Maureen O’Hara, now 94, took time to fondly remember the Hollywood greats from her past such as John Wayne and John Ford. Legendary Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki said he was just happy to be in the same room as Maureen O’Hara. Masterful screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere gave a moving tribute to Hollywood’s “forgotten” writers. And Harry Belafonte, winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, galvanized  the industry crowd by asking them to aim higher.

pete_hammond_300x100Yes, it was quite a night for the four honorees of the Sixth Annual Governors Awards of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Quite a night. And the Academy got this awards season off to a roaring  start with this blessedly non-televised celebration of the greats in this business who may not have always been given their due. It has also become a night for major schmoozing and networking among Academy voters and the huge numbers of Oscar hopefuls. Their presence filled the room and made it clear campaign season is upon us – big time. But more on that later.

2532014%20Governors%20Awards%20-%20ArrivalsFirst, the real reason we were all there: to honor the greats of the movie business with the first (long overdue) Oscars awarded this season. And the recipients all knew going in that they were winners. No envelopes needed for this ceremony. Before beginning the presentation, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs championed the quartet of honorees. She then introduced a reel of past Honorary Oscar winners, including from the previous five Governors Awards held since the idea was instituted in 2009. The Academy decided then to create a separate show completely devoted to these special honorees, allowing for up to four winners each year instead of just one that previously would have been picked when these special Oscars were handed out during the main Oscar broadcast.

ChrisRockMichaelKeatonJessicaChastainGovBall2014_article_story_largeThe reel proved somewhat bittersweet when you realize how many of these recent Governors Award winners have passed away since being honored, including Lauren Bacall, Dick Smith, Gordon Willis, John Calley, Eli Wallach and Hal Needham. The reel reminded us that time is fleeting, but the accomplishments of these Hollywood immortals are not and should be recognized before it’s too late for them to take part.

That’s what AMPAS did Saturday night with O’Hara, the fiery Irish redhead who stood her ground in a man’s world opposite Wayne, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Errol Flynn, Tyrone Power and many others  in a career that spanned seven decades. After a far-too-short look at her career – a career that incredibly never included an Oscar nomination – she was introduced by Liam Neeson, followed by Clint Eastwood, who told of the awe he felt meeting her when he was a contract player at Universal.

“She was the first movie star I ever met when I was doing (an uncredited role in) a film called Lady Godiva, she was the first real movie star,” Eastwood said. With the orchestra playing O’Hara onto the stage with Danny Boy for a prolonged and heartfelt standing ovation, she actually proceeded to sing a verse of the song before offering her thanks.

“Happily  I finally got an Oscar,” she said. “I’m honored beyond words. Thank you with all my heart.”  She then “closed”  with an old Irish saying. But even though it appeared she was done, she wasn’t. She said she still had at least 10 more minutes to go, but after some awkward moments, she was finally played off.  At any rate, at least the Academy finally got it right, giving O’Hara her Oscar.

9242014%20Governors%20Awards%20-%20ArrivalsDisney Animation and Pixar chief John Lasseter was next up, introducing his hero, Miyazaki, who announced his retirement (for a second time) earlier this year after one of feature animation’s most prolific directing careers, with 11 films to his credit, including 2003 Best Animated Feature Oscar winner Spirited Away and two other nominees.

Miyazaki was brief and charming in his acceptance and the reel showing off his work was indeed impressive. He won an Oscar 11 years ago but this Oscar was for his body of work.

“I think I’ve been lucky to participate in the last time, the last era, when we can make films with paper, pencils and film,” he said through an interpreter. Miyazaki is famous for hand drawing tens of thousands of the still-image cels used in each of his films.

960x540I was particularly taken with director Phil Kaufman, who came out next to honor legendary screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, a frequent collaborator with so many famous directors, including Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness Of Being) and most notably Luis Bunuel.

His amazing output of 139 films includes Belle De Jour, The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie, The Tin Drum and That Obscure Object Of Desire. Kaufman told me afterwards there is so much to say about Carriere that he could have gone on for an hour. He had to cut his remarks down as it was.

In an eloquent acceptance speech, Carriere was especially warm to writers, who are so often overlooked.

“I am very happy about this (Oscar) because very often screenwriters are forgotten… but still they are filmmakers,” Carriere said. “That’s why I would like to share this priceless statue with all my colleagues: the ones I know, the ones I don’t know. From all over the world, to share with them. So we all thank you.”

712014%20Governors%20Awards%20-%20ArrivalsFinally, though, it was Belafonte who fired up the crowd with his potent speech that really spanned the history and pitfalls of being black in Hollywood.

Chris Rock got in some laughs in this part of the show, saying the Academy’s Isaacs was “a black president we still like,” before getting more serious in saluting Belafonte:  “I am not here to honor you. I am here to thank you.”

Susan Sarandon presented the award and noted he had won an Emmy, Grammy and Tony. With this Oscar, Belafonte now joins the elite EGOT club, with all four major show-business awards.

But it was what he had to say that really resonated and will stay in the memory. He started by pointing out such film classics as 1915’s Birth Of A Nation, an acknowledged movie milestone that also incited racist murderous rampages by American citizens for its portrayals of the Ku Klux Klan.

