Pete Hammond

Final Oscar nomination ballots are due Friday and the season is igniting with contenders rolling from one event to the next — no voter left unturned. Capping a furious week of campaigning and leading into another one, the Palm Springs International Film Festival staged their annual awards gala Saturday night at the cavernous Palm Springs Convention Center and drew a starry group of contenders who tried out their speeches on a ritzy crowd who obviously lives for this show each year. That it falls right in the middle of Oscar voting is totally by design and the reason the fest can draw its A-list of talent that included photog magnets George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Michelle Williams and Charlize Theron, among others. When Pitt and supportive significant other Angelina Jolie came to the Sony table in the middle of the room, there was a tidal wave of locals with iPhones who descended on them, snapping away and pushing me, among others aside. (I actually ran smack into Jolie, who told me “this is wild. I’m not sure what to make of it. I think I need a glass of wine just to soak it all in.”) I guess the crowd figured they were entitled to become paparazzi for a night since many of them paid $1500 to be there; the event raised $1.6 million for the fest according to chair Harold Matzner, who claims the event is second in glamour only to the Golden Globes. Pitt managed to brave the face-lifted Palm Springs throng while walking with a cane, this after he tripped a few days earlier on a ski trip with one of his kids.

Of course there are many more of those to come, and members of the Palm Springs group of awardees and others will be in accepting or presenting mode all week long at events including the New York Film Critics, National Board of Review and LA Film Critics banquets, the annual AFI lunch, the Critics Choice Movie Awards, and finally the Golden Globes. With parties planned this week for DreamWorks Animation’s Puss In Boots, The Weinstein Co and Paramount to name three, this period leading to the CCMAs and Golden Globes is now officially the busiest of the whole season, especially since new Academy rules that allow all this stuff pre-noms also put the kibosh on most of it post-noms. The town is gonna have to dry out anyway. How much can you take, Hollywood?

Just look at the schedules some of these Oscar contenders are put through. No sooner did they get back to their hotels with their Palm Springs trophies did the Weinstein Co have the cast and crew of The Artist and My Week With Marilyn back on the post-holiday Q&A circuit they started last week — with one or two nearly every night. Last week, Clooney was also back on the circuit participating in Q&As for The Descendants on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday afternoon. He should be a politician; he knows how to charm a crowd, and afterwards he stays and takes photos with just about anyone who sticks a camera in his face. Pitt has done a couple of Q&As as well but on Thursday night got to gladhand lots of invited Academy members at a Beverly Hills Hotel party Sony threw to celebrate Moneyball. Jolie was there for a while, too, but had to leave to do her own Q&A (which I moderated) for Academy members after a screening of her writing and directing debut In The Land Of Blood And Honey. She drew a standing ovation, with some questioners in the audience becoming highly emotional. She stayed for over an hour afterwards talking with crowdmembers. And Gary Oldman seems to be doing a different Q&A each night too in order to boost his best actor chances for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. On Friday he did one deep in Malibu to reach those seaside voters, another today in Palm Springs, and he has more lined up next week including one for his own career film festival at the Arclight.

It wasn’t just stars hitting the Q&A circuit during the week. There were several below-the-line events for cinematographers, production designers, editors, composers, etc. That included a Tuesday War Horse session at the DGA; a Wednesday night panel for The Help; and a Thursday reception and pre-screening Q&A for Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close with director Stephen Daldry (also in Palm Springs this weekend accepting the director award), composer Alexander Desplat and others who worked on the film.

Not everyone is taking the Q&A route. SAG nominee and A Better Life star Demian Bichir was feted at a private lunch Wednesday at Spago that drew veteran Academy members like Sidney Poitier, Dyan Cannon, Eva Marie Saint, Mitzi Gaynor, Diane Ladd and Susan Kohner, a 1959 Supporting Actress nominee for Imitation Of Life who also happens to be director Chris Weitz’s mother. Bichir made a charming speech that focused on how he learned to make guacamole. Viola Davis is taking another path, too. She was one of The Help castmembers who signed a thank-you letter (that also included their photos) sent to all 90.000-plus SAG members along with the DVD. For the Broadcast Critics Association, she sent out personal letters, each hand-signed, waxing rhapsodic about moments she has spent with members of the group at junkets and on red carpets. “I am so happy to have a chance to say thank you, thank you, and thank you!” she wrote.

