Although there was plenty of talk about Tuesday’s election in the glamorously appointed Ray Dolby Ballroom last night, where the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences handed out their 8th Annual Governors Awards, the impending presidency of Donald Trump didn’t seem to cast a pall on the proceedings. Instead, as one person put it, “I feel like we are all in a bubble here.”
It was definitely a respite from the outside world as Honorary Oscars were presented to Jackie Chan, editor Anne V. Coates, documentarian Frederick Wiseman, and casting director Lynn Stalmaster. Studios used the occasion, as usual, to trot out their serious contenders for this year’s Oscar nominations, and the event served as an important campaign stop with lots of networking going on. This now-annual November event serves as an official starting point for the Oscar race, although awards season has been in full motion since Labor Day and the Fall fests.
I had heard from several publicists and awards consultants that the Academy asked them to keep the “campaign” aspect
in check and relegated to the cocktail hour, but if that was the case it didn’t work. The usual mingling and table hopping was rampant all through dinner, and I have to say the Governors Awards now rivals the Golden Globes for pure fun. How are you going to stop anyone from extolling the virtues of La La Land vs Sully vs Manchester By The Sea vs Hacksaw Ridge? C’mon this is Hollywood.
But the core reason for the evening was to honor these four industry veterans who each have been in the business well over 50 years, and if anyone had any doubt that any of them were deserving they should just take a look at the expertly assembled clip packages that spelled out the reasons this lively quartet were receiving Honorary Oscars. Once the show started in earnest after dinner all eyes in the ballroom focused on the real purpose at hand. Helen Mirren kicked it off singing the praises of each honoree and introducing Broadway star Heather Headley to sing the appropriately titled “The Trail We Blaze.”
Casting director and Academy Governor David Rubin, who also expertly handled producing chores for this year’s Governors Awards, then stood up to offer a personal tribute to casting legend Stalmaster, noting that this man had cast movies for Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Blake Edwards, Norman Jewison, William Wyler and on and on, so it was probably inevitable he would become the first casting director ever to receive an Oscar.
Bruce and Laura Dern came on to offer their personal memories, with Laura recalling her first audition at nine years old in front of Stalmaster, and father Bruce saying, “Every movie ever made was made with a casting director. He gave everyone in my generation a reason to dare to dream.”
Before Jeff Bridges came on stage to present him the statuette, he called the man who gave the Oscar winning actor his first big job (1969’s Halls Of Anger), “a master caster.” Bridges also noted that director John Frankenheimer once told him, “If you got Lynn Stalmaster to cast your movie you have a very good chance to have a good movie.”
Stalmaster, who turns 89 next week, thanked the Academy, and particularly the late director Robert Wise for giving him his start in motion pictures with 1958’s I Want To Live! , which went on to earn star Susan Hayward a Best Actress Oscar. Not a bad way to start. As to his secret for success? “You never know where or when you will find the answer, and I have found the answer in some very strange places. My search for the ideal choice has led me to nearly every state in the United States, all around America,” he said, adding that when The Great Escape director John Sturges sent him to Europe in 1961 on a casting expedition it also opened up the world for him. Of his many collaborations, he said, “We had a lot of fun together. It was really not just serious work, but joy”.
Academy Film Editors Governor Michael Tronick took the microphone to talk about sitting next to fellow Editors Governor Anne Coates at Board meetings. “I realized I was sitting with editorial royalty,” he said.
Nicole Kidman used the occasion to thank all editors, but particularly this one. “Anne V. Coates is not a great female editor, she is a great great editor. She is not a trailblazer for women. She is a trailblazer for all of us,” she said of this legend whose career spans 60 years and includes everything from Lawrence Of Arabia (for which she won her first Oscar) to Fifty Shades Of Grey (!).
Richard Gere, before presenting Coates her Honorary Oscar that says “in recognition of a film editing career of remarkable breadth and exceptional collaborative achievement,” noted that often an actor’s performance is in the hands of the editor and their idea of what the film is. “We pray that the editor understood what we were trying to do and felt the thought process of us when we were inside that character, and I remember very well the day Adrian Lyne invited me to see Unfaithful and I thanked God for Anne Coates that day.”
