The Oscar luncheon has become a lynchpin for other events and award-related activities since so many nominees are in town for the occasion. It’s a last-gasp attempt to get them out to as many events as possible before final ballots go out Friday. The Dallas Buyers Club group, the Wolf Of Wall Street and several others had AMPAS Q&As lined up Monday evening. But perhaps the biggest event — judging by the Oscar-nominated star power it drew — was AARP‘s 2014 Awards Gala on Monday night saluting Movies For Grownups. Their mission as they say is to “honor outstanding writing, acting and filmmaking with distinct relevance to the 50-plus audience”. Considering the average age of Oscar voters, this is a good place to be seen. Among the winners were 12 Years A Slave as Best Movie For Grownups, Gravity’s Alfonso Cuaron as Best Director, Nebraska’s Bruce Dern and Philomena’s Judi Dench as Best Actor and Actress, 20 Feet From Stardom for Best Documentary, and Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for their Before Midnight screenplay. Susan Sarandon received the life achievement award from presenter Melissa McCarthy. Best Buddy Picture was CBS Films’ Lost Vegas with star Morgan Freeman and director Jon Turtletaub on hand. Best Grownup Love Story appropriately went to Nicole Holofcener for the terrific and sadly Oscar-overlooked Enough Said.
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The weirdest choice by the organization, considering the demo they are hitting, was Best Comedy winner The Way Way Back. The July release is truly a great movie that deserves any kudos coming its way, but it centers on a 14-year-old boy coming of age one summer. Not exactly fodder for the 50+ set. Producer Kevin Walsh and writer-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash told me they were a bit baffled at how it made the cut but certainly happy to be there. In fact Faxon and Rash did one of the most unusual things I have ever seen at an awards gala like this: They were presenters for their own award. They said none of the movie’s stars including Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell and Allison Janney were available to do it. Hilarious bit.
Comedienne Kathy Griffin was a sharp host, and surprisingly restrained considering her usual material. She introduced her 93-year-old mother in the audience who got some of the biggest applause of the night for, uh, just being 93 I guess. This crowd was appreciative of that for sure. Merry Clayton and Tata Vega, subjects of 20 Feet From Stardom, showed up to honor their Oscar-nominated director Morgan Neville. At the pre-reception I asked them about rumors Mick Jagger was going to produce a Broadway version of their story as back-up singers on some of the greatest recordings of all time. “It’s the first we heard of it, ” said Clayton. Neville said he talked to Jagger’s producing partner who basically said they agreed to talk about talking about it. He did confirm news that Oprah Winfrey’s OWN TV is going to produce a biopic on one of 20 Feet’s stars, Darlene Love. Beyoncé would be perfect for this role he agreed. Oprah herself , though absent, was one of the evening’s winners taking Best Supporting Actress for Lee Daniels’ The Butler which also won the Reader’s Choice Award. Daniels, sitting next to me, was still clearly disappointed that his film didn’t gain any traction at the Oscar nominations, even for Oprah or Forest Whitaker. He’s struggling to understand the Academy’s snub especially since his Precious had done so well just a few years earlier. Between this event and the Oscar nominees luncheon earlier I heard a lot of talk about snubs.
Among the best speeches was Dern’s upon receiving the Best Actor award from Naomi Watts. He got a heartfelt standing ovation. “Well, welcome to the geezer’s dinner, ” said the 77-year-old actor basking in the glory of the best role of his long career. “When Nebraska, or Omaha where our director Alexander Payne lives, found out I had won the AARP award they think that’s much bigger than any other award there is. That’s who’s there. (Payne) honors those folks and these people are fair people… he wanted to embrace these people and let you know who they were. Obviously he gave me the part of a lifetime, he gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. The reason it touches me so much is that being around this for eight weeks and playing this character there is one thing we can all do and that you guys are really the foundation of. When these folks, like my character, might not be quite where you want them to be, then do two things for them. Never ever let them stop breathing. And when they say, ‘I don’t want to go to a home. I am home. It’s my home. I live here’, don’t just pass them off because one day they might just give you a smile you haven’t seen in 50 years. And you might just put an arm around them, and hug them, because that’s worth more than you could ever do,” he said. His co-stars including Oscar nominee June Squibb and Will Forte also joined him later on stage when the film won for Best Intergenerational Movie too.
Steve Coogan presented the Actress award to his absent Philomena co-star Judi Dench who is shooting the sequel in India to another AARP favorite, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Accepting for her was the ever-present real Philomena Lee who has been spending more time in Los Angeles this awards season than I have – and I live here. “When they told me Dame Judi Dench was going to play me I nearly fell off my chair. But I am so glad she got to tell my story. She has become a true friend and I am delighted to accept this honor on her behalf,” she said in her brief remarks. Afterwards Sarandon came up to the table (I was seated there too) and privately shared her own personal story with Lee. Also among those cheering Philomena on was its composer Alexandre Desplat, Oscar-nominated for his score. Desplat is getting raves for his latest work on Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel which just had its World Premiere in Berlin. “But I probably can’t get an Oscar nomination for it because it is coming out in March. People don’t remember movies from March, ” he said. I bet they’ll remember this one. He also said he is three weeks away from recording the score for Godzilla which opens in May.
Presenting the centerpiece award of the evening for Best Film was 12 Years A Slave’s Oscar nominated supporting actress Lupita Nyong’o and the great, great, great granddaughter of the subject of the film (Solomon Northup who wrote the book on his experiences as a slave). She was among five other descendants of Northup who were also in attendance. Producer/Director Steve McQueen accepted and had all of them stand up and take applause. “The film showed that when we come together we can achieve anything. This picture was never an African American movie to me. Never. It was never a white American movie. Never. It was an American movie. And one person I would like to single out for thanks is Brad Pitt because without Brad Pitt this film would never have been made,” he said.
And believe it or not Brad Pitt just turned 50 himself in December and got a special “birthday cover” of the AARP magazine. We’re all getting older. Nice to get an award for it.