Sure, it’s a really big deal now. The Palm Springs International Film Festival, about to enter its 28th year, is commonly acknowledged to be the first stop on the Oscar train. Out of 44 festival honorees in the last four years, 40 have been nominated for an Academy Award.
“You can’t do much better than that,” says festival chairman Harold Matzner. “That’s why everybody wants to be here.” It seems everyone has, from George Clooney to Helen Mirren, from Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence to the (former) Brangelina. More than 130,000 regular folks come out to see the films. And as marketer extraordinaire, Matzner notes the Awards Gala inspires more than 5 billion media moments throughout the world.
But it’s been a long road to acclaim, with plenty of potholes along the way.
In 1989, when the festival started as a gleam in then-Mayor Sonny Bono’s eye, he was looking for a way to revive the post-Christmas season and bring back some of the Hollywood glamour that once dazzled the city. “At that time, everybody thought it was the stupidest idea they’d ever heard,” says board vice chairman David Baron, who once was a neighbor of the Bonos. “I did not. I love little film festivals, so I thought it was a great idea. I had no idea it would grow into what it is today.”
The Palm Springs International Film Festival premiered in 1990 as a casual, small-town affair. No star-studded galas or A-listers back then. But it did draw 17,500 attendees, “which was still way beyond Sonny’s wildest dreams,” says longtime festival Executive Director Darryl Macdonald. “In those early years, Sonny and Mary Bono used to throw a chairman’s party every year at their house for the filmmakers and press attending the festival. The high point of each year’s party would be when Sonny got up and performed ‘I Got You Babe.’ It never failed to get the guests giddy with joy and disbelief.”
The festival legitimized its middle word ‘International’ by screening as many Academy Award foreign film entries as it could get its hands on. It was a savvy move by the festival, giving it credibility as a destination for serious film lovers. “There were no theaters showing foreign films or what you’d call art house films anywhere in the Coachella Valley at this time,” says Macdonald. The first year, Cinema Paradiso took the crowd by storm. “It won the film’s inaugural most popular film award and went on to win the Oscar that year for best foreign film.”
PHOTO COURTESY OF PALM SPRINGS LIFE ARCHIVES
Mary and Sonny Bono beaming their own bit of star power.
PHOTOS BY SHERRI BREYER
CLOCKWISE: Sean Connery helped to put the festival on the map…while getting in a few rounds. The inimitable Palm Springs Life social editor Gloria Greer gives Brad Pitt a proper grillling. Liam Neeson looks shocked his photo was Taken.
But in other areas, the festival didn’t seem likely to succeed. Current Palm Springs Life Editor-in-Chief Kent Black was a freelance writer when the Los Angeles Times assigned him to cover the nascent festival. “I’m pretty sure my main qualification was that I had a free place to stay,” Black says. “What I remember most of all was that it had a pervasive feel of small-town boosterism, as if Christopher Guest made a mockumentary about a film festival in Pocatello. I saw quite a few films that were less indies than graduate student projects. There was one starring Heather Graham. I recall that it was mostly silent and mostly nude. At the end, she kills herself … luckily, just moments before most of the audience beat her to it.”
Another example of the on-the-fly nature of things, according to Black: “One day I’m driving up South Palm Canyon and there is this 6-foot-2 Manitoba cowgirl in boots, short shorts, and cowboy hat, hitchhiking. I pick her up and ask where she’s going. ‘The film festival,’ she says. ‘My film is premiering, but I don’t have any money for a cab.’ ”
He wrote two stories about the festival. “They weren’t negative, but I never thought it would survive. I admit I was wrong. The visionaries who were there at the beginning and have worked hard over the years to make it important have my respect. Mary Bono probably still hasn’t forgiven me. She called my editor at the Times, Kelly Scott, and gave her an earful about my coverage. I skipped the next few years, but when I returned in 2002 it had matured amazingly.”
The gala began slowly, honoring one great “old Hollywood” star rather than the current bevy of celebrities — partly to celebrate such stars, and partly because they could be counted on to show up. In the third year, Jimmy Stewart received the festival’s Lifetime Achievement award.
“A few of us had visited him at his family home in Los Angeles in the weeks before the event to discuss details of the upcoming ceremony,” says Macdonald.
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Jimmy Stewart, Frank Sinatra, and Robert Wagner, 1993.
“He could not have been more hospitable, just a regular nice guy. He accompanied us to the front door, stepping out onto the porch with us just as a tourist bus pulled up in front of the house with flashbulbs popping from the windows. I turned to Stewart, saying, ‘You must hate this kind of thing.’ On the contrary, he started waving at the bus, as he said to me with a smile on his face, ‘Oh no; I figure if they’re kind enough to go out of their way to see me, the least I can do is greet them with a wave in return.’ What a prince! If I’ve learned anything over the years working with festivals and movie folks, it’s that in general, the bigger they are, the nicer and less demanding they are. Of course there have been exceptions, but I’m saving those stories for my book.”
Matzner hosted the gala that year, and he decided to surprise Stewart with a huge ice sculpture of Harvey, his imaginary costar in the film of the same name. “It was really a challenge, because Harvey was an invisible rabbit,” Matzner recalls. “I knew I had seen a picture of Harvey, but we went through that film five times and we couldn’t find him. Then finally someone found Harvey as a reflection in a mirror. When Jimmy walked in here with his wife, he walked over to this rabbit, and put his arms around it, and posed for a picture with it without ever being asked. He had tears in his eyes. It was wonderful that he was that way. He was the only man I’ve ever met who was really emotional about an invisible rabbit.”
