The Biggest, Best Awards Show You've Probably Never Heard Of

by James Patrick Herman 4:24 PM PST, January 09, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

No broadcast. No orchestra interrupting drunken speeches. No contest that Palm Springs hosts the first and most fun star-studded gala of the season.

In a desert getaway just two hours from Los Angeles that feels almost trapped in time, every year, a week before the red carpet rolls out at the Golden Globes, the Old Hollywood playground known as Palm Springs throws its own quirky awards gala -- attended by everyone and yet seen by comparatively few.

This is the biggest award show you've probably never heard of, but it's the ultimate get-together for Hollywood insiders -- and more fun than the Globes and Oscars combined. The annual ceremony hosted by the resort town's International Film Festival is perhaps the only awards show that is not at all about the suspense of who will win -- that's negotiated in advance -- but rather the impassioned acceptance speeches. Or, in Brad Pitt's case, the sing-along.

VIDEO: Highlights From the Palm Springs International Film Festival

For the first time since Mariah Carey's now legendary champagne-fueled appearance to promote Precious in 2010, a clip from the best-kept secret on the award show circuit actually went viral -- albeit with only a brief glimpse of Pitt's serenade for David Oyelowo, the recipient of the Breakthrough Performance Award.

Photo: ET

"Tonight we celebrate an actor brave enough to step into the shoes of Martin Luther King. But with any great film, any great performance, comes controversy," deadpanned Pitt. "How in the hell do you pronounce his name? I'm here to help. My job tonight is to help you…and at times like this I find it helps to sing it."

Pitt, who as it turns out has a lovely singing voice, then proceeded to entice the entire room to do just that. After all, who can say no to Brad Pitt?

Then he made them do it again. "C'mon people," he implored. "One more time!"

Name officially learned and trophy firmly in hand, Oyelowo then took the stage and shared a totally normal Hollywood story about what happens when Brad and Angie invite your kids over to their house for a playdate. As one does.

"We both have copious amounts of children," Oyelowo revealed, and at the end of the day, between their six kids and his four, only a few pieces of the Pitt-Jolie's furniture were left standing. "You know, Brad," Ovelowo recalled saying, "we are responsible for all of these little people." An unfazed Pitt, he recounted, "puffed out his chest and said, 'Yeah, I know.'"

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Photo: ET

Unlike, well, just about every other award show, at no point during either of these speeches did the orchestra attempt to play off the actors. There was no rush to wrap it up and shuffle off the stage, because this revolution of sorts would not be televised. The ceremony was only for the viewing pleasure of returning emcee (and former ET host) Mary Hart and about 2,400 attendees.

And unlike other film festival fetes, this one draws a seriously starry crowd, from the winners to presenters and their favorite costars and friends. Aside from the A-listers, the guests seated at a vast array of bejeweled, opulent tables -- thanks to the deep pockets and chic taste of the event's sponsor, Cartier -- seemed to consist mainly of Palm Springs socialites of a certain age who were thrilled to have an excuse to get their fur coats out of storage and into the Palm Springs Convention Center.

It's also a total lovefest.

Prolific film festival fixture Jason Reitman gushed, "Palm Springs is one of the places that recognized me as a filmmaker very early. They started showing my short films when I was about 20 years old. I'll never forget that feeling of walking into a movie theater here in Palm Springs and being like, 'Huh, I'm a director.'" For the new guard -- first-timers as well as foreigners -- for whom the Globes represent the official warm-up to the big night that is the Oscars, there's an almost comical lack of pretense to the event, which can prove downright baffling.

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Photo: Getty Images

The scene backstage proved to be equally entertaining: New mom Rosamund Pike (also a Breakthrough Performance Award winner for her work as a scorned woman-turned-sociopath in Gone Girl) ripped open a gift of baby booties from Hart, while her beleaguered publicist was already having a hard time balancing Pike's bag, Blackberry, an award that was both larger and heavier than a dumbbell plus a Tank watch encased in Cartier's signature red box.

Pike herself had earlier admitted: "I have no idea how to behave." Despite the accolades, her future in film remains uncertain -- as does her certainty she's any good at it. "After [Gone Girl] wraps, I'm going to find a different career."

