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Jessica Chastain promises 'change' at Palm Springs International Film Festival gala

As the sun set behind the mountains in Palm Springs on Tuesday, what had struck me earlier that day as a quaint desert town — save perhaps for the big-name hotels and casinos — took a slight turn.

Starting at 5 p.m., men and women in their finest fashions and rented tuxedos filed into the Convention Center. The ladies, with multiple layers of makeup, fake eyelashes and updos climbing toward heaven, wore floor-length gowns — lacy, mostly black, beaded for dear life. A few wrapped themselves in what can only be described as the most luxe fur my lower-middle-class eyes have ever seen in person.

As for the men, they were just lucky to be there. Think traditional black tie. Boring.

Then screams from the red carpet outside the space could be heard nearly a quarter of a mile away. The squealing and howling came from fans and photographers alike, trying to get this year’s crop of awards contenders to glance their way. Mary J. Blige. Armie Hammer. Timothée Chalamet. Guillermo del Toro. Kumail Nanjiani. Gal Gadot. Patty Jenkins. Willem Dafoe.

This is the scene of the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s film awards gala, the first official event of the year that anybody who will be somebody during the height of awards season attends. Every year, fresh off the holidays, Hollywood takes the nearly two-hour drive 113 miles away (the celebs probably flew, because they can) from Los Angeles to road-test their girdles, new kitten heels and acceptance speeches.

Thrown by and to benefit the Palm Springs International Film Society, the gala is the signature showpiece event of the festival, which officially begins in earnest Thursday night (with a splashy local premiere of Steven Spielberg’s “The Post”).

While it’s dubbed a “celebration of old-school Hollywood star power, glamour and talent” that “takes locals back to the time when Palm Springs was the playground for Hollywood's biggest stars,” it's really a chance for the high and mighty of the city to rub shoulders with some of the industry’s most recognizable faces. To nab a seat in the room where it happens, no less than (a partially tax-deductible) $350 is required. The event, which doubles as a fundraiser, pulls in millions each year.

The night began on a high note with Hammer presenting the male rising star award to his “Call Me by Your Name” leading man Chalamet.

“Who wouldn’t fall in love with Timothée Chalamet?” Hammer said about the 22-year-old breakout star and prime contender for a lead actor Oscar nomination. “I was made better by his presence and his passion.”

When Chalamet took to the stage, he returned the praise, this time thanking Hammer’s wife, Elizabeth Chambers, “who let me crawl all over your husband for two months,” instead of the rapper Cardi B. He also noted that he was “left feeling a little insecure” about sharing the rising star honor with Gadot of the blockbuster “Wonder Woman.”

“Your film literally made 250 million times more money than mine did,” he said to roaring laughter and applause from the room’s upward of 2,000 attendees.

Another highlight of the evening came when Blige took the stage to accept her breakthrough performance award from Common for her “Mudbound” role. While discussing “the power of the human spirit, “ she paid respects to the women in her family who she said provided the source material for her character. She also admitted that the post-World War II epic by Dee Rees taught her “how vain [she] was.”

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

Perhaps the most talked about speech however came from actress and activist Jessica Chastain, recipient of the Chairman’s Award. In accepting the honor presented by her “Molly’s Game” director Aaron Sorkin, she acknowledged “what a difficult year 2017 has been for all of us,” while highlighting the advances in opportunities for women and calling for greater diversity and inclusion of non-white women.

“Major change is coming,” she said. “Change is good. Change is needed. We are all in this together. Each one of us is diminished by flawed systems. Through our joint efforts, we will make things better. We must make things better. We must be better — and we will."

Before ending her speech, Chastain, who is one of 300 industry women who launched the new Time's Up initiative to combat sexual harassment in Tinseltown and beyond, touched on the allegations plaguing the industry.

"We have sadly heard a lot about the bad boys of Hollywood, but I would like to send some deserved love to a few of the good guys with whom I've had the pleasure of working," she said, listing off the names of notable directors including Al Pacino, Tate Taylor, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, Terrence Malick, Del Toro and the late Dan Ireland.

"I am the actor I am because of your grace and guidance," she added, saving individual appreciation for Sorkin. She turned to him onstage. “He's the kind of artist that makes you aspire to be better than you are, more intelligent than you are, braver than you are.”

Other celebrities receiving honors included Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”), Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”), Holly Hunter (“The Big Sick”), Sam Rockwell (“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”), and several members of the cast and crew of “The Shape of Water” including Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Guillermo del Toro, Alexandre Desplat and J. Miles Dale.

As the gala came to a close, everyone, blessed just enough by the open bar and table service, made their way to the Parker Palm Springs estate for the after-party filled with dancing, mini quiches and seemingly unlimited macaroons and bite-size cupcakes. After hitting the bar, some guests found their way to a faux-bush barricade that separated the honorees and their guests from us more common folks. Janney and Laurie Metcalf could be seen in a corner sharing pleasantries while Nanjiani and his wife and “Big Sick” co-writer Emily V. Gordon kissed and socialized while waiting on their drinks.

At one point, like the woman pushing her way through the crowd to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment to be made whole, a few attendees reached across the barricade to get Hammer’s attention, cellphones in hand. The actor acquiesced, taking photos with several of them in between a row of security guards indifferent to the spectacle.

By 10:30 p.m., a number of partygoers were leaving, as still more were just arriving and making their way through security. In line for valet, a woman waiting with her husband summed up the evening perfectly.

“This was great,” she said, “but it’s a school night.”

Get your life! Follow me on Twitter (@TrevellAnderson) or email me: trevell.anderson@latimes.com.

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