Smell That Indie Spirit

The Academy Awards take note: An award show can be a lot of fun, without spending a lot of money.

At least, that was the feeling at the 16th Annual Independent Spirit Awards this Saturday. The ceremony, hosted by the cult director John Waters, was held under a tent at a Santa Monica beach, and attendees ate a California cuisine lunch out of cardboard boxes. Last year’s winner for best actress, Hilary Swank (Boys Don’t Cry), and her husband Chad Lowe arrived on matching mountain bikes. Designer gowns were decidedly absent.

Well-deserved awards were bestowed on the best in non-studio productions and talent, even as the lines between big studio productions and independent films are becoming increasingly blurred. This was most evident in the number of Spirit Award nominees who are also nominated for Academy Awards.

The night’s top winner was the Taiwanese martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, winning best feature; best director, Ang Lee; and best supporting actress, Zhang Ziyi, who was a surprise winner over favorite Marcia Gay Harden for Pollock.

In his understated fashion, Lee was extremely appreciative, even though he was perplexed about what “independent” represented. “I don’t really know what independent really means,” he said. “I’m very confused. Nobody can really be independent in making movies; we all rely on each other. It is truly a collaborative process.” Asked if he thinks he will win the Oscar, he replied to Reuters, “Why not?” Lee has already won the Golden Globe and the Directors Guild of America award for best director.

The award for best actor went to Spanish actor and Oscar nominee Javier Bardem for his intense portrayal of Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls. Bardem thanked the portly director of his movie, Julian Schnabel, saying that “his heart was as big as his body,” but added that the statuette in his hand was really for “Reinaldo Arenas, who gave his life for freedom.”

Acting great Ellen Burstyn won for her gritty turn as a lonely and drug-addicted mother in Requiem for a Dream. After a standing ovation, the actress made an emotional speech. “I just can’t tell you how much I wanted this,” she said. “Thank you [director] Darren Aronofsky for your genius and for giving me the part of my career. I love my profession. It’s an honor to reflect the spirit of humanity back into what we do.”

Rounding out the list, writer/director Kenneth Lonergan won for best first feature and best original screenplay for his intimate sibling drama You Can Count on Me. Willem Dafoe won best supporting actor for his vampire with a sly sense of humor in Shadow of the Vampire.

First-time actress Michelle Rodriguez, who did not attend, won best debut performance for her portrayal of an angry young boxer in Girlfight. Best first screenplay went to director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood for Love & Basketball, and best feature under $500,000 went to Miguel Arteta‘s Chuck and Buck.

The West Coast branch of the Independent Feature Project, a nonprofit support group for independent filmmakers, put on the Independent Spirit Awards, and a ballot of the group’s 9,000 members nationwide determined the winners.