Robert De Niro took what has now become his signature stab at the current state of the GOP when feting Martin Scorsese with the Sonny Bono Visionary Award at Thursday night’s 31st annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala.
“Sonny was a Republican back in the days when Republicans still supported the arts and put their partisanship aside to do what they knew was best for our country,” said “The Irishman” star to a crowd of some 2,500 attendees gathered inside the Palm Springs Convention Center.
“It was a different time.”
For his part, Scorsese, who kickstarted a firestorm of controversy this past November when he criticized Marvel’s monopoly over movies, waxed nostalgic for cinema of yore, citing films by the likes of Howard Hawks and John Ford that continue to inspire his nearly six decades-long career.
“We can’t have a future of our art form without knowing its past,” said Scorsese. “And I’ll just keep saying it because it’s true. I’ve been blessed to have been able to make some interesting pictures over the years and I gotta tell you, I’ll always be thankful to Ted Sarandos and Scott Stuber and everybody at Netflix for allowing us to make ‘The Irishman’ the way we needed to make it, in a sense experimenting with a film that was made for theater viewing and streaming viewing at the same time. But it’s true that I keep learning form the pictures I know, that I’ve seen over the years — rewatching, revisiting them.”
But while extolling the virtues of Netflix, the Oscar-winning filmmakers also noted his “concern” about the “way that people are seeing movies.”
“I’m concerned about pictures being suggested by algorithms,” he said. “I know, I get involved with it, too. The algorithms, they tell you if you like that, you might like this. And if you don’t enjoy this right away, then there’s something else, and something else after that. Actually, the usual end result of that, it’s happened to me, is that you pretty much end up binge watching, which isn’t bad, it’s just that you go for one way and the algorithm is dangerous because it takes away from your creative viewing, I think.
“You have to make up your own mind by creative viewing,” he continued. “I can easily fall into it and never come back. There’s this paranoia which kind of sets in when it comes to algorithms, once I punch up Netflix or something and I see, ‘because you watched a zombie slumber massacre…’ I said, ‘I didn’t watch it, it was a mistake. It really was.’ Now, look, I know the business has changed and everything changes all the time, impermanence, that’s what it’s about. It’s wide open though now: you can watch everything anytime anywhere, and that puts a burden on you, the viewer. But you know, not all changes are all for the good and I just feel that we might be tilting, you know, if we’re not careful, we might be tilting the scales away from that creative viewing experience and away from movies as an art form. And we can’t lose sight that it is an art form, albeit composed of many different variables within that.”
“While the art of course can’t survive without the business,” he continued, “I have to say that in the end the business can’t survive without the art, which is made by people with something to say.”
In a similar vein, Quentin Tarantino, who received the director of the year award for his work helming “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” took aim at streaming services altogether, showering praise upon the pure, unadulterated theatrical movie-viewing experience.
“What will be in seven years?” he pondered aloud, questioning the future status of the filmgoing experience. “Will it be the same way? I don’t know. But what I do know is that Tom Rothman [at Sony] committed to making ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ He said to me, ‘This is about asses in seats. This is about people getting together and watching it together on film in 35-millimeter.’”
The gala, considered the unofficial start to Oscar season, was not only a celebration of filmmaking as an aesthetic visual medium, but one of increasing inclusivity.
Lena Waithe kicked off the night with her introduction of Cynthia Erivo, who took home the breakthrough performance award for her role as famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
“She brought to life this mythical figure,” said Waithe of Erivo’s emotionally riveting lead turn.
“It has been a long journey to get to this point and one that I am very proud of,” said Erivo. “It is nothing short of a dream to play a woman who is everything that strength can be and everything that honor can be.”
One of the gala’s most sincere and authentically sweet moments came when Zack Gottsagen delivered his acceptance speech after receiving the rising star award for his lead role in “The Peanut Butter Falcon.”
Gottsagen, who has Down syndrome, has helped pave the way for actors with disabilities in Hollywood, representing a true mark of change in an industry that has long pigeonholed — or, worse, shunned — those who don’t fit the proverbial preconceived mold of what a “movie star” is supposed to be.
“I want to also thank ‘The Peanut Butter Falcon’ team for believing in me,” said Gottsagen, who gave a shout-out to his mom in the crowd and was met with a round of applause and a standing ovation.
Salma Hayek, who presented Antonio Banderas with the international star award, actor for his performance in Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory,” spoke of the Spanish actor’s “charisma” and called him “a groundbreaking artist” who helped make it “sexy to be Latino.”
“Thanks to him things have changed,” said Hayek of Banderas.
Accepting the chairman’s award from his “Joker” director Todd Phillips, Joaquin Phoenix said, “Part of me thinks this is absurd and ridiculous and embarrassing. Another part of me realizes the power of the creative spirit of art and what we do at our best. I try to focus on that part of it as much as I can.”
Jennifer Lopez was in tears as she walked onto the stage to receive the spotlight award actress from “Hustlers” director Lorene Scafaria. “This was a film written, directed, produced, edited, set designed by women, about women, starring women,” Lopez said. “So, to all the talented women out there — support one another. Remember no is not an answer. It’s an opportunity.” She went on to thank her longtime manager Benny Medina, producing partner Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas and her husband-to-be Alex Rodriguez.
“Just Mercy” star Jamie Foxx also delivered an emotional speech while recalling that his father was sent to prison for seven years for “$25 for an illegal substance.” While he couldn’t bring himself to visit his dad behind bars, the actor, who was presented with the spotlight award actor from Bryan Stevenson (he’s the death row attorney played by Michael B. Jordan in “Just Mercy”), said he promised his father that he would be a success. After his father served his time, Foxx brought him to the U.S. Open. He remembered that they both had “tears rolling down our cheeks” as they watched Venus Williams compete.
Other honorees included Charlize Theron (international star award actress), Laura Dern (career achievement award), Adam Driver (Desert Palm achievement award actor) and Renée Zellweger (Desert Palm achievement award actress).
Mary Hart returned for her 17th go around as emcee of the event, which raised $2.4 million benefitting the Palm Springs International Film Society.