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Palm Springs gala is a trial run for Oscar night

Natalie portman darren aronofsky James Franco polished his teleprompter-reading, Natalie Portman found a baby-bump-friendly dress and Colin Firth and Robert Duvall schooled the new kids in speech-making.

A week before the Golden Globes and seven weeks before the Oscars, Hollywood held its first dress rehearsal of awards season Saturday night at the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s 22nd annual awards gala. Though high on glamour, the event offers attendees an opportunity to hone their awards-show skills in the relatively low-pressure environment of a desert film festival.

Stars like Javier Bardem, Carey Mulligan and Mark Wahlberg walked a 300-foot red carpet into the Palm Springs Convention Center, passing bunches of red tulips spilling out of giant martini glasses and ice sculptures of Ketel One vodka bottles. Inside the sprawling dining room, tables were dressed with red silk and Cartier napkin rings, a 32-piece orchestra played and “Entertainment Tonight’s” Mary Hart emceed.

Portman, who received the Desert Palm Achievement Actress award and is considered an Oscar front-runner for her performance in “Black Swan,” remembered to thank all the key people — her mom, manager, director and castmates. But she singled out her choreographer, Benjamin Millepied, saying, “He partnered me in the film and also now partners with me in life.” The actress, who wore a loose-fitting, collared black dress that concealed a baby bump, recently announced that she and Millepied were engaged and expecting a child.

Palm-springs-film-festival Though the event is black-tie, most of the celebrities are considerably more relaxed than at other awards events. They aren’t worried about a live television audience and already know what they’re winning, or not winning, a fact that leads to some very loose speeches.

Before presenting Carey Mulligan with the Breakthrough Performance Award, her "Never Let Me Go" costar Andrew Garfield said, “She's lacking in vanity enough to rock a mullet with pride.” Melissa Leo introduced "The Town" director Ben Affleck by calling him “our generation’s Orson Welles but with better abs.” And a tie-less and expletive-dropping Jake Gyllenhaal said of Portman, “She has recently announced that she is gonna have a baby, who will probably need therapy after watching ‘Black Swan.’ ”

When Portman presented an award to Javier Bardem, she described how when they filmed the 2006 movie “Goya’s Ghosts” together in Spain, “He took me out to every gay bar in Madrid, dancing 'til all hours of the morning.” Bardem, feeling the need to explain himself, said, “They're the only safe place for her.” The “Biutiful” actor was on hand to receive the festival’s International Star Award. “I guess international means you don't understand a word I say,” Bardem said. “That’s all right, I'll take it.”

Before each award, a reel of the winner’s film clips were played. “Watching these clips for me is like watching the Russian roulette scene in ‘The Deer Hunter,’ ” said Affleck, there to receive the festival’s Chairman Award. “I want Javier’s reel.”

Francoboyle Franco, who will be co-hosting the Oscars on Feb. 27 with Anne Hathaway, got some practice working a crowd by presenting his “127 Hours” director Danny Boyle with the Sonny Bono Visionary Filmmaker Award. “He thought he'd challenge himself by placing his protagonist in a single set with no other actors,” Franco said of Boyle. “It could easily have become an artsy, Hungarian-style movie. But he’s an entertainer.”

Two somber moments marked the evening—when songwriter Diane Warren introduced a photo tribute to slain publicist Ronni Chasen and when Rep. Mary Bono Mack, widow of the festival’s founder, Sonny Bono, acknowledged the shooting in Arizona of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

Only two recipients earned standing ovations, Firth and Duvall, both of whom could offer a course in awards-season etiquette. Accepting the Desert Palm Achievement Award for “The King’s Speech,” Firth knew to acknowledge the festival’s hometown. “This is all very exotic for me coming from London, the fragrant breezes of Southern California,” he said. “It would be simply impossible to have a place in England called Palm Springs. There’s just nothing it applies to.”

In contrast to the veterans was newcomer Jennifer Lawrence, the 20-year-old star of “Winter’s Bone,” who stumbled  a bit on a thank-you speech acknowledging her director, Debra Granik, and distributor Roadside Attractions but graciously recovered. “I guess I’m supposed to act like I’m used to this,” said Lawrence, while accepting the festival’s Rising Star Award from director Oliver Stone. “Inside I’m jumping up and down like a 5-year-old, 'cause Oliver Stone just gave me an award and that’s my Saturday.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer said the event did more than just raise the spirits of individual award winners. "Film is still our biggest export," she said. "The festival is great for the film industry, it's great for the desert. Riverside County is suffering. This lifts everybody up."

Organizers said the event raised $1.3 million for the nonprofit Palm Springs Film Society.

-- Rebecca Keegan
twitter.com/@thatrebecca

Photos, from top: Natalie Portman and "Black Swan" director Darren Aronofsky arrive at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala. Credit:  Frazer Harrison / Getty Images.  Actor-director Ben Affleck of "The Town" on the red carpet at the gala. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Reuters. "127 Hours" director Danny Boyle, left, and James Franco at the gala. Credit: Paul Buck / EPA. More photos of the Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala.

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