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Despite many changes, Spirit Awards stick to tradition

March 6, 2010 |  9:00 am


With a Friday night time slot at a venue across from Staples Center, the Spirit Awards changed the time and place of its 25th annual ceremony, but little actually proved different from previous years.

For good and for ill.

Concerns that the casualness of the event would be lost without the Santa Monica beach-side setting turned out to be misplaced, as the usual pre-show mingling, and in-show strolling and table-hopping, unfolded pretty much as it always has.

Fears, meanwhile, that a popular Friday night slot would have the Spirits a sparsely populated second choice for Oscar weekend partyers proved overblown as well. Although some attendees rushed from or to agency parties -- a William Morris Endeavor Entertainment fete at Ari Emanuel's house and a party thrown by CAA's Bryan Lourd -- the event still felt packed with industry insiders and stars. Of the major nominees, the Coen brothers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt were among the few that didn't show. (Jeff Bridges, Carey Mulligan, Woody Harrelson and Mariah Carey were among those who did.)

The Spirits, run by the nonprofit Film Independent (you can read the full list of winners here) also threw in some of its typically enjoyable ironic touches -- i.e., having David Spade present the best foreign award. And in a moment that was funny until it was awkward, Ben Stiller, an actor known for studio comedies more than any boutique film (his upcoming "Greenberg" excepted), presented the top award of best feature.

Stiller poked fun at his own lack of indie-ness by noting the "350 big-budget movies" he's done over the last five years. But he probably stepped on the wrong side of I-can-say-things-about-my-family-that-you-can't when he said he couldn't name the core values of Film Independent even if they paid him, quipping that his last indie movie came in the '90's "when there still was an independent film industry." A few surprised oohs in an otherwise quiet room told you all you needed to know about where the joke landed. (Also, a bit that had supposed porn stars simulating sex acts onstage as Stiller presented the night's top award also went about two beats beyond good humor, a fact realized by Stiller as he tried, unsuccessfully, to stop it midstream.)

Other traditions were also upheld. The awards felt a little long and, at times, slack, feeling even longer if you were in the back of the cavernous L.A. Live room, as many of us ink-stained wretches were. And the man charged with running point on the evening's festivities, host Eddie Izzard, was only intermittently successful. The British performer's motormouth style of sardonic comedy had its moments (see under: an "orgy room sponsored by Acura"). But, like past hosts, he sometimes came off as less funny than he seemed to think he was -- not to mention a little too shock-for-shock-values-sake (see under: a recurring bit about God not existing), especially for an event that remains, despite all its welcome informality, a conventional awards-and-acceptance-speech affair.

The acting acceptance speeches brought a typical gem or two, including one from best supporting male Woody Harrelson. "I don't know how you distinguish one performance from another. It's never felt right to me," he said. "Of course now it feels a little more right."

The awards themselves also followed a recent pattern of honoring the films that usually make, but don't register high on, Oscar's radar, as "Precious" won five honors, two for acting, one for screenwriting and the top prizes of best feature and best director for Lee Daniels. "An Education," meanwhile, received a major accolade that it probably won't get on Sunday, as it took home a best foreign film prize. And the Spirits honored a far more traditional choice for best first feature with "Crazy Heart," instead of the unconventional nominee "Paranormal Activity."

(It was also nice to see "(500) Days of Summer" writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, who won for best screenplay, get their due after an Oscar nomination snub; ditto for best documentary "Anvil").

Still, it was hard not to register the absence of the "The Hurt Locker." A Jeremy Renner awards presentation and the film's appearance in a montage sequence somehow only shone more attention on the film's ineligibility.

The show, as it can, also brought the heartwarming, this time via a nice moment of standing ovation for Roger Ebert (he and wife Chaz sponsored the Truer Than Fiction documentary prize). And the Spirits kept up its reputation for a little feather-ruffling, mostly of the good kind, with Daniels acceptance speech. In it, the brash filmmaker referenced the Oscar heavyweight that wasn't present, allowing "Precious" to step into the breach. "Kathryn Bigelow's not here tonight," he began, then paused. But "I am."

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Best lead female Gabourey Sidibe, left, and best supporting female Mo'Nique. Credit: Getty Images