Captain Phillips newcomer and Oscar-buzzed Barkhad Abdi, who plays the lead Somalian pirate in the film, told me he thought the Governors Awards meant prizes actually handed out by the Governor and he seemed a bit overwhelmed by the whole occasion. Of course these honorary awards bestowed on Saturday night at the Hollywood & Highland Grand Ballroom are not presented by Jerry Brown, but rather voted on by the Board of Governors of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. And in addition to the formal duty of putting a shiny new Oscar statuette in the hands of Jean Hersholt Humanitarian winner Angelina Jolie, Steve Martin, Angela Lansbury and Claudia Cardinale (standing in for absent Costume Designer Piero Tosi who couldn’t make the trip from Italy), this signature awards season event now in its fifth year also has become the official “must schmooze” event of the entire six month awards corridor, a place where Oscar nominee hopefuls can jump from table to table full of Academy members. As presenter Martin Short put it, “the Governors Awards are the highest honor an actor can receive in mid-November.” And there can be no question the timing of the event is extremely important for those out on the campaign trail.
But ultimately this event is about honoring those the Academy feels are worthy of career recognition, generally a lifetime achievement award. Cheryl Boone Isaacs, new president of the Academy, welcomed each of the honorees and noted the importance of the honor. “Congratulations to all of you. Your work on screen and off captivates and invigorates society. You challenge us to see each other and the world in different ways. We are all richer for your brilliance,” she said before breaking for dinner.
Once the 90-minute show began, Jolie’s In The Land Of Blood And Honey cast, actress Gena Rowlands, and George Lucas presented Jolie, the youngest winner of the Hersholt award, with her Oscar. A detailed film package clearly explained why this tireless global humanitarian is getting the award but she seemed overcome by it, saluting her late mother for the inspiration (father Jon Voight was in the audience). During the dinner break I asked Jolie if she was excited to receive the award but before she could answer, Brad Pitt said “I’m the one who is really excited.” And proud. Jolie was very thankful but said it all seemed so surreal. She had just flown in from location in Australia and was flying right back. It was Academy directors Governor Kathryn Bigelow who put Jolie’s name forward for the Hersholt and she told me a few weeks ago one reason is that Jolie’s humanitarian efforts are such a good example for younger members of the industry. One of Jolie’s sons, Maddox, was with her as well as 96-year-old World War II hero and Olympic runner Lou Zamperini, the subject of Unbroken, the film she is currently directing down under. He drew a standing ovation as did Jolie, who said her mother Marcheline Bertrand told her “nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others. I didn’t know what that meant for a long time…It was only when I began to travel and look beyond my home that I understood my responsibility for others.” In a touching salute to her Bertrand, she concluded by saying, “I don’t know why this is my life. But I will do as my mother asked and I will do the best I can with this life to be of use, and to stand here today means I did what she asked, and if she were alive she’d be very proud.”
Tosi could not be there but the costume designer of such classics as Death In Venice and The Leopard was well represented by colleagues Milena Canonero, Ann Roth and Academy Governor Jeffrey Kurland, who noted that the costumers were just voted a branch of their own in the Academy. A true legend, Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, accepted the Oscar for Tosi. She noted, “Piero Tosi has never traveled to the United States even though it is a country he has known and loved through cinema. Piero is very passionate about his work and therefore it is with great excitement that he received the news of this unexpected award.”
Academy writers branch Governor Bill Condon decided comedy was criminally under-represented at the Oscars and suggested Steve Martin would be a worthy recipient to try and rectify that. He was proven right by a sterling and very funny reel of Martin’s work, and the honoree himself who was alternately hilarious and touching. It clearly means a lot to him as he received the award from friends, visual effects artist (and high school pal) Bill Taylor, Martin Short and Tom Hanks. “It has been a long time dream of mine that I would receive an Honorary Oscar and tonight I feel I am one step closer to that. I can’t possibly express how excited I am tonight because the botox is fresh,” he said. But in between the laughs Martin choked up when he mentioned his wife and new child. “I knew I wouldn’t be able to make it through this speech when I rehearsed it in front of my dog this morning,” he said.
Finally it was up to Saving Mr. Banks star Emma Thompson to wrap it up as the event that started honoring one Angie end by honoring another Angie. Angela Lansbury of course was Thompson’s co-star in Nanny McPhee. Before the show, Thompson told me she was just relieved to give this honor to Lansbury and not have to talk about herself. Instead she told a story about attempting to throw a pie at Lansbury on the set. Lansbury, who won Oscar nominations for two of her first three films when still a teenager in 1944 and 1945, has always been more appreciated for her work on the stage where she won a record 5 Tonys, and on the hit series Murder, She Wrote. But if you ask me, this Oscar is sweet revenge for her 1962 loss as Best Supporting Actress in The Manchurian Candidate. Fifty years since her last nomination and nearly 70 following her first, justice has finally been done, Lansbury fans. TCM host Robert Osborne presented the Oscar to Lansbury (at her request – she says he knows this part of her career better than anyone) and not only does she still look great, she was the epitome of style and class up there. The breadth of her film career was clear as she mentioned co-stars like Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Orson Welles, Laurence Olivier and others even telling a story about having coffee at the MGM commissary with Clark Gable and then buying the exact same car he drove.
