To many, it’s a surprise that 94-year-old actress Maureen O’Hara—she of How Green Was My Valley and Miracle on 34th Street fame—has never won, or even been nominated for, an Academy Award. That is, until now.

“I got a phone call, and I was sure it was a joke, ” O’Hara exclaims about hearing she would be one of this year’s recipients of a Governors Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

O’Hara, speaking by phone with her grandson Connor FitzSimons at her side, was quick to dissolve into happy tears during a recent conversation about the honor, which will be bestowed on November 8 during a black-tie dinner at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center. The event, in its sixth year, is considered one of the early kickoffs to Academy season.

“She’s wanted this award her whole life,” FitzSimons says.

Joining O’Hara on this year’s distinguished list is singer and actor Harry Belafonte; French novelist, screenwriter and actor Jean-Claude Carrière; and Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki. Belafonte will take home the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, while Miyazaki, Carrière and O’Hara each will be given an Honorary Award.

Harry Belafonte
Harry Belafonte will receive the Academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award on Nov. 8.

Miyazaki won an Oscar in 2003 for his animated film Spirited Away. Carrière shared an Academy Award with Pierre Étaix in 1962 for Happy Anniversary, winner of the best live action short award. It’s a startlingly short list of Academy statuettes for such long and celebrated careers.

And that’s part of the point of the Governors Awards, says event producer Reginald Hudlin, who was tapped for the job after producing a celebration of black movie soundtracks at the Hollywood Bowl in September. The evening is a chance to give honor where it’s due, in spite of trends, fads and Oscar campaigns.

“I think it’s great that the Academy has a fail-safe system,” Hudlin says with a laugh. “Yes, you can be hot this year; you can even have a hot decade. Well, these honorees have had hot centuries. That’s a whole other thing, when you’ve had 30, 40, 50 or 60 years of globally impactful work. It creates an inherent humility in everyone else.”

For a legend such as O’Hara, the Governors Award looms large. Her grandson confirms that even after all these years, she still can be found re-watching her favorite among her films,  John Ford’s 1952 romance The Quiet Man, in which she played opposite her frequent co-star, John Wayne.

Maureen O'Hara
Maureen O’Hara will receive a Governors Award at the Academy’s 6th annual event.

“You can’t help it,” she says. “When you have a favorite movie, you look at it and you see all the little tiny mistakes and you get angry with yourself.” Perhaps this award will allow O’Hara to take a less critical look at her performance next time around. “To be recognized by the Academy is wonderful. To be recognized (with this) award is super-wonderful,” she adds.

Hot Ticket

Speaking from a taxi on the East Coast, where he was teaching a master class, the ever-busy Carrière called his first Academy acknowledgment in 51 years a coup for writers. “Usually the screenwriters are neglected and forgotten and their names don’t appear anywhere,” he says. “I am grateful to (the Academy) on behalf of all of my colleagues.

“America and France are the two countries that invented cinema,” he adds. “This proves that there is, in Hollywood, a real attraction to good filmmaking, interesting pictures—not only commercial filmmaking, but what we call cinema.

The first Governors Awards ceremony was held on November 14, 2009. Before that, the awards were presented during the televised Oscar ceremony. Now the awardees receive a mention on the air but get a non-televised ceremony of their own. With just over 600 available seats for the intimate dinner, it’s become a hot ticket, Hudlin acknowledges.

“All I know is that the event is sold out, and I am going to have to break some hearts in my circle,” says Hudlin, who has attended the event as a producer of Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 movie Django Unchained. “I am going to have to tell some people there is no room at the inn.

While recipients know ahead of time that they will be honored, that first phone call is as much of a surprise as the calls to each year’s Academy Awards nominees. “They get a call from the president—that’s now two years for me,” AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs says. “It’s a highlight, I have to tell you.”

And despite her position, Boone Isaacs admits to being star struck by these Hollywood veterans. “Each of the recipients continues to moisten my eyes, if you will,” she says. (Last year’s honorees included Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Piero Tosi and Angelina Jolie.)“My God, I’m talking to Maureen O’Hara,” she exclaims. “And Jean-Claude, wow, with his French accent he could say, ‘I am putting eggs in your refrigerator,’ and it would sounds great. He is such a wit with a pen.”

Hudlin agrees. He was overwhelmed when Belafonte called him one morning—not an assistant, Belafonte himself—to chat about his awards speech. “He says, ‘Is this a bad time for you?’ I wanted to yell and say, ‘There is no bad time for you!’ He was concerned about making his speech succinct. In addition all the other things that (the recipients) are, they are total pros.”

Both Boone Isaacs and Hudlin say the stars can be more relaxed at the event due to the lack of TV cameras. “If you want to knock a couple back, knock a couple back,” Hudlins says. “We’re all dressed in our finest, but there’s an informality to the event.” He adds that he plans to keep the awards ceremony to about two hours, but unlike the Academy Awards, no one is going to be played offstage.

That’s good, because O’Hara doesn’t plan on composing her speech until the very last minute.

“I can only speak out of my heart,” she says, her voice again trembling with emotion. “You wait for the last moment because there are so many (times) where you were told certain things were going to happen and they didn’t. You have to wait until just minutes before, then open your mouth and just let it come out.”