The Spirit Awards Have Been An Industry Leader for What Filmmakers and Inclusivity in Hollywood
This Year, They Have Taken A Major Step Backwards
When I was twenty, I tuned into the IFC network, the TV network once known for recognizing where you could see independent films. (You now mostly see old sitcom reruns and more recent blockbusters, but that’s a conversation for another day.) It was the Saturday before the Oscars, and just I was watching Ally Sheedy was giving an acceptance speech/nervous breakdown for Best Female Performance in High Art. (I’m sure you can find it on You Tube somewhere.) I was curious and watched the rest of what I would learn would be the Spirit Awards.
For the next twenty years, one way or another, I made sure that I found away to watch the Independent Spirit awards for many, many reasons. The most important was, unlike any awards show I’d seen to that point in my career, no one was taking it remotely seriously. Not the presenters, not the hosts, and not even some of the winners. It wasn’t just that many of them were as lubricated as they could get at the Golden Globes, it was that, because this is IFC, no one bleeped them when they cursed. And indeed, if you’ve ever had the pleasure of watching the Spirit awards, the cursing is part of the fun. I well remember Felicity Huffman’s glorious acceptance speech for Transamerica when she described a grips telling her exactly what she thought of the awards future. I remember Andy Samberg opening the 2013 awards by literally using the F-word for every other word. And no one who saw Adam Sandler accept the Best Lead Male Performance for Uncut Gems in 2020 will ever forget his gloriously obscene acceptance speech. Really made you realize how idiotic the Academy was.
The Spirits tend not to take a lot of things seriously, and that can often be seen in the way they do business. For much of the 2000s, they introduced their nominated films with sing-a-longs where they invited the audience to ‘Sing Along With The Spirits’. (Billy Crystal had nothing on the Spirits; he never went where they did for Secretary and Precious.) Sadly the audience never went along with it, and it was discontinued by 2010. Still the presenters were genuinely entertaining all the way through: I’ve never forgotten Jacob Tremblay (who was nominated for Room) presenting an award with Anthony Mackie, and completely pretending that Mackie was actually The Falcon. It was hysterical and adorable at the same time. There have also been moments of great drama: I remember in 2003, just as the Gulf War had been declared Don Cheadle read a powerful statement about the right to express dissenting points of views.
The hosts, I should mention, have always been superb, from John Waters to Sarah Silverman to Aubrey Plaza, none of whom take their job the least bit seriously. I love how Plaza discuss Yorgos Lanthimos nominated for The Favorite likened his name to a Harry Potter spell and said when you say it: “someone gets fingered in a corset.” It’s an endearing and entertaining awards show, and it always over way too fast (they’re usually done in less than 2 and a half hours.)
And of course, there’s the added bonus that most of the films that the Spirits nominated and give the prizes too are fundamentally more interesting than those the Oscars have done so. (The Oscars has tended, in recent years, to mirror the spirits more evenly but honestly that probably says less about the Oscars then it does about the Spirits.) I remember being thrilled when Memento swept the Spirits in 2002. Without the Spirits, I probably wouldn’t have tracked down movies such as Talk to Me, Bernie, The Lighthouse and First Reformed. The Spirits have also recognized fairly early such great talents as Alexander Payne (for Election, he also took prizes for Sideways and The Descendants) Darren Aronofsky (his films have won Best Film three times, for Requiem for A Dream, The Wrestler and Black Swan) and female and African-American directors well before the Academy got there (Sofia Coppola and Lisa Cholodenko have both taken prizes well before Kathryn Bigelow and Lee Daniels and Jordan Peele took Best Picture prize for Precious and Get Out.) I’ve never agreed with all of their choices, but I’ve always found them fundamentally more interesting. When the Spirits decided to begin giving awards for television, I couldn’t have been happier.
Until the Broadcast Critics and Hollywood Critics Association began broadcasting their awards for television in the past decade, the Spirit Awards were my favorite awards show. Which is why I’m so dismayed by their latest approach to this year’s nominations.
