The 10th annual Governors Awards started out on a sober note Sunday night with Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president John Bailey acknowledging the devastating impact of the California fires, and said it has hit close to home for many in the industry including the historic Paramount Ranch, where the Academy does a summer program. Like other recent events, AMPAS, out of respect for all those who suffered unimaginable loss, toned down the usual bustling red-carpet activities to include photos only.

Inside the cavernous Ray Dolby Ballroom, however, the joint was jumping as usual, packed to the rafters and impossible not to keep bumping into one famous face after another — Nicole Kidman in one corner, Hugh Jackman in the other. The Academy created this event to give proper plaudits and, most importantly, time to hand out Honorary Oscars to those who so richly deserve the recognition from their peers in an environment that wouldn’t be pressured by the clock as the traditional Oscar broadcast, where these honors were previously handed out, always is.

I have now been to all 10 of these warm and special evenings (I even wrote the second Gov Awards show for the Academy), and though each has its own unique personality, I have to say there was something extra special and very cool about this one — a genuine spirit that made this presentation one from the heart. The speeches were great all around, even if Clint Eastwood’s presentation to his Dirty Harry composer Lalo Schifrin turned into an onstage Q&A between him and the perplexed music maestro (but charmingly so). Hey, you know Harry Callahan just had some questions he wanted answers to, right?

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Of course, this event has become an obligatory stop on the awards campaign circuit as it offers opportunity for the ultimate schmooze-fest before dinner, during dinner, and after the presentations, but even that aspect seemed toned down for a vibe that was just more like friends greeting friends and co-stars.  A favorite moment was seeing Green Book star Viggo Mortensen pulling out a copy of a vintage Don Shirley LP that he had found. “This record is for Mahershala. You can’t get it anywhere. It is so rare, ” he enthused about his gift for Ali, who plays the concert pianist in the film. Well, we know at least one Governors Awards guest got a really cool parting gift last night. The whole season literally passed before my eyes with moments like that in this room which on February 24 will become the site of the Governors Ball following the Oscars. That’s the end game, but this is just the first quarter as the race is bookended in this Hollywood & Highland ballroom.

Marvin Levy
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The main event of the evening, the presentation of the season’s first Oscars, could not have been more enlightening, inspiring and heartfelt right from Tom Hanks and Laura Dern’s tributes to veteran publicist Marvin Levy — the first ever from the Public Relations branch to receive an Academy Award. “If you are working with Marvin you are told what to say, and what not to say, but you better listen to him,” warned Hanks about the man who worked on earlier campaigns for such Best Picture winners as Gigi and Ben-Hur, and has spent the past four decades as an integral part of Amblin and Steven Spielberg’s inner circle ever since meeting on 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

When I went over to greet Levy, an old friend, he was sitting across from Spielberg, also an Academy governor, who told me how excited he was for Marvin, who has guided him through the PR jungle on every film since. It was a real familial feeling at that table there in the center as their other collaborators, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, were sitting right next to them and being honored later in the evening as the first-ever married recipients of the much-prized Thalberg Award.

In his acceptance speech, Levy, who once helped organize celebrities participating in the famous March on Washington, talked about that important aspect of his work, especially now. “Celebrity is a controversial word, but we used celebrity to fight for civil rights, and I’m proud to see that passion still shared today,” he told the tony audience while saying how he loved his job — even singing a bit of Hamilton as he said he liked being in “the room where it happened” (I wonder if he knew Lin-Manuel Miranda was in the room where this was happening?). Of Spielberg he said, “Steven always treated me like his storyteller and we are all storytellers in the public relations branch.” As for actually trying to describe what he does? “I could never really tell my family what the job entails, but now at least they’ll know I got an Oscar for it,” he smiled.

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Eastwood, left, and Schifrin
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Six-time Oscar-nominated composer Schifrin was up next with Kathy Bates pointing to one of his most famous works in her remarks. “Without the cool Mission: Impossible theme, they would have failed the mission the first time out,” she laughed.  Many of Schifrin’s film scores are iconic as well, from The Cincinnati Kid to Bullitt to my favorite, Cool Hand Luke, but another great composer John Powell sitting at the DreamWorks Animation table where I was happily headquartered for the night told me he was even more impressed with Schifrin’s concert and non-film musical work, which he said is extraordinary.

OK, and then there’s Eastwood, who has made some eight films with Schifrin scores and is a musician and jazz fan himself. So when he strolled out to present the Oscar, he ignored the teleprompter (which he indicated he couldn’t read anyway) and in classic Clint style asked a confused Schifrin to join him onstage to answer some questions he had. What followed was a rambling, at times indecipherable encounter that turned out to be a show highlight. The crowd loved it as Schifrin tried to explain his roots and more.

“My parents took me to a horror movie and I realized that without music it wouldn’t have been so scary,” he said, while asking Clint if he had any other questions and said it was nice talking to him. “He’s sabotaging my speech because he thinks I am going to compete with him as an actor,” Schifrin laughed.  After this act, which was really a case of “you just had to be there to see it,” it was “Mission: Accomplished” as the great music man finally got his Oscar. Former Academy president Hawk Koch, sitting nearby, came over and whispered in my ear, “Nothing’s gonna top this!”

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Next up was Tyler Perry, who came on to say how revered Cicely Tyson is in the black community, which is a bit of a falsehood since this about-to-be-94-year-old (by her own admission onstage) actress is revered everywhere. “She only chose roles that served us as African Americans,” Perry said, noting she knew and/or worked with such legends as Hattie McDaniel, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne. “Hell she even married Miles Davis!” Ava DuVernay and Quincy Jones were others who paid tribute with Jones, recalling Tyson saying, “Being an actor was not something I chose to do, it was something I was chosen to do.”