The next year, Macdonald arranged to pick up honoree Marcello Mastroianni (Distinguished International Filmmaker Award) from the airport in a limo, “which he was not at all happy about. For his trip back to LAX he asked me to make sure that we just transported him in a ‘normal car.’ This was not a man who thought of himself as a ‘star,’ nor wanted to be treated like one; he just wanted to be treated like a normal human being.”
PHOTOS BY SHERRI BREYER
CLOCKWISE: Jake Gyllenhaal was the hit of the 2006 gala for spontaneously breaking into song onstage; Clint Eastwood with Morgan Freeman on the red carpet; recent Palm Springs homeowner Leonardo DiCaprio; and Diane Lane presented her Unfaithful costar Richard Gere with the Chairman’s Award in 2013.
Sometimes they were treated too normally. “I’ll never forget the third festival, when Strictly Ballroom premiered at the event,” Macdonald says. “By the second screening, the lines stretched for what seemed like blocks in front of the Annenberg Auditorium at the art museum. John Sayles, whose film Passion Fish was premiering at the festival that same year, was being escorted past the line to enter the theater, when he was whacked over the head with an umbrella by an elderly woman who was waiting to get in. ‘You’re not getting in there until I get in there!’ she growled, mistaking him for a line-jumper. He was more shocked and amused than anything else.”
Everyone agrees that the turn of the century was a turning point for the festival. It had fallen on hard times financially and was in danger of collapse. That’s when Matzner came in, donating $250,000 to save it, according to Baron. Matzner doesn’t remember the exact amount, but estimates that over the years he’s donated $9 to 10 million.
PHOTO BY SHERRI BREYER
Tony Mendez with Harold Matzner in 2009.
2000 was the infamous year that the executive director, Craig Prater, left the festival abruptly … six weeks before opening night. Before departing, he told the honorees’ representatives there would not be a gala. “So they did not plan for their honorees to come,” says Matzner. The only star to show up was Sean Connery.
“We were devastated, because this was embarrassing,” Baron says. “We asked Sean, ‘Can you help us out?’ Because we had celebrities doing this appearance, that interview. He said, ‘Hey, get me onto some golf courses and I’ll do anything you want.’ So we got him onto some nice golf courses, and he saved us — he made every appearance, he did every interview, and he established us. He was a super guy and I’ll never forget him for doing that.” Matzner adds that they also blanketed his hotel bed with presents before he arrived, so that might have helped sweeten the pot.
Until that year, festival organizers could never count on a celebrity showing up as promised. Connery broke the honoree curse, says Matzner: “From that day on, every single honoree has shown up.” Jeff Bridges came with pneumonia. Bradley Cooper flew in on the same day from Croatia, via London, San Francisco, and a charter plane to Palm Springs, in time to get on the red carpet — on his birthday, no less. The next year he pulled off the same trick from France. The gala crowd sang “Happy Birthday” to him, to his delight.
“Two years ago, for The Imitation Game, Benedict Cumberbatch did a slow-motion run across the stage to the music of Chariots of Fire,” says longtime gala hostess and Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart. “It got a great laugh. And then last year, Cate Blanchett was [accepting the Desert Palm Achievement Award from] Saoirse Ronan and they did a slow-motion run to each other on the stage in their gowns. It just shows how comfortable people are.” (Last year Ronan received the International Star Award.)
And of course, no one will forget the year Mariah Carey almost took a tumble onstage as she walked to accept her award for Breakthrough Actress. Luckily, she was saved by director Lee Daniels. “She was ripped!” says Baron, who thought it was hilarious. “We all held our breath and laughed at the same time,” says Hart. “That was really a hoot. When I saw her on the red carpet the week after that at the Golden Globe Awards, she laughed at herself. She said, ‘Boy I really had fun last week; I didn’t mean to have that much fun.’ She was very cute about it.”
PHOTO BY SHERRI BREYER
William H. Macy gives his wife, Felicity Huffman, a squeeze for good luck.
Matzner didn’t think it was so funny. The consequences might have serious for the festival. “I’ll never forget the president of Cartier saying to me, ‘If she had actually hit the stage, that might have been the end of our sponsorship. It’s not good for our brand, and it’s not good for your brand.’ He’s right, and we’ve been very careful since.”
They all have tales about bad apples. There was the actor who required his hotel room number end in 12, the actress who demanded only yellow M&M’s, and one gala guest who insisted on a two-pound chicken. “They wanted it big enough so they could have sandwiches made to take with them after the event,” Matzner says.
There are the stars who never forget the bottom line. Richard DeSantis, the gala event producer, recalls that “when Clint Eastwood got his [Career Achievement] Award, I had the orchestra play him on with theme music of the movie [Grand Torino], which he had composed. When he came off the stage he looked at one of my stage managers and me and said, ‘You owe me a $500 royalty for using my music,’ then smiled and walked over to get his picture taken.”
Dozens of film luminaries, Macdonald notes, “are humble and incredibly generous with moviegoers and festival staff alike.” More prominent are the memories of guests like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who greeted fans with such warmth, signing autographs and posing for selfies with fans in front of the convention center prior to the 2012 gala. Or Jessica Chastain, dancing up a storm with anyone who asked at the after party for the same year’s event. Or Jake Gyllenhaal emerging onstage at the 2006 gala singing “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” in falsetto. Or Shirley MacLaine onstage at that same year’s gala, drily inviting Charlize Theron and Kathy Bates back to her room after the show for some fun, saying, “Everyone else in this town is doing it, why don’t we give it a try?”
I got you babe, indeed. Says Hart: “Man, Sonny must have been smiling in heaven all these years.”
PHOTOS BY SHERRI BREYER
The latest crop of actors to grace the red carpet include (top row, from left): Bryan Cranston, Naomi Watts, and George Clooney. Second row: Bradley Cooper, Helen Hunt, and Ben Affleck. Bottom row: Charlize Theron and Helen Mirren.