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Spirit Awards--a Hollywood Maverick Gets Tamed : Movies: Ninth annual award ceremonies for indie films has subdued atmosphere, most winners missing.

March 21, 1994|DAVID J. FOX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They held the Spirit Awards on Saturday for movies produced independent of Hollywood's mainstream film companies. But for the first time in its nine years, the spirit and spunk of the annual alternative to the Academy Awards seemed to be missing.

What had been the maverick of awards shows has been tamed by the demands of the media, security and the sheer size of the crowd--1,200 Saturday at the Hollywood Paladium.

Writer-actor Buck Henry's acerbic commentaries about Hollywood were absent too. Like actor-comedian Billy Crystal of the Oscar show, Henry, the Spirit Awards host for many years, bowed out this year, Robert Townsend stepped in.

Missing too were many of the winners. Director Robert Altman's comic and biting "Short Cuts" was named best independently made American feature film of 1993, and producer Cary Brokaw accepted the award. Director Jane Campion's Gothic romance, "The Piano," picked up the prize for best independent film made in another nation and producer Jan Chapman accepted the award.

Altman and Campion are nominees for best director at tonight's Academy Awards, but on Saturday Altman was in France making his latest film "Pret a Porter" and Campion was in her native New Zealand.

Absent also from Saturday's ceremonies, sponsored by the Independent Features Project West, was best actress winner Ashley Judd for her role in "Ruby in Paradise."

Lili Taylor, who appeared in "Household Saints," and Christopher Lloyd, in "Twenty Bucks," were named as best supporting actress and actor, but neither was present.

A poignant factor that contributed to the subdued atmosphere this year was the recent death of young actor River Phoenix, who won the Spirit Award for best actor in 1992's "My Own Private Idaho." Phoenix was remembered in remarks by director Richard Benjamin.

Still the Spirit Awards is the kind of event where Sean Penn and Sandra Bernhard made presentations. It drew Oscar nominees for best actress, Angela Bassett and Holly Hunter, directors Kenneth Branagh, Oliver Stone and keynote speaker Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot" and best picture Oscar nominee "In the Name of the Father").

And director Jim Jarmusch received the Independent Features Project's John Cassavetes Award from actor John Turturro.

It was an enthusiastic Jeff Bridges who took the stage to claim his best actor award, for his role as an ex-con in the film "American Heart."

"Because it was an independent film, we didn't have to compromise our vision. We made the film that we set out to make," Bridges said. "Another reason this was such a gratifying experience for me was it was a chance to shed some light on a part of our society that doesn't get the light shed on it too often . . . that's the part of us who live below the poverty line."

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Among other winners was the screenplay for "Short Cuts," by Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on the stories by Raymond Carver. That gave "Short Cuts," released by Fine Line Pictures, three awards, making it the only multiple winner in this year's competition.

The cinematography by Lisa Rinzler for "Menace II Society" was a winner too.

Director Robert Rodriguez, whose videotape movie shot for $7,000, "El Mariachi," was picked up for distribution by Columbia Pictures last year, summed up the financial problems common to independent filmmakers, as he accepted the award for best first feature film.

He said when he learned that Columbia wanted to distribute the film just the way it was, rather than re-shoot it, he told executives: "Look, if I had known people were going to see it I would have done so many things differently." Then to much laughter, he added, ". . . just give me $2,000 and I'll re-shoot half of it."

In the end, Rodriguez told the audience: "It really isn't the wallet that makes the movie. It's your creativity, your passion, your hard work."

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