Evidently those shiny tokens of appreciation were only offered to winners -- not their celebrity presenters. "Cartier shouldn't ask for this watch back," Robert Downey Jr. joked of his borrowed bling. He was on hand to introduce his co-star in The Judge, "that iron-jawed icon of American manhood," Robert Duvall. "He's a lunatic and I love him for it," Downey added, paraphrasing James Caan.

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"I'm glad I could be a part of this industry because it's a great way to make a living," said Duvall. He later recalled everything from his first Western to, apropos of nothing, his night table reading -- soccer stud Leo Messi's autobiography, in case you were wondering. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the evening.

Photo: ET

When Steve Carrell later took the stage, he said, "I have been blessed with many fake wives and girlfriends over the years. And while I don't want to alienate any of them, there is no one more wonderful than Julianne Moore. Everyone loves Julianne Moore. Just to look at her is to love her." Meanwhile, Moore was indeed looking lovely backstage while touching up her lip gloss without the aid of a mirror -- a little learned trick of the trade.

Duvall wasn't the only Hollywood icon in the house. Shirley MacLaine turned up to present Richard Linklater with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award. "Yes, I'm still alive and walking," she noted by way of an introduction. "He is brilliant beyond what's expected of a director," MacLaine added of Linklater, before paying another, even less common compliment: "He's a man who is so emotionally available."

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Moore soon returned to the stage, this time in the role of a presenter but still in the same dress. "I'm back and I didn't have time to change," Moore said before inviting Eddie Redmayne to accept his Desert Palm Achievement Award for The Theory of Everything.

"With this film, I'd hoped that I would become a genius," the British actor said of his apparently only temporary transformation into Stephen Hawking. After giving a shout-out to his "wife as of two weeks ago," he continued to make the most of his acceptance speech. "I promise I'll shut up soon. My agent, are they still awake?" Redmayne wondered aloud.

When Redmayne eventually wrapped it up, the unusually patient orchestra played the Batman theme as Michael Keaton, walked on. "I'm in a business that invites narcissism and self-involvement," Keaton said, perhaps alluding to some of the previous award recipients. "I can't tell you how great it feels not to talk about myself tonight."

Photo: ET

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Instead, the spotlight was on his Birdman director, Alejandro G. Iñárritu, who has remained remarkably humble despite picking up the Director of the Year Award. "My inner Birdman was saying: 'You don't deserve this. You're a piece of sh-t,'" he said.

The evening's final presenter, Laura Dern, did not hesitate to heap praise upon her Wild co-star (and the film's producer), Reese Witherspoon. "Reese is a really good therapist," Dern wanted everyone to know. "And she makes every award show the best party on earth." (Of course, Witherspoon can even turn a drunk driving arrest into an affair to remember and anyway, it's hard to imagine a party more entertaining than this particular one proved to be.)

Photo: ET

"It means everything that I get to be a storyteller in this world," said a visibly moved Witherspoon, clutching the Chairman's Award trophy that she accepted on behalf of "anyone who has ever felt lost or alone in life." The Oscar winner added: "It's been a wild journey and it was the most important journey of my career so far."

Hart, a bubbly legend in her own right, reemerged from interviewing honorees backstage to wish everyone a good night. "This, as they say on the set, is a wrap."

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Photo: Getty Images

But for others, such as Redmayne, the evening was just getting started. "What am I gonna do now? Maybe dancing," he said. "We're going to go back to the Parker [hotel] where the after-party is and have a few glasses. It's always good to go and have a gentle calm down at the end of the night, because I get quite overwhelmed and intimidated by the red carpet thing."

And while Redmayne wasn't alone inside the tiny, velvet-roped VIP oasis amidst the packed disco inferno of the Parker's after-party, most of his celebrity peers opted to turn in early instead of hitting the dance floor.

Why waste precious beauty sleep when the most exclusive Hollywood celebration was already over? All the other award shows from here on out -- and especially their canned acceptance speeches -- will seem like more work than play.

For more of the best moments from the Palm Spring Film Festival watch the video below!