By Matt Singer
[Photo: Ally Sheedy at the 1999 Independent Spirit Awards, courtesy of FIND. For more on the awards, including a list of the winners, see the official site.]
Another year, another awards season over, another reason why the Spirit Awards are still more fun than the Oscars: the Spirit Awards don’t have interpretive dance. Ever.
Originally called the “FINDIE Awards” upon their inception in 1984, and the Independent Spirit Awards shortly (and wisely) thereafter, the ISAs remain, more than twenty years after their creation, a place for young talent to get noticed and for deserving talent to get recognition.
There may well be campaigning and politicking and all that unsavory awards season stuff as well, but it doesn’t seem to interfere with the results; the Spirit Awards have a remarkable knack for getting it right. Comparing the list of Spirit Awards Best Feature winners to the one from the Oscars is mind-boggling; you don’t need the benefit of decades of hindsight to realize which award is building a better, more groundbreaking, more watchable catalogue of winners. Consider the two competing canons over the last decade: One has celebrated “Short Cuts,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Fargo,” “Election” and “Memento.” The other has spotlighted “Forrest Gump,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Chicago.”
And, in the end, the Spirit Awards are just plain fun to watch. Here are a few of our favorite Spirit Awards moments and the reasons why the Spirit Awards pretty much rock.
(Most, coincidentally, are available for viewing on our Spirit Awards video player here.)
They’re Not Politically Correct
Every year the Spirit Awards have an Honorary Chair; recent ones include Tom Cruise, Naomi Watts, Halle Berry, Quentin Tarantino and Salma Hayek. In 1992, the honorary chair was filled by Jodie Foster, who delivered a speech about the studio system entitled, “The Scum Sucking Vampire Pig Theory of Hollywood.” In contrast, if one were to use the phrase “Scum Sucking Vampire Pig” at the Oscars, one would almost certainly be removed forcefully from the premises. Foster got to do it while speaking (honorarily) on behalf of the whole damn show.
They Don’t Take Themselves Too Seriously
As evidenced this year, and pretty much every year, the Oscars love a good bit of witty presenter banter. So much of it is banal and intentionally inoffensive, but you can count on a Spirit Awards script to have some balls (as evidenced by provocative comedienne Sarah Silverman serving as host for the last two years). A classic example came in 2004, in a brilliant bit delivered by Jake Gyllenhaal and Emily Mortimer on the subject of awards season screener copies. “We’re not saying all independent films are depressing,” Mortimer began. “Many of them are uplifting, as well as depressing.” That’s why screening tapes are so important, added Gyllenhaal. “They enable Hollywood’s elite to watch gloomy movies in the comfort and safety of their own homes, surrounded by friends, nurturing family and servants who can help them through the difficult awards screening season.” The gag went on to include a 1-800 support line it pretty much outfunnies the entirety of the 2007 Academy Awards.
The Spirit Awards are always a good platform to learn about young filmmakers or to sort out confusion over names. This year, after a pronunciation gaffe, we all definitively learned that the young female star (and Spirit Award winner) from “Half Nelson” was Shareeka not Shakira Epps. In 1996, Laurence Fishburne used a moment at the podium to clear a similar miscommunication. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he intoned, “this is Samuel L. Jackson. I am Laurence Fishburne. Please do not get us confused with each other again.” If only Bill Paxton and Bill Pullman were just a little more indie, we could finally get that one cleared up as well.
The Songs Are Better
The Academy Awards always include performances of the nominees for Best Song and, invariably, at least four out of the five from every show are totally awful. The Spirit Awards songs, in contrast, are parody numbers aimed at poking a little fun at the Best Feature nominees (again, not taking things too seriously). One of the best and most surreal came in 2005, when Michael McKean and backup singers Annie O’Toole and Jane Lynch paid tribute to “Kinsey” with a song that name-checked Nebutol addiction and masturbation and included the phrases “And Kinsey has sex with GUYS!” Why this is awesome feels fairly self-explanatory.
People Get Drunk and Do Crazy Shit
Held in a big party tent on the beach in Santa Monica, California, The Spirit Awards are notorious for their laid back attitude and dress code, and for the fact that they serve booze throughout the show and people tend to say things they might otherwise hold in. The all-time classic example, and really, one of the all-time greatest acceptance speeches in the history of all awards shows, came in 1999, when Ally Sheedy won Best Female Lead for her role in “High Art.” After her name was announced, Sheedy leapt onto the stage without using the stairs, then let everything out: “I’ve never been nominated for anything before,” she yelled, “This may never happen again. I’m taking my fucking time!” She dragged Rosanna Arquette, who presented the award, back over to the podium, and made Arquette stand with her as she said “You have no idea how much the two of us have been through. At least twelve years of not being able to get an audition for a sitcom!” Too much information, Ally. When a brief opportunity arose, Arquette, along with co-presenter Don Cheadle, literally ran from the stage to escape the scene. And yet, when I watch it online, I cannot look away.