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Jessica Chastain at Palm Springs Film Festival Opening Gala: ‘Major Change Is Coming’

Variety logo Variety 2018-01-03 Malina Saval
© Provided by Variety

“Emotion has become the new punk.”

Those prophetic and poetic words, spoken by Guillermo del Toro, resonated loudly with the Hollywood heavyweights and cinema aficionados gathered inside the Palm Springs Convention Center Tuesday eve for the 29th annual Palm Springs Film Festival opening night gala, considered a plum stop on the Oscar season trail.

The Shape of Water” director, who along with Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Doug Jones, Alexandre Desplat and J. Miles Dale, were recipients of the gala’s Vanguard Award celebrating the fantastical, ethereal drama, spoke candidly and eloquently about the confounding and anxiety-inducing state of political affairs in the world.

“Art works at its best when it’s closest to failure,” he told the crowd of “Water,” a film that struggled to gain traction in the studio system and that for a long time nobody wanted to make. “There was no reason for this movie to work at all except for faith and love.”

“I wonder everyday what is going to become of us,” he went on to say. “And this is where film and fairy tales can help restore some of the faith we have lost.”

Jessica Chastain, recipient of the Chairman’s Award for her starring role in Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut “Molly’s Game,” also waxed philosophical about the societal sturm und drang that seems to have taken hold of the world.

“I want to acknowledge what a difficult year 2017 has been for all of us,” said Chastain, who applauded the need for continued diversity in the film industry. “Major change is coming. Change is good. Change is needed. Through a joint effort we will make things better. We must be better. And we will.”

While the news has been saturated with stories of sexual assault and harassment, Chastain made a pointing of sending “some well-deserved love to some of the good guys,” listing such iconic filmmakers and actors as Christopher Nolan, Terrence Malick, Al Pacino and John Madden and the late producer-director Dan Ireland, who passed away in 2016.

Other Awards Gala honorees were Allison Janney, who won the Spotlight Award, Actress for her role in “I, Tonya,”; “Wonder Woman” star Gal Gadot (Rising Star Award, Actress), who told her husband that she loved him in Hebrew during her thank you speech (Ani ohevet otcha); “Darkest Hour” star Gary Oldman (Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actor); “The Big Sick” lead Holly Hunter (Career Achievement Award); Mary J. Blige, feted with the Breakthrough Performance Award for her supporting role in “Mudbound”; Sam Rockwell, honored with the Spotlight Award, Actor for his performance in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”; “Lady Bird” lead Saoirse Ronan (Desert Palm Achievement Award, Actress); “The Florida Project’s” Willem Dafoe (Icon Award); and “Call Me By Your Name” star Timothée Chalamet, who took home the Rising Star Award, Actor.

“Who wouldn’t fall in love with Timothée Chalamet?” asked award presenter Armie Hammer, Chalamet’s co-star in Luca Guadagnino’s coming-of-age drama, considered an Oscar frontrunner in the best picture category. “I was made better by his presence and his passion.”

In turn, Chalamet playfully thanked Hammer’s wife, Elizabeth Chambers, “who let me crawl all over your husband for two months.” He also gave a good-natured shout out to Gadot and the superhero juggernaut that’s planted her firmly on the pop cultural map: “You’re film literally made 250 million times more money than mine did.”

Other highlights of the night included Kumail Ninjiani’s witty Holly Hunter introduction — “what’s ironic is that this is my highest career achievement, presenting Holly Hunter with this career achievement award” — and Hunter’s recollections of her experience starring opposite William Hurt in “Broadcast News,” the 1987 film for which she was nominated for best lead actress.

“I know you’re scared and you’re probably going to be scared for the rest of your career,” she remembers Hurt saying to her. “[He then told me] ‘It won’t always be this bad. Accept it. You will probably never lose your fear.’ And that was the moment I fell in love with Bill.”

Blige spoke about “the power of the human spirit,” and admitted that she “didn’t realize how vain [she] was until [she] had to play a character like Florence” in “Mudbound,” a searing look at race relations in the South during World War II.

“I had to leave a lot of Mary J. Blige behind,” she said. “I had to leave behind a lot of fake lashes and a lot of nails.”

Dafoe, who stars as a cranky but compassionate motel manager in Sean Baker’s “The Florida Project,” a film that explores the heartbreaking effects of poverty on children living in a welfare motel outside Disney World, poked fun at the gala’s run time.

“It’s been a nice evening — long but nice,” said the actor, who went on to call his latest film “funny, emotional and human. If you haven’t seen it yet, please go see it.”

Sorkin, who presented Chastain with her award, helped end the evening on a humorous note, self-consciously pointing out his business-professional attire, which stood out in a sea of tuxedos.

“I meant no disrespect,” he joked of his suit and tie. “I was told it’s black tie optional. Apparently, I’m the only person in the entire building who took that instruction. It’s a confusing instruction. Every day is black tie optional.”

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