The 15th annual Independent Spirit Awards showed a bit of their original irreverence and edge Saturday with an eclectic group of winners--including a movie about John Malkovich's brain and actors who played a nerdy high school goody-goody and her pathetic teacher, a girl who lives as a boy and an old man who rides across state lines on his lawn mower.
Nearly 300 attended the ceremony put on by the Independent Spirit Project West, a nonprofit organization that helps nurture independent filmmakers.
Independent films have been so successful over the past decade, however, that the line between them and studio movies has grown increasingly fuzzy. The trend has caused many independent filmmakers to complain that "indies" are losing the voice that made them unique and separated them from the mainstream.
"Election," Alexander Payne's quirky film about an overzealous, goody-two-shoes student at a Midwestern high school, swept three top awards, winning best film, director and screenplay. Payne, who began his career with "Citizen Ruth," a satire on the abortion debate, was stunned to beat out some of the other top-notch directors in the category.
"Thank you, but hey, I am not a better director than Steven Soderbergh or David Lynch," said Payne, referring to the directors of "The Limey" and "The Straight Story," respectively.
Hilary Swank and Chloe Sevigny won for their work in Fox Searchlight's edgy "Boys Don't Cry," for best female and supporting female performances, respectively. The two are nominated for Oscars too.
An emotional high note came when 80-year-old Richard Farnsworth won best actor for his moving portrayal of an elderly man who rides his lawn mower in a cross-state odyssey to visit his estranged brother.
"Maybe now some of the older guys will get a shot at work," said Farnsworth, wearing a cowboy hat and gazing down in disbelief as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
One of the ceremony's most entertaining moments came when the producers of the bizarre but critically acclaimed film "Being John Malkovich" won for best first feature that cost more than $500,000 to make.
One of its four producers read a brief but stinging rejection letter received from a major studio.
"Malkovich" went on to become a sleeper hit across America. The film's writer, Charlie Kaufman, has been nominated for an Oscar and won a Spirit Award for best first screenplay.
" 'It probably would be held up as an inspired piece of work on the planet it was written on,' " said producer Sandy Stern, reading from the letter with a big smile. " 'Without going into too much detail, I can honestly admit that I didn't get it and doubt that anyone else would. It might appeal to audiences of no more than 20 at a time. Writer, pass; script, pass.' "
Indeed, the major studios took more than one hit Saturday. A chilly silence followed director Payne's defense of the studio system. (Paramount released his "Election.")
"It's unfortunate we have this perceived cleft between studios and independent film," he said.
His writing partner Jim Taylor, also on stage, quipped: "I feel like we are deflecting bullets here."
Some of the surprise winners included the German film "Run Lola Run," which beat out Pedro Almodovar's hit "All About My Mother" for best foreign film.
Steve Zahn was named best supporting actor for his role as a pathetic loser in "Happy, Texas." Kimberly J. Brown won best debut performance for her touching role as a daughter trying to cope with her wild mother in "Tumbleweeds."
Artisan Entertainment's "Blair Witch Project," a hit at the box office, got the prize for best first feature made for less than $500,000.
The documentary award went to Owsley Brown for "Night Waltz: The Music of Paul Bowles." Lisa Rinzler won best cinematography for "Three Seasons," and Cauleen Smith, director of "Drylongso", won the Movado Someone to Watch Award, given to young filmmakers with potential.