At Saturday night’s third annual Governors Awards, Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody (Juno) was seated next to me and before the show unexpectedly said of being in the room with Oprah: “This is extreme for me. I am an Oprah worshipper.” After this year’s recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award earned a trio of standing ovations and ended her emotional acceptance speech to bring the big night to a close, Cody concluded, “I feel like I have just freebased Oprah”. Indeed it was Oprah’s night in this room. But it also belonged to the other honorary Oscar winners, too — makeup legend Dick Smith and actor James Earl Jones, who accepted his award from London’s Wyndham stage in a segment taped earlier in the day after a matinee performance of Driving Miss Daisy in which he is appearing alongside Vanessa Redgrave.
So far I have been to all three Governors Awards ceremonies and I would say this seemed the most emotional of them all with both Winfrey and Jones referencing their long journey from Mississippi to this Hollywood moment. One attendee told me afterwards, “I was really moved by this more than any other year”. If only the speeches could be this good on the Oscar show itself. Then the Academy wouldn’t have to worry about who hosts or produces the show.
Academy President Tom Sherak made his entrance in a Darth Vader uniform (in tribute to Jones) and opened with the same line he used to introduce a screening of the Jones film, The Great White Hope on Friday night: “How was your week?” It was an obvious reference to the tumultuous events surrounding this year’s Oscar show. But that was the only time the week’s events came up all evening. This was a night for the honorees and they all made the most of it. Before dinner a stirring reel was shown highlighting the entire 84-year history of honorary Oscar winners, followed by a touching tribute to past Oscar show producers Laura Ziskin and Gil Cates who both died this year.
Alec Baldwin got the show rolling after dinner by honoring his The Hunt For Red October co-star Jones saying, “Unlike many actors, James Earl Jones never had to get his career back because he never lost it. He is one of the greatest actors in history”. Glenn Close came out to praise him by referencing his Broadway triumph Fences. “He is the only actor who has broken me apart and transformed me until I was a screaming slobbering mess. James Earl Jones is indeed a world treasure.” Redgrave via tape surprised her co-star by bringing on Sir Ben Kingsley with an Oscar to present to Jones. “You achieve what every actor is striving for. You are always so damn good,” Kingsley praised.
Jones was genuinely taken aback. “If an actor’s nightmare is being onstage butt-naked and not knowing his lines, then what the hell is this?” he laughed. “This is an actor’s wet dream. I am gobsmacked at this improbable moment in my life. You cannot be an actor like I am and not have been in some of the worst movies like I have. But I stand before you deeply honored, mighty grateful, and just plain godsmacked.”
The room then turned into a lovefest for veteran makeup wizard Dick Smith, the legend behind such remarkable transformations as Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver, F. Murray Abraham in Amadeus, and Linda Blair in The Exorcist who told the crowd: “I was supposed to be the next Disney girl but then I got this movie and Dick Smith turned me into the ugliest, sickest, scariest monster ever.”
Director J.J. Abrams gave a tip of the hat to Smith in his film Super 8 and got the biggest laugh of the night with a story about how when he was a kid back in 1981 he was obsessed with Smith and wrote him a fan letter. “One day a box arrived from Dick Smith with a note to me that said ‘Dear J.J. Here’s an old but clean tongue from The Exorcist’ - and it was signed Dick. My mother was very concerned about who this man named Dick was and why he was sending me tongues.”
Seven-time Oscar winner and fellow makeup genius Rick Baker presented Smith with his Oscar (it’s Dick’s second, having won in 1984 for Amadeus) and called him “my idol, mentor, and friend for over 40 years, the greatest makeup artist of all time”. Smith teared up and became almost speechless but managed to say, “When I watch the wonderful films they just showed, I thought, ‘What a wonderful career this fellow has had.’ I have loved being a makeup artist. To have had so much kindness is just too much.”
Among those tributing Winfrey were her good friends John Travolta and producer Larry Gordon (with a hilarious story involving lots of shared tequila), and Maria Shriver who explained, “I am standing here because this woman has stood by me for 34 years. I’m also standing here because so many people want to love Oprah.” To present the Oscar, a young Harlem girl stepped up to the podium: Ayanna Hall who received a scholarship from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation and said she was one of 65,000 other students whom Oprah has sent to college.
Visibly overwhelmed, Winfrey claimed she had not prepared a speech. “I just wanted to feel what this is… It is unimaginable if you were not a black ‘colored girl’ in Mississippi in 1954 to know what this means. When I saw The Help and read the bookm it was my story. My grandmother was a maid, her mother was a maid, her mother before her was a slave, my mother was a maid. This is unimaginable… I will keep this Oscar on my desk to remind me to use our lives in service of one another. For me this Oscar will represent love from all of you.”
As is now the custom, the Governors Awards is an opportune moment for prospective Oscar nominees to mix and mingle with Academy voters. All the studios buy tables and invite some of their hopefuls. Working the Red Carpet, they even get their photos taken with the big Oscar statues. So the room was full of contenders. Here’s a partial list: Glenn Close and Janet McTeer from Albert Nobbs, Demian Bichir and director Chris Weitz from A Better Life, Jean DuJardin, Berenice Bejo and director Michel Hazanavicious from The Artist, Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer and director Tate Taylor from The Help, Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen from Shame, Shailene Woodley and Robert Forster from The Descendants, animated feature directors Gore Verbinski from Rango, John Lasseter from Cars 2, Jennifer Yuh Nelson from Kung Fu Panda 2 and Chris Miller from Puss In Boots, Evan Rachel Wood from The Ides of March, director Drake Doremus from Like Crazy, Gary Oldman from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Patton Oswalt from Young Adult, Director Bennett Miller from Moneyball, Woody Harrelson from Rampart, Tilda Swinton from We Need To Talk About Kevin, Andrea Riseborough from W.E., Director Cary Fukunaga from, Jane Eyre, Kim Wayans from Pariah, Ellen Barkin and director Sam Levinson from Another Happy Day, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black from J. Edgar, Melissa McCarthy from Bridesmaids, Nick Nolte and director Gavin O’Connor from Warrior .
Walt Disney Studios’ Rich Ross, DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider, Fox Searchlight’s Nancy Utley, Roadside Attraction’s Howard Cohen and Eric D’Abeloff, Dreamworks Animation’s Jeffrey Katzenberg, Lionsgate’s Joe Drake, Summit Entertainment’s Rob Friedman and Fox Filmed Entertainment’s Jim Gianopulos (the latter two both Academy board members) were all there among many other moguls and producers and talent. Missing was The Weinstein Company’s Harvey Weinstein who was in London to see the nearly finished cut of The Iron Lady (December 30) for which Meryl Streep is a shoo-in for another Best Actress nomination.