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Palm Springs Festival Kicks Off Awards Season with Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon and Benedict Cumberbatch

A-list stars and filmmakers turned out Saturday evening on a cold, clear desert night to celebrate the Palm Springs Film Festival honorees at what’s unofficially become the launch of the awards season.

Though Robert Downey Jr. and Brad Pitt were presenters, not honorees, they helped add glamour to an evening packed full of warm anecdotes told by longtime collaborators. Benedict Cumberbatch, Reese Witherspoon, Julianne Moore, Michael Keaton and Shirley MacLaine were among other big names at the awards ceremony, hosted by Mary Hart, which recognizes a cross-section of films in the Oscar conversation.

Festival chairman Harold Matzner told the Convention Center audience that 10 of last year’s 11 honorees ended up with Academy Award nominations. The annual gala is regularly scheduled a week after the first round of Oscar ballots are sent to voters.

One of the lively moments of the night came when Pitt encouraged the audience to sing and help the audience learn how to pronounce David Oyelowo.

“Gone Girl” supporting actresses Kim Dickens and Carrie Coon kicked off the evening, giving the film’s star Rosamund Pike the Breakthrough Actress award. Wearing a striking black tent dress, Pike talked about her early role in “Die Another Day” and said she was glad the Palm Springs Fest “has decided that I am good enough.”

After Pitt led the crowd in an “Oyelowo” singalong, the “Selma” star and Breakthrough Actor award recipient said, “You know you have broken through when Brad Pitt sings your name.” Oyelowo talked about the mob scene that ensues when his four children get together with Pitt’s six, and thanked Pitt along with Oprah Winfrey and Ava DuVernay for getting the film made.

Jason Reitman presented the Spotlight award to “Whiplash” supporting actor J.K. Simmons, who has appeared in most of Reitman’s films. Simmons’ speech remembered co-star Miles Teller for being “supremely slappable” and writer-director Damien Chazelle for providing him with a story “that leapt off the page.”

Downey Jr. called his “The Judge” co-star Robert Duvall “an iron-jawed icon of American manhood,” and joked, “We gotta get through this, my chopper’s idling on the roof.” Accepting the Icon award, Duvall thanked Warner Bros.’ marketing and distribution topper Sue Kroll for her support of the film and reminisced about his New York acting days with Dustin Hoffman.

Steve Carell continued Pitt’s shtick, singing the name of his “Crazy Stupid Love” co-star Moore, then launching into a lengthy and almost over-the-top explanation of her amazingness. “I know Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, and she makes them both look like a—holes,” he said. Also, “You can never see her acting.”

MacLaine, perhaps the only star in attendance with clairvoyant powers, appropriately presented her “Bernie” director Richard Linklater with the Visionary award for “Boyhood.” Explaining that Linklater’s laid-back approach to directing often results in him answering “I don’t know” to any questions about how to play a part, she said he was nonetheless able to help her “discover my inner bitch.” Linklater quipped back, “At night, we would have conversations in another realm.” He thanked the “Boyhood” cast and crew for carrying out a group vision of the film.

Moore reappeared in her orangey red ruffled dress to present the actor honor to “The Theory of Everything’s” Eddie Redmayne, who appeared with her in “Savage Grace.” Redmayne lauded director James Marsh for giving him “the confidence to fail” while portraying Stephen Hawking.

Keaton was enthusiastically received as he appeared to give the director award to his “Birdman” boss Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, recalling that Mike Nichols had advised Inarritu not to make the film, but he didn’t listen. The energetic, charming director gave a poetic speech about his own “Birdman”-like doubts, his empathy for his characters and his debt to Raymond Carver’s widow Tess Gallagher.

“The Imitation Game” director Morten Tyldum’s name isn’t yet well-known, but Cumberbatch, who was awarded the Ensemble Performance honor along with Allen Leech, Matthew Goode and Alex Lawther, explained Tyldum’s nickname on the set was “The honey monster,” after a British cereal mascot. The actors (Keira Knightley was absent as she “thought the awards were being held in Palm Beach,” Cumberbatch joked) clowned around in winning British fashion before Cumberbatch gave a heartfelt speech about Alan Turing, the subject of the film who was the father of modern computer science.

Finally, Laura Dern presented her “Wild” co-star Reese Witherspoon with the Chairman’s Award, for finding the book and “fiercely” making the movie. “I want to be part of any party Reese Witherspoon is throwing,” she said. Witherspoon said making the film is the “most important journey of my career thus far.”

The night concluded with an after-party at the Parker Palm Springs hotel, where Cumberbatch and Redmayne chatted while their photos were snapped and MacLaine, Simmons and Reitman huddled in conversation.

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