Spike Lee lamented the lack of black executives in Hollywood, saying it was “easier to elect an African American President than get a black person appointed studio head.” He noted that census figures predict whites will be a minority by 2043, so the industry needs to recognize new realities. That is about as controversial as it got Saturday night at the 7th Annual Governors Awards honoring Lee along with Debbie Reynolds and Gena Rowlands. But there also was an awareness and mention of world events right off the top.
As I reported earlier, Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs opened Saturday night’s Governors Awards with a ringing statement of support for France. “I do feel it’s important to mention yesterday’s horrifying attacks in Paris and to say that all of us here stand in solidarity and support our friends and the French people…Our connection with the film-loving French is especially deep with waves of influence going back and forth across the Atlantic ever since the Lumiere Brothers made the first motion picture,” she said. “We also mourn those who died. We send our deepest affections.” Boone Isaacs and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson actually just returned from Paris in late October so there is clearly a personal connection in those words.
Her other comments zeroed in on the Academy’s well-documented efforts to promote diversity in the industry as well as the Academy including their A 20 20 diversity program. She also noted that the night’s three honorees included two women (Rowlands and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian winner Reynolds) along with an African American, director Lee. Those presentations were at the heart of an evening that was at times funny, moving and heartfelt — as well as a bit bittersweet considering Reynolds, recovering from recent surgery, was too ill to attend.
After the dinner break Zooey Deschanel sang Reynolds’ signature song, “Tammy,” and presenter Jane Fonda detailed Reynolds’ tireless efforts on behalf of the Thalians and their efforts to fight mental illness. Fonda mentioned Reynolds had served as the organization’s leader from 1957 thru 2011. Then Meryl Streep came on to add her own words of praise for the legendary star, particularly in her efforts to build a classic, and priceless, movie memorbailia collection (Reynolds was forced financially to sell most of it off around the world) before introducing an audio clip of a weak-sounding Reynolds thanking the Academy for the award. Granddaughter Billie Lourd accepted on her behalf. “It seems super weird to be up here without her, because she’s always been the leader of our family at awards shows like this or back home. I truly have never seen her miss a show in her life. Unfortunately our leader needed a little backup tonight. I will be taking it home to her right now so we can cuddle with it and she can put it in a place she has always secretly saved for it – right next to the ruby red slippers,” she said.
Cate Blanchett came on and gave words of praise to long overdue honoree Gena Rowlands, who should have won an Oscar years ago. I have been lobbying the Academy for years to consider Rowlands for an honor that inevitably would also represent a big hug for the collaboration between her and husband John Cassavetes, the groundbreaking filmmaker who transformed the indie world. There is no question in my mind she was robbed when nominated for 1974’s A Woman Under The Influence. She should have won then (Ellen Burstyn did instead for Alice Doesn’t Live Her Anymore) but this is sweet revenge. The reel put together by producers Bonnie Curtis and Julie Lynn was breathtaking. Rowlands is a complete original. as another presenter, Laura Linney, noted before introduing son Nick Cassavetes to present his mother with the elusive Oscar. He was great, by the way, and Rowlands at age 85 was luminous, a word I used last year in my review of her Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks, for which she SHOULD have received her third nomination. “There’s a lot of great actresses in the room but she’s the best one on the planet,” he said before mentioning she has done 100 performances over 60 years and a lifetime of achievement.
Rowlands got a rousing and prolonged standing ovation, easily the biggest and most authentic of the night. “You know what is wonderful about being an actress?” she asked the crowd. “You live many lives and we actors have to thank the writers.” She then told a story about how she got to work with her all time favorite, Bette Davis, in a tv movie called Strangers. Davis , she said, gave her life and career lessons that were one of a kind. Just like Rowlands, one of the all time greats, who also acknowledged her late husband and long time collaborator in the burgeoning independent filmmaking world. As Nick said, they mostly shot their films in their own home on a tiny budget, and they became classics.
In addition to his aforementioned comments regarding the progress — or lack of it — for African American filmmakers, Lee — who is by FAR the youngest ever recipient of one of these honors — proceeded to recount his whole career before he wisely decided to cut it short. An all-star presenting team of Samuel L. Jackson, a heavily accented Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington were hilarious in giving Lee the reasons for his award. Lee used most of his long speech talking about himself and the ways he has been cast in roles, mostly in the early days. Finally he grabbed his Oscar and moved off the stage after telling his personal stories about trying to make it.
As for the other aspects of the Governors Awards, the untelevised show was lots of fun. But the real game here has become the non-stop schmoozing by Oscar hopefuls brought in to fill seats their respective studios have bought, and also to network with potential voters. The entire awards season is in that one room that has the honor of opening the season with the Governors Awards and closing it with the Oscars Governors Ball in the same location.