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Helen Hunt, Richard Gere warm up for awards season in Palm Springs

The 24th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gal- Arrivals

The 24th Annual Palm Springs International Film Festival Awards Gala - Arrivals

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Updated: February 8, 2013 6:15AM

PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — The 2013 awards season kicked off in grand style Saturday night as a slew of A-list stars converged for a gala celebrating the 24th annual Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“It will be a nonstop blur of red carpets and award shows for the next two months. My goal? Just to survive it all,” quipped Martin Sheen as he arrived to present a career achievement award to Sally Field, widely expected to be nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Mary Todd Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”

In fact, the evening was a gathering of actors, actresses and directors already nominated for the Golden Globe Awards that will be handed out Sunday — and also, like two-time Academy Award winner Field, likely to hear their names called out when the Academy Award nominations are announced early Thursday.

Those include Naomi Watts (“The Impossible”), Bradley Cooper (“Silver Linings Playbook”), Richard Gere (“Arbitrage”) Helen Hunt and John Hawkes (“The Sessions”), Ben Affleck and Alan Arkin (“Argo”), Ang Lee (“Life of Pi”), Tom Hooper (“Les Miserables”) and Chicago native Robert Zemeckis (“Flight”).

RED CARPET MOMENTS: Helen Hunt — honored Saturday with the festival’s Spotlight Award — worked the red carpet press line, praising her “The Sessions” co-star Hawkes, who was on hand to present her with the award. “He’s as good an actor as God ever made,” said Hunt. “I would like to find five movies to do next with him. He may have other plans, but I would be very happy to work with him again and again.”

Looking ahead to Sunday’s Golden Globes, the actress joked about her assigned place in that award show’s ballroom. “For a long time I was seated in the back. Then, somehow they moved me forward. So this year it will be interesting to see where [the Hollywood Foreign Press] puts me. Maybe in the middle?”

† “Life of Pi” director Lee admitted he was nervous about making his film — recognizing “there was something of a pressure to satisfy the book’s readers. After all, it was a huge international bestseller and for many people it’s there favorite book.

“But to me, a movie is a movie, and this was a very expensive movie to make. Basically it was a philosophical book, so I was more concerned about how to organize everything to make it work as a big movie that would engage audiences.”

† Flying in from Prague, Bradley Cooper had gala organizers a bit nervous he’d make it in time to pick up his achievement award — but he arrived with time to spare. It was his first red-carpet appearance since splitting with on-and-off girlfriend Zoe Saldana before Christmas. But the actor seemed totally upbeat and delighted to be presented his statuette by his “Silver Linings Playbook” director David O. Russell.

Also cheering him were a number of fans outside the convention center who not only knew it was Cooper’s birthday, but serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” — as did the nearly 2,000 dinner guests inside when he picked up his award.

GALA HIGHLIGHTS: There were a number of fun or poignant moments as star presenters and awardees spoke to the crowd in the enormous ballroom. After a video highlighting his career, Gere was introduced by frequent co-star Diane Lane to be honored with the festival’s Chairman’s Award. Showcasing excellent timing, Lane slyly smiled, “What a beautiful body … of work.”

Gere himself quickly turned serious and used the evening’s platform to implore the gala crowd to support his long campaign to improve the lot of the people of Tibet and their status within China.

† South Side native Zemeckis was introduced by Tom Hanks, an actor he has directed in “Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away” and “The Polar Express.” Hanks joked about Zemeckis sitting in his “low-slung basement rec room on the South Side of Chicago when he heard Jerry Lewis tell Johnny Carson he was teaching a seminar at the USC film school. At that point, Bob didn’t even know there was such a thing as a film school — and that was that.”

As for Zemeckis, he said he was so excited when he initially read the script for “Flight,” he “not only knew I had to make this movie — I wanted to see this movie.”

† As teen actor Tom Holland introduced Watts for her award, he quipped about being both the “least qualified and most qualified” person to note her career achievements. The “least qualified” part was due to his youth — and the fact he “could only vouch for ‘King Kong,’ ” since he was too young to have been allowed to see such Watts films as “Mulholland Drive” or “21 Grams.”

The “most qualified” bit, of course, was from playing Watts’ son Lucas in the grueling and demanding filming of “The Impossible,” based on a real family’s experiences during the South Asian tsunami of 2004.

As for Watts, she joked about how brutal it was physically to be battered about for weeks on end in a huge water tanks to re-create her character’s near-drowning when the tsunami first hit. “Tom, of course, though it a great lark. He thought of it as being part of a fantastic theme water park. It’s put me off water parks for life!”

LOCAL LIGHTS: Considering how many people with strong Chicago connections maintain second homes in the Palm Springs area, it wasn’t surprising to see a number of familiar faces at the gala Saturday night. Among those spied mingling with the stars were Linda Johnson Rice and her daughter, Alexa; LiliAnn and Ricky Zisook; Naomi and Jeffrey Caspe; Carol and Bill Kaplan; Donna and Terry McKay; Margie and Stephen Kulp; Jerry Berliant; Mamie Walton; Nancy Kelley; Sherrill and John Bodine; Linda Usher; John Regas; Arny Granat; Irene Michaels, and Deborah Chapman.

† Former Illinois Film Office director Brenda Sexton had an added thrill when she spotted Leonardo DiCaprio sitting at a nearby table during the gala’s dinner. He happily posed for a photo with her, in between snapping his own pix of celebrity pals on stage.

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