For the last eight years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has handed out its non-competitive awards - honorary Oscars, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award - at a non-televised ceremony called the Governors Awards, which takes place months before the Oscars itself. This year's edition, on Saturday night, was its most polished yet, with eminently worthy honorees (pioneering film editor Anne V. Coates, documentary deity Frederick Wiseman, bar-setting casting director Lynn Stalmaster and martial arts master Jackie Chan), extraordinary clip packages outlining their careers and classy speeches by both presenters and honorees.
The event is one of the hardest-to-come-by tickets of the year, not least because almost all of the tables not occupied by the honorees and their guests (many of whom are senior Academy members) are bought by studios and distributors, which, in turn, fill them with their awards-hopefuls (whose prospects certainly aren't disadvantaged by being photographed on a red carpet at an Academy event before rubbing shoulders during the cocktail hour with Oscar voters).
I'm told that the Academy's board of governors (who pick the honorees, and after whom the event is named) did not anticipate that this event would become an essential station on the awards-season whistle-stop tour. But this year's ceremony, as much as any of the six that I've attended, proved that it certainly has. Indeed, one would have an easier time listing all of the contenders who were not there than all who were.
Each year, this gathering takes place at the Hollywood and Highland Center, a ballroom adjacent to the Dolby Theatre at which the actual Oscars are bestowed. When I arrived, I made my way to my seat at Lionsgate's La La Land table, passing through the crowd behind Dev Patel. Patel was carrying on his back Sunny Pawar, the adorable little 8-year-old boy who plays the younger version of his character in Lion. Pawar had just arrived from India after the film's distributor, The Weinstein Co., helped to smooth over customs-related issues, and proved as much of a scene-stealer as he is in the movie.
Before the presentations began, Patriots Day's Mark Wahlberg made the rounds. 20th Century Women's Greta Gerwig chatted with Nocturnal Animals' Michael Shannon. Moana's Lin-Manuel Miranda (over whom many big-wigs fawned) entered with Pixar and Disney Animation chief John Lasseter. Sony Classics co-chief Michael Barker sat next to Julieta's Pedro Almodovar, and also directed traffic across the table to Toni Erdmann's Peter Simonischek and Sandra Huller. And Lion's Nicole Kidman took her seat next to Harvey Weinstein, at least until little Pawar began to fade, at which point she carried him out of the room. (Pawar has to be one of the youngest attendees at an Academy gathering since 9-year-old nominee Jackie Cooper fell asleep on Marie Dressler's shoulder at the fourth Oscars, in 1931.)
Once the actual festivities got underway, several contenders wound up on stage - Eye in the Sky's Helen Mirren welcomed everyone, Hell or High Water's Jeff Bridges toasted and handed an Oscar to Stalmaster, Miles Ahead's Don Cheadle spoke about Wiseman and Sully's Tom Hanks presented to Chan. Across the table from me, La La Land's 31-year-old writer/director Damien Chazelle, whose cineaste credentials are certified by the film's loving homages to Golden Age musicals, and his muse Emma Stone, a fellow buff of classical Hollywood cinema, took in the proceedings reverentially.
Also in the room were Rules Don't Apply's Warren Beatty, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich; Moonlight's Barry Jenkins, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali; Hidden Figures' Ted Melfi, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Octavia Spencer and Pharrell Williams; Hell or High Water's David Mackenzie, Chris Pine and Ben Foster; The Birth of a Nation's Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller and Aja Naomi King; Manchester by the Sea's Kenneth Lonergan, Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges; Fences' Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson and Mykelti Williamson; 20th Century Women's Annette Bening, Mike Mills and Megan Ellison; Nocturnal Animals' Tom Ford, Amy Adams and Aaron Taylor-Johnson; A Monster Calls' Juan Antonio Bayona and Felicity Jones; Loving's Jeff Nichols, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga; Queen of Katwe's Mira Nair, Lupita Nyong'o and David Oyelowo; The Comedian's Taylor Hackford and Leslie Mann; Elle's Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert; Bleed for This' Miles Teller and Aaron Eckhart; Captain Fantastic's Matt Ross and Viggo Mortensen; Florence Foster Jenkins' Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg; 13th's Ava DuVernay and Common; Passengers' Morten Tyldum and Kevin O'Connell; Miss Sloane's John Madden and Gugu Mbatha-Raw; Love & Friendship's Kate Beckinsale, Allied's Marion Cotillard; Hacksaw Ridge's Andrew Garfield; The Hollars' Margo Martindale; Christine's Rebecca Hall; Into the Inferno's Werner Herzog; War Dogs' Jonah Hill; Sing's Garth Jennings; Jackie and Neruda's Pablo Larrain; Audrie & Daisy's Tori Amos; Edge of Seventeen's Hailee Steinfeld; The Salesman's Asghar Farhadi; Eye in the Sky's Gavin Hood; Life, Animated's Roger Ross Williams; Gleason's Clay Tweet; The Ivory Game's Kief Davidson; Weiner's Elyse Kriegman and Josh Friedberg; and Deadpool's Ryan Reynolds.
In other words, who needs the Oscars when you've got the Governors Awards? Here, everyone's a winner.