Coates, 90, came out on stage in her wheelchair and stood up to delight the crowd with a list of films she edited. “Can you imagine a job where you are actually paid to look into the eyes of George Clooney, Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton, Peter Finch, Sean Connery, Albert Finney, Clint Eastwood, Richard Gere, Daniel Craig, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Dornan?”
Reeling off a list of directors from Lean to Lynch, she said, “there are too many to mention and too many to upset that I didn’t mention.” She also talked about her other pride, her three children including her daughter who has followed her into the world of film editing and is now “taking all my jobs.”
Academy Documentary branch Governor Rory Kennedy introduced the segment devoted to Frederick Wiseman, the legendary documentarian whose 1967 debut Titicut Follies began a career that redefined the term “cinema verite.” Sir Ben Kingsley mentioned Wiseman has made 41 films, and continues to make them well into his 80’s. “Is there anyone who has kept at it so unrelentlessly and uncompromisedly over a period of time?” Don Cheadle presented the Oscar to an obviously grateful Wiseman, who has a devoted band of filmmakers who have lobbied the Academy for years to get him this award. Finally it happened.
“It is a great and wonderful recognition of the work I have been doing for over 50 years,” he said. “What has kept me going is that it is fun and an adventure. Constantly working keeps me off the street, or at least on the streets that I like. I am lucky to have found work that I like and continue to be obsessed with,” he said while also thanking his family. “They recognized long ago that I am a New England Jewish Puritan and let me go my errant ways.”
Finally it was time for what Academy actors branch Governor Tom Hanks called “the man who puts the Chan in Chantastic.” Hanks noted that the two genres Jackie Chan works in – martial arts and action comedies – have been historically under-represented at the Oscars, “but that will change if I have any pull on the Board of Governors.” He described Chan’s work as a mix between John Wayne and Buster Keaton. “How is this possible out of one man?”
Co-stars Michelle Yeoh and Chris Tucker came out to offer stories of working with this star loved by billions around the world, a key reason the Academy decided to go global in honoring Chan. To watch the clip reel, showing Chan’s incredible physical abilities, comic and serious, was proof positive of how they made this choice.
And the man himself could not have been more excited on stage last night in his acceptance. “I still can’t believe I am standing here. It’s a dream. A long time ago when I watched the Oscars with my Dad, he said ‘Son, you get so many movie awards around the world. When are you going to get one of these?’ Finally (Academy President) Cheryl calls. I said ‘are you sure?.’ After 56 years in the film industry, making more than 200 films, after so many bones, finally this is mine.” Among fellow action stars in the room rooting him on were Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.
The evening began with remarks from Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs who announced a new talent initiative to begin in the Spring that will offer internships with various companies and Academy members for college students, including those from communities that haven’t gotten the chance for this kind of access. These internships will take place over a two month period in the summer and the hope is for the Academy to be sponsoring at least 50 lucky aspiring members of the industry. The Television Academy has been doing this exact kind of thing for decades and as someone who was chosen to participate in that when I was a film student in college, I can only say this is a great move for the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to continue their march to fostering more diversity in the business.
Now, as for that Oscar race this year, the turnout of contenders at the Governors Awards was as big, if not bigger than ever. I sat at the Focus Features table with Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga and director Jeff Nichols of Loving, as well as Tom Ford, Aaron Taylor Johnson and Michael Shannon from Nocturnal Animals which had its L.A. premiere the night before at the Hammer Museum. Also at the table was Universal’s Donna Langley (who told me she was thrilled with the films Focus is bringing in now), Focus Features’ CEO Peter Kujawski and Focus Features President Robert Walak.
Edgerton came straight to the Awards after working in heavy prosthetic makeup on his new film Bright. “I have a 4:30 AM call Sunday morning. I should have just left the makeup on,” he joked. Queen Of Katwe’s David Oyelowo came by to talk to him. Oyelowo flew in from rehearsals for his upcoming Broadway turn as Othello.
