IFP LAUDS ‘FARGO’

Coens' pic bats 1.000 at Spirit Awards

Overshadowed by its own success in dominating tonight’s Academy Awards, the independent film sector conducted a low-key celebration at the 12th annual Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday in a beachside tent in Santa Monica.

The Coen brothers’ ”Fargo,” which has seven nominations in the Oscar race, was the big winner, taking honors in each category in which it was nominated, including best feature.

”Thanks, it’s a great honor. We deserve it,” cracked Joel Coen, accepting with his brother Ethan the honors for best screenplay.

Frances McDormand, who is up for a best actress Oscar for ”Fargo,” received the indie award in the same category.

Broadcast live for the first time on the Independent Film Channel, with Samuel L. Jackson hosting smoothly, the customary indie self-trumpeting at the Independent Feature Project/West event was relatively muted compared to previous years.

Keynote speaker Mike Leigh proved the exception, however, with the Brit helmer decrying the ”inhuman scale” of electronic editing, attacking studio ”escapist” fare as too emotionally uninvolving to allow true escapism, and defining indie filmmaking as making movies ”without the interference of boneheads.”

Other Oscar-nommed pics receiving Independent Spirit awards included Leigh’s ”Secrets & Lies,” Billy Bob Thornton’s ”Sling Blade” and John Sayles’ ”Lone Star.” Oscar faves ”The English Patient” and ”Shine” had not been nominated.

A new award this year for documentaries went to Leon Gast’s ”When We Were Kings,” the long-delayed depiction of the Ali-Foreman heavyweight bout in Zaire in 1974. Muhammad Ali was in the crowd and received a standing ovation.

This year’s Someone to Watch award, along with a $20,000 grant from its sponsor, Swatch, went to Larry Fessenden, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in his film ”Habit.”

After accepting his award for best first feature for ”Sling Blade,” Thornton said he intends to repeat his triple-threat performance as writer-director-actor in an as-yet-unnamed project. His next project will be ”East End,” about the only white musician in an all-black band. He also said his film ”A Simple Plan” was still on track for next year after being shut down by Paramount last month.

The winners:

Feature: ”Fargo” (Gramercy Pictures)

First feature: ”Sling Blade,” Billy Bob Thornton (Miramax)

Director: Joel Coen, ”Fargo”

Debut performance: Heather Matarazzo, ”Welcome to the Dollhouse” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Actress: Frances McDormand, ”Fargo”

Actor: William H. Macy, ”Fargo”

Supporting actress: Elizabeth Pena, “Lone Star” (Sony Pictures Classics)

Supporting actor: Benicio Del Toro, ”Basquiat” (Miramax)

Screenplay: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, ”Fargo”

First screenplay: Stanley Tucci and Joseph Tropiano, ”Big Night” (Samuel Goldwyn)

Cinematographer: Roger Deakins, ”Fargo”

Foreign film: ”Secrets & Lies” (October Films)

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