The Academy Governors Awards: Hollywood’s Coziest Clubhouse

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George Lucas presents the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Angelina Jolie on Saturday
George Lucas presents the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Angelina Jolie on Saturday

What explains the friendship of Angelina Jolie and George Lucas? This one was of the many questions answered when Hollywood's generations collided at the Academy of Motion Pictures's Governors Awards on Saturday night.

Of all the events during the six-month march to Oscars, the Academy's Governors Dinner offers an intimate respite from the usual electioneering frenzy. Now in its fifth year, the event is held to give out those "special" awards that used to be handed out during the show itself. Saturday night's dinner honored Angelina Jolie, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, and legendary costume designer Piero Tosi in an evening that managed to be touching, hilarious, and heartfelt. It was a tribute to all that is great about Hollywood, moving even the most cynical hearts in the audience.

[Photos: Inside the 2013 Governors Awards]

Held across the mall from the Dolby ballroom where in a few months hence, the Oscar ceremony will occur, the night is a rare awards circuit stop that is A. Untelevised and B. Not in any way an indicator of the all-important Oscar race — with awards given for unbuzzy reasons like good works and lifetime achievement.

The dinner features perhaps the highest celebrity-to-civilian ratio of any Hollywood event. With every ceremony now a major-red-carpeted media stop, it is rare to find a star present at one of these who is not himself a nominee or a presenter. But the Governors Awards brings them all out just to sit and watch. The room was a cross-generational Who's Who with everyone from Warren Beatty and Bruce Dern to Ben Stiller, Jennifer Garner, Octavia Specer, Jared Leto, Judd Apatow, and Colin Farrell mingling while the faces of the honorees loomed overhead, superimposed on curtains like ghostly angels watching benevolently over the crowd.

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One of the most eyebrow raising pairings, however, took place pre-show in the most distant corner of the ballroom. With drapes that created a semi-secluded alcove, Angelina Jolie and buzz-cut partner Brad Pitt, at least two of their flock in tow, chatted at length with director George Lucas and his newly wedded wife, a highly unlikely meeting of icons.

What the world's most glamorous couple had in common with the king of all geeks was answered when the ceremony began, and kicked off with the bestowal of Jolie's Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. A recorded tribute narrated by Morgan Freeman explained how shooting "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (2001) in Cambodia changed Jolie forever and led her down the path of humanitarian work. When legendary actress Gena Rowlands rose to salute Jolie, she summed it up, "How does she have the time? She acts in many pictures, now she writes and directs, and she has a large family... and she has to keep that smile on Brad's face."

[Related: Governors Awards Red Carpet Littered With Oscar Hopefuls]

Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and son Maddox on Saturday night
Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and son Maddox on Saturday night

George Lucas next rose to salute, however, it was his unlikely tale that was perhaps the night's most touching. He told how when his daughter was 10 she was a huge Angelina Jolie fan "because of her humanity, fighting for what is right." (As he launched into the story, from the Lucas table, daughter Katie, who had just sat down, was heard to moan "Oh no!") So Lucas asked Jolie to lunch to meet her admirer. "At that point we sat down, and she'd adopted a son, and I'd adopted three children by myself and it was two basically single parents talking about children. And I said, children are the pathway to a meaningful life and to happiness, and this is the one true thing you can do, to have children." He paused. "Little did I know she'd take me so seriously."

Accepting her award, Jolie talked about her mother's admonition that nothing has any meaning if "I didn't live a life of use to others." Becoming more emotional she spoke about how it took her a long time to get beyond herself and to see that and to "learn how sheltered I had been, and I never want to be that way again."

Back on the floor, Oscar in hand, Jolie made a detour before returning to her brood. She walked back into the ballroom and snuck up behind her friend and admirer, Katie Lucas, with a "boo!" that took the young woman completely by surprise. The pair chatted for several minutes catching up before Jolie headed back to her berth at the head table.

Tom Hanks and honoree Steve Martin on Saturday night
Tom Hanks and honoree Steve Martin on Saturday night

The rest of the night proceeded on a more lighthearted note as three entertainment icons were saluted and roasted. Some of the greats in the costume field honored Piero Tosi, the man who created the daring outfits that adorned the Italian New Wave. The award was bestowed (in absentia) in a surprise appearance by Claudia Cardinale, star of "8 ½" and "Once Upon A Time in the West" among other classics.

The house was truly and completely brought down by Martin Short who rose to all but burn in effigy his friend and "Three Amigos" co-star Steve Martin. "The Governors Awards are one of the highest honors an actor can receive, in mid-November," he began, continuing: "So many have used the word genius tonight that I might as well say it about Steve Martin."

After a more earnest tribute by Tom Hanks, Martin accepted his award saying, "I can't express how I feel tonight because the botox is still fresh." By the end of his hilarious remarks, however, as he thanked all those who had guided his career and his life, even Martin succumbed to the sentiment of the night and had to fight back tears.

[Photos: 2013 Governors Awards Red Carpet]

The biggest applause was saved for last, however, as Angela Lansbury took the stage after salutes by Emma Thompson and Geoffrey Rush. Her speech was a reminder that we are down to our last ties to filmdom's Golden Age. Lansbury rattled off reminiscences of co-stars now long gone: Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Katharine Hepburn, and Frank Sinatra to name just a few.

Looking around the room as the lights rose, one could indeed see the reshuffling that has taken place as the generations have moved down the table. Those Lansbury's era have all but moved on, while the once icons like Warren Beatty, Bruce Dern, and Jon Voight are now clearly the Old Hollywood presences. Yesterday's pin-ups — Brad and Angelina, Jennifer Garner — are today's establishment. While a new generation was stepping into their place — here represented by the "12 Years a Slave" break-out star Lupita Nyong'o who mingled among the eminences.

But there was also a sense of the kinship of movie makers that hung in the air. From the unlikely pair of Jolie and Lucas finding each other in this crazy business, to Angela Lansbury's reminiscences on that "crazy and wonderful" Bette Davis, to Steve Martin's reflections on a craft services table with "the slowest toaster in the world" and "Twizzlers for breakfast," the night was the Hollywood creative community's one moment to just-between-friends honor what makes this such an odd and wonderful place to work as places to work go.

The night's glow remained even as tables were cleared and many seemed not to want to ever leave. Martin Short climbed up on a chair to take a keepsake picture of one couple on their own iPhone. Jon Voight, in white scarf, having joined his daughter's table for the evening, made circles of the room, ultimately leaving just as the tables were about to be taken up.