SANTA MONICA, California — "Anything goes" at the Independent Spirit Awards, joked best actor nominee Aaron Eckhart.
Standing on the ceremony's traditional "blue carpet," where some of Hollywood's biggest celebs stood shoulder to shoulder with anonymous auteurs, it became increasing hard to refute Eckhart's point.
Some 20 feet from a row of Port-O-Potties and a stone's throw from the Pacific Ocean, the Independent Spirit Awards felt more like "a family beach party," Best Female Lead winner Shareeka Epps insisted, than an important Oscar precursor and a celebration of independent cinema.
"Everybody's just chilled out, by the beach. I mean, how uptight can you be if you can see the water?" Channing Tatum added with a laugh. "If I could have shown up here in my skivvies, I would have — some socks and a tank top."
Tatum, up for an award as Best Supporting Male, probably could have gotten away with it. Nowhere was the relaxed atmosphere more evident than in nominees' apparel, which ranged from T-shirts and jeans to ... well, open-collar button-downs and jeans. It was a style that Zach Braff called "California casual," — a far cry from your uncle's Oscars.
"It's different," punk legend Henry Rollins asserted. "The pretension level of the whole thing seems to be a lot lower. Less entourages, less limos, [more] people driving themselves to the event."
Walking down Barnard Way after the ceremony seemed to prove Rollins right, as actors like Matt Dillon bustled their way past shirtless beachgoers, towels draped over their shoulders. Prior to the ceremony, one beach jogger stopped, sweaty with exhaustion, to watch James Bond himself, Daniel Craig, arrive on the blue carpet.
"It's cool, it's young, it's lively. People can speak up and do their thing," Eckhart professed. "The old guard and the new guard, the fresh and the young. It's like a skate park, it's like BMX."
An awards show like a skate park? It was an atmosphere of opposites that seemed to belong, well, in a wacky independent film.
"It's weird, it's great," exclaimed Minnie Driver, who performed a musical tribute to "Pan's Labyrinth" at the event. "It's off the cuff and off the wall."
That off-the-wall environment inspired a communal spirit in which nominees were less concerned about winning than about hugging, kissing and laughing with one another as they made their way to the ceremony.
"That's the thing that I like about this event: I really like seeing people that have inspired me," Giovanni Ribisi said. "It's the industry coming together and being able to shake hands and [do] whatever."
The ceremony itself was a ribald affair, with host Sarah Silverman her usual off-color self and presenter Dennis Hopper giving an Award for Special Distinction to frequent collaborators Laura Dern and David Lynch. Hopper joked that: "In every David Lynch film there's a central mystery, which is, 'What the f--- was that about?' "
Shielded from the bright, crisp afternoon by an enormous tent, voters still found a way to let the sunshine in — the story of a dysfunctional family's trek across the Southwest, "Little Miss Sunshine," won four awards, including Best Feature, Best Director (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris), Best First Screenplay (Michael Arndt) and Best Supporting Male (Alan Arkin).
"This is our home, the Independent Spirit Awards," Dayton said.
The other big winner at the event was "Half Nelson," with Ryan Gosling picking up the trophy for both Best Male Lead and the Best Female Lead honor going to relative unknown Shareeka Epps.
So just how unknown was Epps? Prior to her win, presenter Felicity Huffman mispronounced her name ... twice.
"My name is pronounced Sha-reek-a, by the way," the excited 17-year-old announced upon grabbing her award.
Films like "Little Miss Sunshine" and "Half Nelson" embodied the relentless enthusiasm of the awards, previous winner Matt Dillon pronounced.
"The filmmakers really struggled to get their films made," he declared. "There's a lot of passion in this room, people who made their films with so much passion — not to mention credit cards or wherever else they could get that money."
A crossover hit, "Little Miss Sunshine" is also nominated for four Oscars (see " 'Dreamgirls' Leads Oscar Noms — Without Best Picture Or Beyonce"), which led Ribisi to question whether there was still any "distinction" between the two ceremonies. And, beyond the obvious — financial backing from non-Hollywood sources — what makes something independent anyway?
"I think Independent Spirit just means you're passionate about what it is you're doing," Faris contended. "You're not compromising, not willing to give into the business of films."
And when you're not willing to do that, in films as in the Independent Spirit Awards themselves, well, "Anything goes."
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