Now to be clear, I don’t have a problem with most of the nominated films or performances. I’m glad to see movies like Tar and Everything Everywhere All at Once nominated. I’m glad that Sarah Polley, an actress I literally grew up watching who has moved to directing, is getting an award for her new film Women Talking and I’m overjoyed she’s up for Best Director. I wanted to see Bones and All before the nominations; now I’m absolutely going too. And as someone who has loved their work, I’m glad to see Aubrey Plaza and Brian Tyree Henry up for awards.
No my problem is about how the Spirits has decided to give their acting awards. Instead of separating nominations by gender as they have done up until now, they have decided to give one award for Best Lead Performance and one for Best Supporting Performance. They’ve expanded the nominees to ten in each category, as if that’s supposed to atone for this grievous sin.
When the Emmys discussed stopping the separation of awards by gender last year, I vehemently made my opposition to it. I believe in the strongest possible terms that to do so will ultimately exclude far more than it can possibly include. And while I realize the fundamental issue with the increasing number of people who do not wish to be categorized as one gender or the other, I think trying to this community the barest of sops does not do anything solve the problem. I was annoyed when MTV fundamentally did this for its movie and TV awards the last two years, but this strikes me as somehow worse.
Let’s start with basic math. By arranging these awards this way, you are guaranteeing that more people will go home as losers than other the old system. Sixteen people weren’t going to take home awards no matter what happened before; now eighteen people won’t. Yes, I know I’ve spent years arguing that there should be more nominees in each acting category at the Emmys but this is not what I had in mine.
And looking at, say, the list of lead performances I can see warning signs right of the bat. There are only two male nominees in the entire category. Now I’m all for recognizing more female nominees. But wouldn’t it have made more sense to, say, expand the number of nominees in Best Female Lead then lump all of them in one category. I don’t know how much trolling the Spirits awards gets as a rule, but it’s going to be amplified exponentially in the next few months, and not only by people who thought Brendan Fraser shouldn’t have been snubbed.
Nor is your cause immediately helped by having seven male nominees in the Best Supporting Performance category. This will anger everybody who you haven’t already enraged with your decision to lump all Lead and Supporting Performances into one category: women will be upset because there aren’t enough females in this category, men will be pissed because they’re all being placed in supporting.
And by the way, if this decision was made as a sop to those performers who don’t identify as either gender, well, where are they? Its fine and fitting that you boast on your website about the inclusivity of the people who give out your nominees — considering how far behind every other awards show in the world is, it’s worth a victory lap or two. But none of the performers in either category identify as non-binary. I realize in a sense why you’ve done this considering just how dangerous things are for the LGBTQ+ community these days. But if you did this to recognize the T part of it, it didn’t happen this year. And that’s not a good way to start out a precedent.
No one pays any attention to the Spirit Awards — this is very sad, to be sure, but perhaps inevitable when you present the day before the Oscars. I’d say this relative anonymity has been a boon to the IFC: it has allowed them greater creative freedom on every respect and a fair amount of pleasure. But the moment you went out of your way to give your nominations this way, the Spirit Awards have put a target on their back. I guarantee you, the IFP will soon become the target of attacks. And given how fragile your ratings and place in the Hollywood system is right now, you have to ask if it’s worth it.
And the irony is the Spirits have been for years, the gold standard when it comes to recognize films and performers in the LGBTQ+ community. From Gods and Monsters to Boys Don’t Cry, from Brokeback Mountain to Milk and The Kids are All Right, the spirits have gone out of their way to recognize the stories of these communities. You recognized Ian McKellen and Ellen Page (before she transitioned) John Cameron Mitchell and Dustin Lance Black. The independent film community has led the way for gay and lesbian stories to be told, the same way that it has led in telling story for BIPOC and the Asian-American and LatinX community. The Spirits have always been the gold standard for any awards show when comes to speaking for inclusivity. This decision is as an argument for exclusion.
I hope with all my heart that at some point the Spirits awards realize the error of their ways, and not just because I don’t want other awards shows to follow their example. They have held a special place in my heart in my career of watching awards shows, existing in a perfect place of recognition of excellence and disdain for the norms of an awards show. They’ve managed to lead the film industry in certain ways. I really hope this isn’t one way they do.