During her acceptance Tyson noted the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and others important to this honor and that 45 years ago when she did Sounder she got her Best Actress Oscar nomination the same year as Diana Ross, which represented the first time two black women were ever nominated in the same year in one category. Looking over her career she thought of her mother as she touched her new Honorary Oscar. “My mother didn’t want me to do this, but I did. And here it is,” she proudly said.

Governors Awards
From left: Damon, Spielberg, Marshall and Kennedy
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Matt Damon began the tribute to Thalberg Award winners Kennedy and Marshall, the first time the award has been given since Francis Coppola got it eight years ago. However, it was natural this would be presented by Spielberg, whose own career is deeply intertwined with both of the recipients, the first husband and wife to receive it in Academy history — he had hired her as an assistant initially but that didn’t last long once he noticed her abilities. “She went from taking notes to taking over.” Then he told what happened when Marshall was hired to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. “We were a trio, and we made lots of movies together. Then one day when I walked into my office I saw the two of them making out on my couch. From where I stood, and from what I saw, I was now the third wheel,” he said.

In his speech, Marshall talked about his beginnings with Peter Bogdanovich, both starting their film careers together, and with the likes of Larry Gordon and Orson Welles including most recently when Marshall was able to push Welles’ final film, the long-gestating unfinished The Other Side of the Wind to completion 42 years after Welles stopped shooting it. When I saw him last night, I told him he deserved this award just for that feat alone.

In her acceptance speech, Kennedy drew a standing ovation in the middle when she correctly said, “I am the first woman to receive this. I’m not the first to deserve it, and I’m 100 percent sure I’m not the last.” Afterwards, I told Kennedy I hadn’t seen that before at one of these evenings, a standing-O right in the middle of a speech. It was historic. “I have to tell you I was rather stunned, and a little disoriented when that happened,” she said.

Kennedy recalled her account of the first meeting with her future husband (and now 32-year marriage) when one day Spielberg told her to call producer Frank Marshall to discuss a script she had just read. “So I called Mr. Marshall. I called him Mr. Marshall repeatedly until he said, ‘Could you please stop calling me that? I’m Frank.’ He then offered to come over to our offices to introduce himself. I was expecting this much older man, maybe in the mid 50s , but in walked this handsome young guy, and I have to admit my first reaction was, ‘Helloooo Mr. Marshall!’, ” she recalled to big laughs.

In sharing her hopes for what this landmark award means, Kennedy was hopeful for a new generation. “I so passionately believe that each of us has an obligation to insure that everyone who has a story to tell is given the opportunity that I , and many in this room, had. And it is my hope that with this inclusion of these powerful new voices that we might just bring this world back to its senses and maybe, just maybe, shatter a few glass ceilings along the way.”

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As a matter of fact, giving the opportunity like that to new filmmakers was exactly what my tablemate, DreamWorks Feature Animation head Chris DeFaria, was telling me earlier in the evening, particularly with the studio’s new initiative in bringing fresh talent to make short films part of its new alliance with Universal. He told me he is excited to share opportunities with filmmakers that haven’t previously been given the chance to show what they can do. DeFaria said the new DreamWorks lineup will hit the ground running in 2019, with a new movie every six months after gearing up with the new slate. During the evening, Roma director Alfonso Cuarón stopped by to catch up with DeFaria.

At one point I was ushered over to the complete opposite side of the room to DeFaria’s former studio Warner Bros’ tables, where the A Star Is Born and Crazy Rich Asians casts were hanging out. ASIB co-star Sam Elliott told me he has been holed up with wife Katharine Ross at their Malibu house, so far untouched by the fires but carefully monitored and difficult to get out of or into due to the tragedy unfolding all around there. He said they have been fortunate at least to still have a house.

Lady Gaga
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I had fun talking to Lady Gaga, who seemed to be having a great time at her first Governors Awards. I complimented her on all the praise she has gotten for both her performance and the songs she co-wrote, three of which have been submitted for Oscars. I asked about the lovely and subtle tribute she does to Judy Garland, star of the 1954 version of the film, early on in the movie as she is heard singing the not-often-sung but beautiful preamble to Garland’s signature Wizard Of Oz song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She said she has always known that part of the song and was thrilled to be able to do that tip of the hat to Garland, part of the same A Star Is Born legacy that Gaga now shares so brilliantly.

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At the pre-dinner cocktail party I ran into so many of this year’s contenders — it would be impossible to recount them all. I interrupted Mary Poppins Returns director Rob Marshall’s conversation with Emma Stone to congratulate him on all the massive standing ovations the film has been getting, along with instant Best Picture Oscar buzz over the weekend as it premiered for SAG voters on Saturday night, and then at a near-SRO 10:30 AM Academy screening Sunday morning where I was told by one audience member there was constant applause and delight throughout.

Marshall said he was really overwhelmed by the response so far, adding it is a movie that seems to be coming along just at the right time. Mary Poppins herself, Emily Blunt, was sitting at the Paramount A Quiet Place table, just across from mine and right next to husband and Quiet Place co-star and director John Krasinski. She too was blown away by the response to the film this weekend (which has its world premiere at the Dolby Theatre and this same ballroom on November 29), and said it had been a long journey for this film. Indeed, but for Marshall and Blunt, stepping into iconic territory appears to be paying off.  Disney’s Bob Iger certainly appeared happy when I congratulated him on the early response. He was sitting right next to his top Star Wars executive, cheering on Kennedy.

After it was all over I hung out with the Green Book team of Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie who loved being there, and I think we closed down the place. Farrelly said he had been invited before but didn’t realize exactly what it was. “Now I can tell you this was an amazing night.  I am coming every year,” he said.

Indeed, an amazing night.