She’s still tireless, as she said she just completed a six-month tour in Driving Miss Daisy with another favorite co-star (and former Governors Award winner himself) James Earl Jones. She noted it was great to win (finally), “to be here in the company of my beloved family and friends instead of sitting shivering with hope – and then disappointment – at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre.”
It was a warm and fun show from the Academy, adding a touch of class to a season that seems more intense than ever. And as one Academy exec told me, the Governors Awards has become so popular they turned away more who wanted to come than ever before. It also seems to be impetus for studios to fly in their talent and set up Q&As, parties, brunches, and whatever they can to tie in with the excitement of the only Oscar show that isn’t the Oscars themselves. It’s certainly a place to be seen and heard by Academy voters. As one newcomer put it, “so it starts as a cocktail party, then we all sit down for a few minutes before it turns back into a cocktail party…” That’s just about right. This is more of a schmooze fest than any awards show I have covered. Publicists keep their clients hopping from table to table almost like they’re running for office. Among those spotted were a slew of contenders from Weinstein films like Margo Martindale and John Wells of August: Osage County, Idris Elba and Naomie Harris of Mandela, Steve Coogan from Philomena, writer Danny Strong and Lee Daniels from Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, and director Ryan Coogler of Fruitvale Station. There was a large Disney contingent too from Saving Mr. Banks including Thompson, Hanks, Richard Sherman, Colin Farrell and director John Lee Hancock. I was whisked over to the Warners Bros. table which boasted Sue Kroll, Harrison Ford who could be up for supporting in 42, Gravity co-writer Jonas Cuaron, Prisoners star Jake Gyllenhaal and Her co-star Amy Adams, and director Spike Jonze who told me Scarlett Johansson had just won Best Actress at the Rome Film Festival. If there’s any justice Johansson could get a first-ever history-making Oscar nomination for a role that is strictly a voice-over as the Operating System Joaquin Phoenix falls for in the December release.
All Is Lost director J.C. Chandor told me he forgot to wear his Academy pin that he got when he joined a couple of years ago. He was celebrating his last night out before starting his next film, The Most Violent Year (it was 1981 he says, followed closely by 1991). He said he needs to make some money now. Too many potholes in his driveway to fix. Jessica Chastain will co-star with a male lead soon to be announced. Ben Stiller said he was thrilled with the response he got at AFI Fest to his Christmas Day release, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. Director David O. Russell said he’s still tweaking American Hustle and said he seized the opportunity to do the film that features a combination of cast from his films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook. He said the film will be shown very soon. Same for Wolf Of Wall Street which co-star Jonah Hill told me he hadn’t seen himself, but it was the highlight of his career to work with Martin Scorsese and play this character. The cast of Paramount’s Nebraska including Bruce Dern, June Squibb and Will Forte were also working the room. And why not? What a room it was. As someone said, “anyone who knocks this event doesn’t have a dog in the hunt.”
The 12 Years A Slave gang including director Steve McQueen were also moving through the room along with Geoffrey Rush (who also helped with the Lansbury presentation) and those Blue Is The Warmest Color stars Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux. You gotta love an event where they come over to see you!
Mark Wahlberg and director Peter Berg were hearing lots of praise for their searing Afghanistan-set war film, Lone Survivor – and they should. Daniel Bruhl of another Universal contender, Rush, was there too. Disney’s Production head Sean Bailey told me he is hoping for lightning to strike twice with their Saving Mr. Banks which is about the making of Mary Poppins. Bailey noted the irony that the last pure live-action Disney film to be nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Screenplay and Best Director was, you guessed it, Mary Poppins in 1964. Having seen the film twice I would bet they are going to do it again with what is obviously a good luck property.
There was lots of Oscar talk at the Focus Features table where I was sitting. In fact they had two tables ( the other one had Place Beyond The Pines director Derek Cianfrance and producers Jamie Patricof and Lynette Howell among others). Dallas Buyers Club stars Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, writers Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack and producers Robbie Brenner and Rachel Winter were among those there. McConaughey told me he thought this was turning into an exceptionally strong year for acting. “It’s not always like this, is it?” he asked me and noted this was the first time he’s been on this circuit (or is it circus?). He doesn’t have a whole lot of time as he is shooting Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar which says is four days ahead of schedule and pretty extraordinary. No question he will be one of those actors nominated as AIDs victim Ron Woodroof but he’s also hoping his earlier 2013 film Mud doesn’t get overlooked. He was really impressed with the quality of all the speeches at the Governors Awards. And Leto seemed to be having a great time too. I asked the Supporting Actor frontrunner if he is being deluged with scripts now. He said he doesn’t want them right now. He just sold out a 15,000 seat arena with his band, 30 Seconds To Mars, and doesn’t want to give up that part of his life just yet to spend months on a movie. In other words, it has to be special. Garner, also very fine in Dallas, was talking about why she won’t do horror or films with terror in them. She can’t even look at them. Even when she was in peril every week on Alias she said she couldn’t even read the script it made her so nervous.
Among the studio heads spotted were U’s Jeff Shell, Donna Langley and Ron Meyer, DWA’s Jeffrey Katzenberg who is high on The Croods for Animated Feature this year, 20th’s Jim Gianopulos, Disney’s Alan Horn and John Lasseter who told me he had both animation teams from his Oscar contending ’toons Monsters University and Frozen there too. Lionsgate’s Rob Friedman also was there is obviously looking forward to next week’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opening.
But no Harvey Weinstein in sight. How did he miss this one?