar front-runners like Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart") and Baltimore native Mo'Nique, who plays the relentlessly abusive mother in "Precious," both won winged statuettes in their respective acting categories. As a matter of fact, most of the names announced during the course of the two-hour-plus ceremony, held on the roof of the L.A. Live complex in downtown Los Angeles for the first time after years of unfolding on a Santa Monica beach, will also be read aloud from the podium of the Kodak Theater, as nominees if not winners.

"Precious" collected the most honors, taking five of the 13 big prizes doled out: best feature, best director for Lee Daniels, best first screenplay for Geoffrey Fletcher, acting honors for both Mo'Nique and lead female Gabourey Sidibe. Also winning big: "Crazy Heart," which, in addition to a victory for Bridges, earned recognition in the best first feature category. And that, of course, raises the question: Does an event like this have as much meaning when it shares so much in common with the Academy Awards?

Michael Hoffman, director of "The Last Station," which was nominated for five Spirits but came away with none, says yes.

"It really proves to people that there's an audience for independent film, that there's excitement about independent film, that there are good movies being made for the adult audience that's really, really underserved," he said while walking the "blue carpet" before the ceremony got underway. "I think it's absolutely crucial."

"This is where all those ideas begin, with independent filmmakers," said actress Olivia Wilde, a Washington, D.C. native who served as one of the show's presenters. "And some of them make it to the Oscars and some of them don't. But it's important that there is an awards show that's just about celebrating them."

Independent film is a broadly defined term, but for the purposes of the Spirits, it means any film made for less than $20 million and largely outside of the Hollywood studio system, even if it later gets picked up for wide distribution. That's why pictures like "Precious," which was eventually championed by the likes of Lionsgate Films and Oprah Winfrey, share the spotlight with lower-profile films -- titles like "The Vicious Kind," or the Arab-immigrant drama "Amreeka" -- that most of the cineplex-packing masses probably have not seen at a theater near them.

And in a more even playing field minus a few of Oscar's leading contenders, it means that people like Daniels -- who is nominated in the directing category at the Academy Awards, but not projected to come away a winner -- get at least one moment this weekend to stand on a stage with a trophy in their hand.

"Kathryn Bigelow is not here tonight," Daniels noted happily during his acceptance speech, referencing "The Hurt Locker" director who competes against him come Sunday. "But I am." ("The Hurt Locker" actually received a couple of Spirit nominations last year because it had played the festival circuit in 2008, qualifying it for consideration.)

The presence of less familiar faces alongside ones so recognizable -- from Woody Harrelson, a supporting actor winner for "The Messenger," to Jodie Foster to Ben Stiller -- served as yet another reminder that the indie world, especially in its current, precarious state, needs star power to keep its shoestring-budget engines running.

Even Stiller, who presented the award for best feature film, couldn't resist the opportunity to joke about how he, a movie star who recently starred in a blockbuster sequel set within the bowels of the Smithsonian's museums, clearly represents the "core values" of the Independent Spirits.

"What are those core values?" he deadpanned onstage. "I couldn't tell you if you paid me."

Of course, as many of the producers and filmmakers at the Spirits noted when asked about the state of independent cinema, sometimes snagging a marquee name for a project doesn't even help.

"Once the credit market collapsed and the equity dried up, many people found their films either in limbo or not getting financed at all," said "Crazy Heart" director Scott Cooper, who both teared and choked up onstage while accepting the award for best first feature. "I have a feeling that 'Crazy Heart' wouldn't get financed now if I had to shop it around town. So that was a fortuitous bit of timing."

Still, in an atmosphere that celebrates the hard-scrabble indie world with swag bags and complimentary shots of Jameson's whiskey, one of the event's many sponsors, it's easy to find a few rays of light.

"I think it's a risky investment. It always will be," said "Last Station" producer Bonnie Arnold of financing independent movies. "But I still think people want to see good films and if you can get to that place and stick with it, it's a matter of a little hard work and a lot of luck."

Or, as Mo'Nique said of the Spirit Awards just before she walked inside to accept yet another prize for her "Precious" turn: "Every award is the big dance."

Complete list of winners:

--Best Feature: "Precious"

--Best Director: Lee Daniels ("Precious")

--Best First Feature: "Crazy Heart"

--Best Screenplay: "(500) Days of Summer"

--Best First Screenplay: "Precious"

--John Cassavetes Award (for best feature made under $500,000): "Humpday"

--Best Supporting Female: Mo'Nique ("Precious")

--Best Supporting Male: Woody Harrelson ("The Messenger")

--Best Female: Gabourey Sidibe ("Precious")

--Best Male: Jeff Bridges ("Crazy Heart")

--Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins ("A Serious Man"))

--Best Foreign Film: "An Education"

--Best Documentary: "Anvil! The Story of Anvil"

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