The Independent Spirit Awards -- The pre-Oscar revels got started at the laid-back shindig.

Of all the Oscar-week rituals — the morning-of massage, the morning-after power brunch — few are as inalienable as the right to have a hangover even before Billy Crystal cracks his first joke. From agent soirees to the Maxes (the nickname for Miramax’s Oscar-eve bash, which this year included Dame Judi Dench and Helena Bonham Carter re-creating a Good Will Hunting scene while Demi Moore egged them on), Hollywood spends the 48 hours before Academy Awards night in full party mode.

The weekend kicked off with the Independent Spirit Awards, held March 21 on the beach in Santa Monica. According to John Ritter, who was nominated for a 1997 Spirit prize for Sling Blade, the surfside awards ”are all about sunglasses and sunscreen.” They’re also about artistic devotion, and no one showed more of that this year than Oscar nominee Robert Duvall. After spending 13 years and $5 million of his own money to make The Apostle, the 67-year-old actor was rewarded with top Spirit honors for acting, directing, and best picture.

Juggling three trophies, Duvall was humbled by his win, saying ”This is a much bigger celebration than I thought it would be,” while writer-director Kevin Smith used his triumph to score some payback. Wearing a Superman T-shirt under his black suit, Smith dedicated his best-screenwriting trophy for Chasing Amy to ”every chick who told me I had a small d—.” No wonder James Woods exclaimed, ”I love this awards show!”

Once the Spirits had wrapped, the revelers drifted down the sand to Shutters on the Beach for a party in honor of British Oscar nominees. Although called a tea, the event is more ”daarrling” than Darjeeling — something As Good as It Gets director James L. Brooks didn’t know when he RSVP’d. Expecting a gathering of ”12 or 15 people engrossed in intimate conversation,” Brooks instead found hundreds swilling white wine in a stuffy Shutters ballroom. ”Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when they join hands and jump off the cliff?” Brooks says. ”Well, that’s what this weekend is all about.” And that’s as good a description as you get.

(Additional reporting by Dave Karger and Tricia Laine)