Dakota Johnson walked out on a big stage inside Park City’s Basin Recreation Fieldhouse on Thursday evening, immediately surveyed the massive scene with hundreds of seated guests (including Sundance insiders, auteurs and a few movie stars) and feigned shock.
“I thought this was an intimate dinner,” said Johnson, the first presenter of the night for the festival kick-off event, Opening Night: A Taste of Sundance Presented by IMDbPro. “I didn’t realize that there were going to be so many people back at Sundance — but thank God. It feels so good to be back in a room together celebrating independent cinema.”
Sundance is back. The fest opened tonight, delivering the first in-person event in three years due to the pandemic so there certainly was cause for celebration. Johnson’s job was to present one of four awards doled out from the main stage, hers given to close friend and collaborator Luca Guadagnino, honored with an international icon prize. The others went to Ryan Coogler (Variety Visionary Award), Nanny filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu (Vanguard Award presented by Acura for fiction), and W. Kamau Bell (Vanguard Award presented by Acura for nonfiction).
Johnson called Guadagnino “the epitome of international icon,” so much she’s going to petition that he receive the trophy every year. She even praised his fashion sense by calling out the fact that he “wears Prada all the time.” She detailed their professional relationship, one that started when he cast her in the 2015 film A Bigger Splash and continued with 2018’s Suspiria.
“I’ve cherished him deeply,” said the actress and producer, adding that she’s found herself as an actress “day after day” on his sets and been found.
Johnson then turned her attention to Guadagnino’s critically acclaimed love story, the Sundance selection Call Me By Your Name, starring Timothée Chalamet and Armie Hammer. “Sadly, I wasn’t in that one,” confessed Johnson, who would later admit that she finds herself jealous of other actors who get to work with the Italian auteur. “It was unfortunate.”
Johnson then joked that she almost got cast in Call Me By Your Name, playing the part of the peach, the same piece of fruit that Chalamet’s character Elio masturbates with only to leave the pit and the remnants on his desk. Hammer’s character Oliver discovers the peach but doesn’t eat it like his character does in the novel on which the film is based.
That didn’t stop Johnson from taking a jab at headlines involving Hammer. “Luca had asked me to play the role of the peach but our schedules conflicted. Thank god though because then I would’ve been another woman that Armie Hammer tried to eat.”
Moments later, she nodded to Guadagnino’s more recent cannibal love story Bones and All. It’s been five years since [Call Me By Your Name] premiered here and Luca hasn’t stopped taking us to exciting places. Who knew cannibalism was so popular?”
Though Johnson appeared to be making light of the cannibal headlines, she previously defended Hammer, a co-star in the 2010 film The Social Network, along with other co-stars like Johnny Depp and Shia LaBeouf who had faced serious allegations of misconduct. “I never experienced that firsthand from any of those people,” she told THR in 2021. “I had an incredible time working with them; I feel sad for the loss of great artists. I feel sad for people needing help and perhaps not getting it in time. I feel sad for anyone who was harmed or hurt. It’s just really sad. I do believe that people can change.”
(For his part, Hammer, through a lawyer, has previously denied any wrongdoing and maintained that all relationships were consensual. The cannibal allegations surfaced through direct messages of his that went viral in January 2021.)
Guadagnino then took the stage and did not address the alleged peach casting or the cannibal quip but did call Johnson “my darling friend” and one of the finest actors. The filmmaker has deep roots at Sundance dating back to 2010 when he made his festival debut with his film I Am Love. Because of the shared history, he said he always feels like he’s coming home when he’s here.
“Coming back here and being here means so much for all of us,” he said of the festival that he called a ”landmark place” where the only thing that counts is the “empowerment of cinema.”
Those themes permeated the night’s other speeches from Coogler, Bell and Jusu as well as from the night’s headline performers, the Indigo Girls. The iconic rock duo rushed over to the gala fundraiser from the world premiere of their Sundance documentary It’s Only Life After All from filmmaker Alexandria Bombach.
Despite some technical hiccups with the microphone and some feedback, they cruised through a three-song set and expressed gratitude for being included at the festival and for having the chance to share the stage with such accomplished artists.
Lena Waithe turned up, fresh from London, to present Coogler with his trophy by calling him a savant, “the calm in the midst of storms,” a leader and quiet royalty. In accepting, Coogler looked back on his career and expressed genuine gratitude for the part Sundance has played in launching his now blockbuster career. He shared a story about the night the festival debuted his award-winning Fruitvale Station starring a rising star named Michael B. Jordan, his agent Craig Kestel told Coogler’s mother that “your son’s life is about to change.”
“It freaked my mom out,” Coogler admitted. “She didn’t understand what was going on.” Truth is, Coogler said his life had already begun to change in the years leading up to that night thanks to the support of producers Forest Whitaker and Nina Yang Bongiovi who took a chance on him in film school, leading to his acceptance to the feature film lab at the Sundance Institute. It was there he met peers like Marielle Heller, David Lowery, Chloe Zhao and others.
“It’s been an honor to come up with them,” he said. “Whenever those filmmakers win, I feel like I win — especially as an ex-football player.”
In accepting his award, Bell joked that he wanted to apologize to the “older white gentleman” who congratulated him on Summer of Soul, an Oscar-winning film that was made by Questlove, not W. Kamau Bell. The honoree then detailed his path from “weirdo” to stand-up comedy fan to stand-up comedian to executive producer and director of the award-winning We Need to Talk About Cosby.
There were times during the production of the series that Bell had to ask himself the question, “Who’s idea was this?” he recalled, making sure to shout out his mentors and collaborators who helped along the way. “It was a way to remind myself that this was indeed my idea. I could only blame myself. It was comforting.” He also credited his only child cred and outsider status as being key to his career. “Our weirdness is our superpower,” he said.
Speaking of comforting, Jusu said that filmmaking continues to save her life and she wouldn’t be where she is on her artistic journey without Sundance. “My gratitude continues to have no depth, no width, no quantifiable end,” she said in accepting following a presentation from Sundance favorite Boots Riley. Jusu took home the dramatic jury prize for her critically acclaimed Nanny. “Sundance is the reason that the industry could no longer ignore me.”
In closing, Jusu urged those in the room — “we are survivors,” she said — to continue to “chip away at a better world.” She then quoted one of her favorite minds, the legendary Toni Morrison. “It’s not possible to constantly hone on the crisis, you have to have the love and you have to have the magic.”