Another tact has been live musical performances. Before she had to run off and do a — you guessed it — Q&A on Friday night, Glenn Close attended a packed Pallihouse party thrown by Roadside Attractions, where she introduced Sinead O’Connor to sing “Lay Your Head Down,” the theme from Albert Nobbs that the actress wrote with composer Brian Byrne. It’s been nominated for a Golden Globe, and many members of the Academy’s music branch were spotted in the room. That certainly doesn’t hurt its chances. Not to be outdone, Saturday night director J.J. Abrams introduced his Super 8 composer Michael Giachhino and orchestra to perform the film’s score under the stars at his Bad Robot offices in front of 150 guests. Then J.J. ran off to do, yes, a Q&A with castmembers.

At the Palm Springs gala, the stars and Hollywood contingent seemed to be a great mood and that also included studio execs like 20th Century Fox’s Jim Gianopulos, who with wife Ann had hosted his own annual Fox awards-season party the night before at his home that drew Clooney among others. The tables at the Palm Springs gala seemed to go on for miles, but all the Hollywood types were bunched in the 800s in the center of the room. I got to sit with presenter Kenneth Branagh and his My Week With Marilyn co-star Williams (lucky me), who received the Actress of the Year statue from him. She was quite touching, not only in acknowledging the debt she owes to never Oscar-nominated Marilyn Monroe but also to her own publicist Mara Buxbaum, who has handled her since she was 18 “through all the ups and downs and now back to an ‘up,’ ” as Williams said in her speech. Buxbaum told me she had no idea the speech was going to even mention her so she was in tears. Of Monroe, Williams said “my only wish is Marilyn could have experienced what I am lucky enough to have experienced tonight. She had a beautiful soul and valiant heart and I accept  this on both of our behalf.”

Among the best speeches was Clooney’s upon receiving the Chairman’s Award at the end of the gala. He spoke for other superstars in saying “you don’t have to do this for us. We love what we do.”  However, according to Oscar-season rules, you do have to do this for them because it keeps the all-important buzz going right when it counts and Oscar consultants live for this stuff. Predictably, Clooney and the Jolie-Pitts were front-page news in the local paper Sunday morning, and that can make an impression on the many mostly older Academy members who live in the desert cities.

Pitt, receiving the Desert Palm Actor Achievement Award, was actually quite funny when he lauded his The Tree Of Life co-star Jessica Chastain by noting she had been in “seven pictures in 2011 and five in 2012. Usually an actor has to work in the porn industry to have that kind of success.” Close got laughs too by channeling her characters of Alex in Fatal Attraction and Cruella DeVil from 100 Dalmatians as she received her latest Career Achievement Award on the path to a hoped-for Best Actress Oscar nom for Albert Nobbs. Oldman said after seeing a highlight reel of past crazies he has played that he might just have to “smoke” his trophy for International Star. Comedian Patton Oswalt was in his element as he got to accept the creative ensemble Vanguard award for co-star Theron, director Jason Reitman and writer Diablo Cody, whom he said were all the “drunkest” recipients of the evening.

But it was The Help’s Octavia Spencer, first winner of the night for Breakthrough Performance, who got the biggest laugh when she listed all her fellow Palm Springs honorees including Clooney and Pitt. “I would be remiss in not recognizing them and reminding you I am single,” she said. Later, The Artist director Michel Hazanavicius, the Sonny Bono Visionary Award winner, said in his speech, “Octavia, I am married.But I am also French.” Berenice Bejo, who presented that award with her Artist co-star Jean Dujardin, also happens to be Hazanavicius’ wife. She jokingly reminded Spencer that “he is my man.”

If we are adding up Oscar points here Spencer may have scored the most in terms of likeability and skill in acceptance speeches.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.

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