Focus actually had two tables, as do many studios which fill them with Oscar contenders. Kubo And The Two Strings director Travis Knight, and A Monster Calls co-star Felicity Jones were also part of the large Focus contingent. Monster Calls director, and film fan, J.A. Bayona seemed to be like a kid in a candy store as he moved around the room spotting so many icons.
Next to us was the parent company Universal with Ron Meyer and Jeff Shell bookending Illumination’s Chris Meledandri and his Sing director Garth Jennings. They were all praising Stevie Wonder and his original song “Faith.” The studio is clearly excited about that holiday film, as well as cash cow Illumination which delivered them a major hit in The Secret Life Of Pets this summer.
Showing the importance of animation in the Oscar race, right to their left was Disney’s table with Pixar/Disney Animation chief John Lasseter talking to Lin Manuel Miranda all night. Miranda wrote seven songs for their holiday entry Moana.
Walking into the room Gere passed by Hugh Grant and stopped to praise his work in 2002’s About A Boy. Simon Helberg, who co-stars with Grant (and Meryl Streep) in Florence Foster Jenkins said the Governors Awards seemed like a nice place to come “before the Apocalypse starts.” He wasn’t thrilled with the election returns, as you can guess. Judd Apatow, a big Trump naysayer on twitter, was as defiant as ever and promised to continue to say what he thinks. “They can’t do anything to me. I still have points in Superbad.”
Amy Adams said she was thrilled about this weekend’s boxoffice for her contender Arrival. “They say we are outperforming expectations. Anytime anyone wants to say I am outperforming anything I will take it,” she laughed.
The entire Manchester By The Sea group was there too including co-star Michelle Williams, who said she was astonished at all the awards buzz for her movie. “This was just a tiny little movie we made. I had no idea it would be taking me to the point where I have to wear dresses like this,” she told me. Another big cast showing up was the Hidden Figures group with Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae , Octavia Spencer, and Pharrell Williams (also a producer) who supplied the film’s catchy songs.
Warren Beatty and Annette Bening were there and both received praise for their respective films Rules Don’t Apply and 20th Century Women that have both back in the Oscar conversation. Bening, along with Hanks, is an acting governor for the Academy.
Nearby at the Warner Bros table, Hanks and his co-pilot from Sully were holding court. Academy CEO Dawn Hudson came by to talk to her Governors Board member Hanks and get a photo. Sony Pictures Classics’ co-President Michael Barker, apparently not getting the memo about campaigning, was sporting an “I Love Isabelle Huppert” button in honor of his Elle star, who could receive her first Oscar nomination. She was having a terrific time herself, and even laughed when I suggested maybe she should wear that button. Viggo Mortensen of Captain Fantastic, Andrew Garfield of Hacksaw Ridge, Ryan Reynolds of Deadpool, Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges of Hell or High Water, Miles Teller of Bleed For This, Mark Wahlberg of the upcoming Patriots Day were all there. The latter told me he was especially proud of the film about the tragic events at the 2013 Boston Marathon. “It’s a movie that is probably much needed at this time, no matter what side you were on,” he told me. I agree. It will be a hit when it opens wide in January after an Oscar qualifying run in December and its AFI premiere next Thursday. CBS Films head Terry Press told me she thinks it could be a “disruptor” in this year’s Oscar race. Time will tell.
Naomie Harris of Moonlight, Rebecca Hall of Christine, Emma Stone of La La Land – everywhere you looked there was a contender. When I couldn’t find where my table 317 was, instead of a waiter pointing me in the right direction it was Jackie and Neruda director Pablo Larrain. Dev Patel was carrying around his young Lion co-star Sunny Pawar who just had flown in from India after first being denied permission to enter the U.S. Harvey Weinstein intervened with the State Department and got permission. I asked Sunny what he thought about this Hollywood thing, but he didn’t understand English. “Just say thank you,” Patel whispered in his ear, and so he did.
What a night.