PALM SPRINGS - A wall-to-wall serenade isn't a bad way to kick off awards season.
That's the reception Bradley Cooper received on Saturday night at the Palm Springs International Film Festival Gala, alongside Oscar hopefuls Sally Field, Helen Hunt, Naomi Watts, Richard Gere and Helen Mirren, who were all lauded for their work in this season's most critically acclaimed films.
The Silver Linings Playbook star turned 38 in front of the large crowd, which sang Happy Birthday to Cooper after director David O. Russell presented him with the Desert Palm achievement award.
"Hearing his speech was the ultimate birthday present, I have to say," said a friendly Cooper backstage shortly after, while checking out his award. "It just reminded me of the trust he put in me to tell the story. And how deeply personal it was for him."
Earlier, on a red carpet backed by towering palm trees and snowcapped mountains, Eddie Redmayne was similarly plotting to "muster up a few stray Brits" to ring in his 31st birthday the next day with his Les Miserables director Tom Hooper. "In fact, I think Hugh Jackman gave Amanda Seyfried a lapdance last year (for her birthday), so tomorrow's a big day," he said with a grin.
There was a festive vibe at the Mary Hart-hosted black tie-affair, which kicks off a crush of events this week, including the Critics' Choice awards, Oscar nominations and Sunday's Golden Globes ceremony.
"Palm Springs is sort of the beginning (of Oscar season), it's true," said Mirren in a Hitchcock-red Escada gown, there to be honored with the gala's international star award. (On stage, Mirren asked attendees to take in more subtitled films. "It's not so difficult," she urged.)
"I've come here my whole life," said Helen Hunt, who picked up a Spotlight award from her Sessions co-star John Hawkes. "I've burned my skin here. I've left a few brain cells here. I've come here to be happy and sad. I love it."
Naomi Watts, like Cooper, was awarded a Desert Palm achievement award for her work in The Impossible, a film she says changed her life. Refreshed from the holidays, Watts admitted her looming schedule was intimidating. "I've got five nights (of events) in a row, I'm like, ahh!" she said on the red carpet. "I haven't done that in so many years, even when I was a teenager."
Inside, a newly bearded Ben Affleck took the stage with Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston when the Argo cast was honored with a best-ensemble award. "Alan wanted to try singing live, but we said no," cracked Affleck from stage.
Earlier, Affleck said he embraced the season's hobnobbing. "For me, these events are especially exciting because I don't hang around with a bunch of different movie stars and directors and actors in L.A. So it's really special for me to get to talk to Helen Hunt, or Helen Mirren. Anyone named Helen, really," he joked.
Stars also got serious throughout the night.
With just a day's notice, Martin Sheen arrived in Palm Springs to present his longtime friend Sally Field with a lifetime achievement award. "She's an extraordinary woman," he said on the red carpet. "In a very critical time in my life when I was slipping away she kind of grabbed me and brought me back a little bit." Today, his money's on Field for an Oscar for Lincoln. "I already voted for her," he said.
Field earned the only standing ovation of the night when she accepted her Chihuly-designed glass award. "Easy is overrated," she told the crowd.
It was a message echoed by many. Ang Lee, there to honor his composer Mychael Danna, said onstage he cried uncontrollably at the end of a four-year journey creating Life of Pi. Tom Hooper, who was given the Sonny Bono Visionary award, said the thought of losing his own father drove him to take on the story of Les Miserables and Jean Valjean.
And David O. Russell spoke openly onstage of why he fought for five years to make Silver Linings Playbook: His son, 18, suffers from bipolar disorder. "I thought it would make my son ... feel more a part of the world," shared the director.
"The fact that it's universally connecting with people is a reflection of what his intention was every day on set," added Cooper backstage. "It was so wonderful that that has been confirmed. That was the biggest gift I got from this movie."
For some, the gala marked a homecoming after years out of the spotlight.
Richard Gere's reaction to his career montage (which featured many a makeout scene)? "I was really skinny then," the Arbitrage star laughed onstage, after pal Diane Lane presented him with the Chairman's award for his film work and humanitarian efforts. "It's really kind of amazing. You never imagine watching your life like this last clip that was up here, watching yourself grow up."
On the red carpet, Gere spoke of the "strange alchemy" that drives him to choose his projects sparingly. "You know, I don't have to do this anymore. Arbitrage came along kind of out of nowhere. And it was such a good script. And (it) seemed to speak to the times. It was an easy choice."
After spending eight years focusing on digital animation, Robert Z
emeckis was honored with a best-director prize for his work on Flight. "For me, making a digital movie is the same as making a live-action movie," Zemeckis said on the red carpet. "But it's perceived to be different, so I'm glad that people still accepted my live-action work."
Backstage, Tom Hanks and Zemeckis threw an arm around each other. "While you were up there talking, I just missed working with you so much," Zemeckis told his Forrest Gump and Cast Away star, who presented to him.
New projects abounded for this crop. "It's sort of a crazy month, isn't it?" said Mirren, who is flying to London on Monday following the Globes to begin work on The Audience, her new play about Queen Elizabeth II.
Mirren was still glowing after receiving her star on the Walk of Fame last week. "It was fantastic," she raved. "When I was young I thought Hollywood was just so far out of reach, it was really up in the galaxy." Plus, she's got hot real estate. Her star's neighbors are Colin Firth and Sylvester Stallone. "So I'm surrounded by hunky, fabulous men," she winked.
Bryan Cranston, who smartly packed a fedora to block the desert chill, said he has big plans to direct a feature this year. "There's two things that I want to do after Breaking Bad ends in March," he said. "I want to shoot (my) movie and then I want to do a play. And that'll be the end of my 2013."
But before those new projects, there's "fittings and second fittings" for glam Globes nominees like Naomi Watts, who hasn't chosen a dress for the big day yet. "I've got things simmering but I haven't made a decision. I wonder if anyone has."Sheen was readying to enter Spider-Man 2's web next month, and Affleck talked about going back in front of the camera for Terrence Malick's upcoming film, To the Wonder. "I really wanted to watch how he shot movies," said Affleck. "His movies are unbelievably beautiful." Plus, "I wanted to be able to rip it off, if I had the opportunity," he joked.
Hardly. "Not yet," said Mirren. "We're working on it," said Field.
Affleck has different hurdles. With two girls and a baby boy at home with his wife, Jennifer Garner, he shared his simple strategy for the weeks to come. "I have a good wife, she's down there with our kids. I'll scoot in and come back tonight. It means that you curtail some of the late-night excitement, but that's OK. I'm happy to be where I am."