Sundance sparks interest in upcoming indie stars -- ''Sugar Town,'' ''Happy, Texas,'' and ''''Three Seasons'' played well with audiences and critics

By David Hochman and Chris Nashawaty
Updated February 12, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

Not even the oscar winner can get a seat.

It’s the third night of the 15th-annual Sundance Film Festival and the hottest ticket in Park City is for the world premiere of American Pimp, the Hughes brothers’ flashy documentary about big-time flesh peddlers. As snow falls softly outside, 500 people armed with chirping cell phones and the stampeding-herd mentality of Cincinnati Who fans are elbowing for the 160 measly seats inside the Holiday Village Cinema. One thing is clear in all the chaos: Celebrity means squat. In L.A., Ben Affleck would have been ushered past the velvet rope and led magnificently into a cordoned-off VIP section. But here, Mr. Academy Award winner is just another shivering lug in plaid waiting on line in the freezing Utah night.

Say what you will about the obsession with multimillion-dollar deals and the swelling commercialism (from hats to a TV channel and movie theaters) of Sundance. At times like these, it’s obvious that Robert Redford’s 11-day indie-movie Shangri-la nestled in the sleepy heart of the Wasatch mountains doesn’t always play by normal Hollywood rules.

Not that the slighted Tinseltown players waiting in the cold can afford to miss the fest. Ever since 1989’s sex, lies, and videotape sparked the indie revolution, Sundance (sponsored in part by ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY) has launched such crossover hits as The Brothers McMullen and Shine, as well as current Oscar hopefuls Affliction and Gods and Monsters. While the much-maligned Art of the Deal was still very much on parade, Sundance ’99 featured a more diverse slate of films than usual. In other words, there weren’t as many lesbian coming-of-age sagas and trendy yarns about heroin addicts on the lam.

But there was one familiar complaint. ”There’s been a lot of talk about this festival becoming a meat market,” said Redford, the festival’s denim-clad overlord, brushing off an annual gripe on one of his rare descents from his alpine aerie 45 minutes outside of Park City. ”But I’m fine with it being a market because it benefits the filmmakers.” If anything, the Sundance Kid’s AWOL status after his brief opening remarks reinforced one fact: His brainchild has become a self-propelled juggernaut no longer requiring his celebrity endorsement.

That doesn’t mean that there weren’t plenty of parka-clad stars slogging through the tundra ready to step into his snowshoes. The high-altitude who’s who included Val Kilmer shopping, Alec Baldwin dissing Robin Williams when talking about his role as a killer with a conscience in Thick as Thieves (”It definitely beats playing the clown that cures the cancer patients”), and even a frenetic Ally Sheedy, who emerged from her post-Brat Pack career slumber at last year’s festival with High Art, now doing double duty promoting two films, Sugar Town and The Autumn Heart. ”I’m so crazed,” she said. ”I tried calling my husband on my cell phone but couldn’t remember his number.”

In short, this Sundance was once again a place where A-list stars made their bids for indie cred, B-list actors tried taking the rocky road to the A list, and stars too cool to be listed anywhere did whatever they pleased. Actors Tim Roth, Frank Whaley, and Tony Goldwyn made their directorial debuts (The War Zone, Joe the King, and A Walk on the Moon, respectively). R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe became an award-winning movie coproducer (American Movie). And L.A. Confidential‘s Guy Pearce got on stage with folk-rocker Joe Henry and crooned like a twitchy Joe Cocker in heat. Then there was Marilyn Manson angling to become a full-blown thespian in the Heathers-esque dark comedy Jawbreaker, mature auteur Robert Altman reportedly working out a midnight fit of the munchies at the local 7-Eleven, and — brace yourselves — Tori Spelling grappling with whether to get a manicure at the Estee Lauder Spa. ”I’m so happy to be here in a movie that’s not connected to Aaron Spelling,” gushed Spelling, who stars in the movie trick. ”Plus, being known as an ‘indie girl’ isn’t a bad title to have.”