There are many film festivals across the globe that celebrate the best filmmakers and actors from that year’s crop of entrants. Many of these festivals occur in the fall, when the studios begin releasing the films they hope are worthy of accolades. The Palm Springs International Film Festival bucks this trend by taking place every January, when a clearer picture of who may or may not contend for an Oscar can be painted. For the 2013 festival, actress Helen Hunt is being honored, in what many insiders feel is a precursor to her getting another Academy Award nod.
The Palm Springs International Film Festival (PSIFF) honors a group of actors each year who they feel gave the best performance of the year in their particular category. Hunt starred in “The Sessions,” which was released into U.S. theaters by Fox Searchlight Pictures on November 16, 2012. Hunt plays the character of Cheryl, a successful therapist who takes on a patient, Mark (John Hawkes), who has spent most of his life in an iron lung. As he nears 40 years of age, he decides that he does not want to be a virgin any longer, and enlists Cheryl to help him find a sex surrogate so he can experience physical intimacy for the first time.
The PSIFF award is being given to Hunt in the hopes that she can snag an Oscar nomination for her part. She will likely be competing in the Best Supporting Actress category, which is why she is being given the Spotlight Award by the board instead of the Desert Palm Achievement Actress Award, which is given to the best actress in a lead role. Shortly after the press were told of Hunt’s award, it was announced that Naomi Watts was the honoree for the Desert Palm award for her role in “The Impossible,” a dramatization of one family’s struggle during the infamous Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
As soon as the announcement about Hunt’s award came out in November 2012, some naysayers cried foul because they felt that Hunt’s role in “The Sessions” was really a lead role. If that were so, she would be competing for a Best Actress nod like Watts, and may have been the Desert Palm winner instead. There is a precedent, though, for award nominations like Hunt’s, where she played a very large part that some see as the lead. A great example is in 2001, when Catherine Zeta-Jones competed in the Supporting Actress category for “Chicago,” even though her role as Velma Kelly was just as vital as that of Renée Zellweger as Roxie Hart. Zeta-Jones would go on to win the Supporting Actress award, while Zellweger lost in the much more competitive Best Actress category.
Similarly, Jennifer Hudson won for “Dreamgirls” in the Supporting Actress category, even though some felt her part was more suited to the Best Actress category. Either way, it is not up to the Palm Springs International Film Festival to decide who competes in what category. The Academy will decide on their own who gets a nomination, so Hunt and everyone else will have to wait until late January, when the nominees are announced, to see into which category she is ultimately put. Being honored at the PSIFF is a good omen for Hunt, though, because recent female honorees for the Spotlight Award have fared well when it came time for Oscar nominations. Jessica Chastain was honored at PSIFF and later got a nomination for her role in “The Help.” Similarly, Amy Adams was honored and later got an Oscar nomination, although both she and Chastain lost.
The Best Supporting Actress category is fairly wide open, as there is no clear frontrunner other than Hunt for either a nomination or a win. With the extra press that the Spotlight Award will give her, she may just stick in the minds of voters long enough to get the coveted nomination, since they will be released just days after the PSIFF fête.
The PSIFF awards ceremony will be held on January 5, 2013, which is the third day of the festival. It is a black tie affair, with many celebrities making presentations while the international press looks on. The ceremony starts with a cocktail reception, dinner, and then the presentation of awards. Many observers love the ceremony, because on occasion a slightly tipsy celebrity will be much more open than usual during a speech or response to reporters’ questions. The Palm Springs International Film Festival will run all the way through to January 14, with over 200 film screenings scheduled. Helen Hunt will be honored at the festival for her achievements as an actress, screenwriter, director, and producer.