Because they weed out the big Hollywood blockbusters from the running, Film Independent’s Spirit Awards sometimes get a reputation as Oscar’s concession prize. Not so. Though it’s true that the show recognizes many smaller films that never stand a shot at winning an Academy Award, the two groups have been known to celebrate the same thesps.
In the Spirits’ first year, Geraldine Page snagged statues at both shows for her turn in “The Trip to Bountiful.” More recently, Alan Arkin (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Philip Seymour Hoffman (“Capote”) and Charlize Theron (“Monster”) all won Spirit prizes one day before collecting Oscars for the same roles.
Though the winners have been known to overlap, the nominees are frequently quite different. For Spirit slots, an expert committee of critics and industry peers watch every eligible movie and then argue their preferences over the course of a weekend. The resulting ballot, which is open for voting to the entire Film Independent membership, inevitably features its share of “What about so-and-so?” or “How’d such-and-such get in there?” questions.
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A quick glance at the lead actress category reveals the incredible diversity reflected in the org’s choices. Newcomers such as Ellen Page (“Juno”) and Chinese actress Tang Wei (“Lust, Caution”) compete alongside indie goddess Parker Posey (“Broken English”) and the A-list likes of Angelina Jolie (“A Mighty Heart”). Rounding out the list is Sienna Miller, up for her role as a soap star who grills a magazine writer in “Interview,” a release probably too small to garner Oscar attention.
In some cases, a Spirit nom serves as just the endorsement some performances need to inspire Academy consideration, since the roles might have otherwise slipped under the radar. Take lead actor nominee Frank Langella, who plays an out-of-print novelist struggling to finish his last book in “Starting Out in the Evening.” Exposure like this, coupled with critical raves, could conceivably land him on the Oscar ballot.
With four other fall features absorbing its marketing attention, Focus has put relatively little muscle behind “Talk to Me.” But two Spirit noms — one for Don Cheadle (who plays D.C. deejay Petey Greene) in lead, the other a supporting mention for Chiwetel Ejiofor (as his program manager) — should help remind voters of the well-reviewed biopic.
Of course, all this Oscar talk can be misleading since the two awards shows don’t actually have all that much to do with one another, reflecting the tastes of separate orgs with very different agendas and politics.
For example, the Indie Spirit show is the only kudofest that counts premiering in the Film Independent-sponsored Los Angeles Film Fest as a “qualifying run” — hence the leading male nod for “August Evening” star Pedro Castaneda. Supporting actress Tamara Podemski was similarly remembered for the as-yet-unreleased Sundance movie “Four Sheets to the Wind.”
Because Indie Spirit nominations are determined by discussion, not blind voting, the committee can strategically decide to spread the love, feting Marisa Tomei for “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” while recognizing co-star Philip Seymour Hoffman for an entirely different movie (“The Savages”).
Participants can also remind one another about worthy performances from earlier in the year, such as Steve Zahn’s supporting turn in “Rescue Dawn,” Werner Herzog’s fictional retelling of his prison-camp documentary “Little Dieter Learns to Fly.” By contrast, Oscar hopefuls must rely on DVDs, public appearances, other awards and advertising to jog voters’ memories that far back.
This year, the Indie Spirit Awards added an ensemble prize, named after Robert Altman, bestowing it on the eight actors who play Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes’ “I’m Not There” — two of whom (Marcus Carl Franklin and Cate Blanchett) earned separate supporting noms.