And he mentioned seeing Tarzan, The Ape Man, featuring a white man swinging from tree to tree but presenting devastating and lasting negative images of Africans. He also pointed out landmark movies from The Defiant Ones to this year’s Oscar winner 12 Years A Slavebefore bringing up another legend, and good friend29312664-EA67-C7D2-DA4594002F629187, Sidney Poitier to join him on stage. Most memorably, Belafonte laid down the gauntlet for the industry.

“I really wish I could be around the rest of the century to see what Hollywood does with the rest of this century,” Belafonte said. “After all, Paul Robeson said artists are the voice of civilization. Perhaps we as artists and missionaries, through heart and soul, can influence citizens everywhere in the world to see a better side, and look beyond as a species.” Afterwards, Academy actors branch Governor Annette Bening was just one of many still deeply moved by his remarks.

2662014%20Governors%20Awards%20-%20ArrivalsAs for the other side of the Govenors Awards, it has undoubtedly become a must stop if you are on the Oscar campaign circuit. The cocktail hour is a schmoozefest second to none. Everywhere you turn you are likely to bump into a major star or filmmaker talking up their contending movie.

And then when the announcer says those three magic words, “dinner is served,” it seems as if no one was sitting down to eat, because they were continuing the conversation and table hopping like no other evening quite provides.

Each studio and distributor buys one or two tables and fills them with their contenders. I sat this year with Focus Features (thanks for the invite, Focus) right between The Theory Of Everything stars Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, both great dinner companions who seemed genuinely moved by the presentations.

Eddie was constantly being interrupted by well wishers from Laura Dern to Angie Dickinson, who told me she thinks 8842014%20Governors%20Awards%20-%20ArrivalsRedmayne is one of the greats (and she based that on My Week With Marilyn not Theory,  which she has yet to see but said she intends to ASAP). Focus chief Peter Schlessel and Theory producer Lisa Bruce were among others at the table. At another Focus table, was Travis Knight and the gang from their animated contender, The Boxtrolls.

Eastwood, sitting at the Warners table, told me he just put the finishing touches on his December release American Sniper in the past two days, “and it’s ready to be seen now” he said. He called the story about America’s greatest sniper, Chris Kyle, a remarkable one.

jennifer-aniston-justin-theroux-governors-awards-2014Mark Wahlberg, whose The Gambler has its World Premiere Monday at the same complex where the Governors Awards were held, came by and told me he just showed the film to James Caan, star of the 1974 original.  He said Caan had tears in his eyes watching it, quite a tribute.

Kevin Costner, who just entered the race with his Black Or White, is excited that more people are finally going to see the movie. It’s been a long road finding the right distributor, in this case Relativity, which will open it for a week to qualify in early December.

The film features one of Costner’s best performances, and the same goes for co-star Octavia Spencer, who also was at the awards on a break from the Atlanta location of her TV series, Red Band Society

Costner, Spencer and  their director Mike Binder actually had to leave early to get to the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre for a Q&A, where their film was having its official Academy screening. Jack O’Connell, a possible Best Actor contender for Unbroken, also snuck out and into the Chinese Theatre next door for a surprise Q&A visit for his  other film, ’71, which was showing at the AFI Fest.

The list of attendees who are “on the circuit”  was even more staggering than usual.  The Judge‘s Robert Duvall told me7552014%20Governors%20Awards%20-%20Arrivals he had been to the Governors Awards once before, when his Godfather  and Apocalypse Now director Francis Coppola was given the Thalberg Award. Duvall’s Judge co-star Robert Downey Jr. also made the scene just days after welcoming a new baby girl into his family.

A large contingent came from Disney’s upcoming contender, the adapted musical Into The Woods. Director Rob Marshall told me the first big screening will be in two weeks, with a bi-coastal Burbank and New York unveiling of the film followed by an NYC Q&A with the filmmakers and cast that will be beamed simultaneously to the West Coast.

Producer Marc Platt, Emily Blunt and James Corden also were at the Governors Awards. Corden asked me what I would like his upcoming talk show to be like (he’s replacing Craig Ferguson on the Late Late Show in March) and I said, ‘Just fun,’ I have no doubt it will be. Blunt’s husband, John Krasinski, who is directing his own film right now, said his wife has never been better than in this film and actually did it while pregnant.

Hilary Swank, Tilda Swinton, Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Chastain, Keira Knightley, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jake Gyllenhaal, Oscar Isaac, Logan Lerman ( the Fury  co -star just back from D.C, and a White House meeting with the President and First Lady at the “Salute To The Troops” concert),  Edward Norton, Bennett Miller,  Christoph Waltz, Reese Witherspoon, Richard Linklater, Patricial Arquette, Marion Cotillard, Michelle Monaghan, Andy Serkis, Ava Duvernay, David Oyelowo, Edward Norton, Michael Keaton,  Steve Carell, Ethan Hawke,  Trent Reznor,  Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Chadwick Boseman, Timothy Spall are just some awards contenders who were there on this night that, in just a short time, has become an indispensable and unquestioned highlight of the season. If the Oscars end all of Awards Season on Feb. 22, this weekend is where it really starts in earnest.