Ninety-one-year old Wertmuller was honored in part as a ground-breaker by being the first Oscar-nominated female director. Geena Davis took the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for tirelessly promoting gender parity in media and movies through her foundation. Wes Studi became the first Native American ever to receive an Oscar. And David Lynch got his long deserved statuette for being, well, David Lynch. It was an eclectic but highly deserving group of honorees that clearly represented the ever-evolving and fast pace of the Academy’s new face, one that emphasizes diversity and fighting for equality in membership with the still dominant numbers of white males. As new AMPAS president David Rubin said in his remarks, “that is changing.”
Rubin said these Governors Awards meant the kickoff of the awards season, and it came in October for the first time, two weeks earlier than previous years, but then again the Oscars on February 9 are two weeks earlier as well. These two events bookend the season, and it was a starry turnout as usual here with numerous possible contenders mingling at the pre and post receptions. Smartly though, the Academy was sure to keep the spotlight on these four honorees, not Oscar campaigns, by changing it up a bit and not interrupting the show for dinner, which this time was quickly served as soon as guests sat down at 6 PM. In the past the dinner hour meant lots of hobnobbing with no one actually sitting in their seats for long. Not this time. When I caught up with Rubin and CEO Dawn Hudson afterwards, they were both thrilled at the way the evening (impeccably produced again by Jennifer Fox and her team) went, pointing to the great speeches and tributes coming off without a hitch.
Jamie Foxx opened the proceedings in a Vegas-y way with a little riff on a few superstars in the crowd including Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino and Eddie Murphy whom he even dragged up onstage. He even put in a plug for The Irishman, a movie he’s not in — imagine that. After that, Rubin made his opening remarks calling the evening a party and promising the long-awaited Academy Museum Of Motion Pictures would definitely open in 2020.
Then it was Isabella Rossellini who came onstage to honor Lynch, who directed her in Blue Velvet, a movie she said she got because Helen Mirren turned it down for being too “controversial.” In describing Lynch she pointed to his surreal approach. “Don’t look for straight, linear, simple narratives in David’s films. He draws much deeper than that. He draws from a realm of emotion that elude simple explanation, definitive answers and attitudes. He is attracted to mystery. He tries to capture what he’s felt, the mysteries of our emotions, of our feelings, of our passions, of our life,” she said. After a brilliantly compiled clip reel, the Blue Velvet cast reunion continued with Laura Dern, who as a Board of Governors member was instrumental in putting Lynch’s name forward for this Honorary Oscar, and Kyle MacLachlan, who asked “who doesn’t remember the first time they saw a David Lynch movie?” The pair went on to describe him as “a director, a painter, a composer, a photographer, a writer, a cartoonist, a prop maker, a sound designer, an editor, an actor, an art director, a visionary, and yes, a true renaissance man.” Lynch wasn’t nearly so verbose in his brief, to say the least, acceptance simply, thanking the Academy and all the people who helped him along the road. “Have a good night and (to his new Oscar) you have a very interesting face. Good night.” As Rossellini said, he loves mystery.
Geena Davis’ A League of Their Own co-star Tom Hanks presented her with the Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given for her work in creating a foundation to study the disparity in gender representation in media, and wondered aloud why a white guy on the cover of AARP magazine was chosen to present this particular Oscar. “The message we are sending is that men and boys are far more valuable to us than women and girls. Whatever you’re working on right now, boost the number of female characters,” she urged to power players in the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland, before amusingly adding that once they do that they can also cast her. She also said that even though the gap between males and females in the workplace is not good in our society, it is far worse in fiction. “We make it worse,” she said while pointing out the one category in which gender equality can easily be fixed is “on screen.”
The same might be said for the portrayal of, and opportunities for, Native Americans in the industry, and so it was remarkable to learn the Academy was making Oscar history Sunday night in awarding actor Wes Studi one of those little golden men. After a presentation of his career from New World co-star Q’orianka Kilcher and then Hostiles co-star Christian Bale, Studi got his moment, a long time coming for the Native American population in terms of its representation in movies. “It’s been a wild and wonderful ride. I am proud to be here tonight as the first indigenous Native American to receive an Academy Award,” he said, but prefaced that with three words: “It’s about time!”
The sad statistics reflecting gender parity emphasized in the Davis portion of the show came home to roost in the final award of the evening to Lina Wertmuller who, in her own charming Italian way, suggested changing Oscar’s identity to a more feminine name, and told the Academy to call it “Anna.”
There was a real dose of star power when the legendary Sophia Loren came on to introduce the tribute to Wertmuller, the woman she first worked with four decades earlier. “She is passionate, playful, honest, and brilliant. She is all those things and more,” she said. “She is an artist who has made history by being herself.” In 1976, she became the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Director for the movie Seven Beauties. Presenters Greta Gerwig and Jane Campion came out to emphasize the disparity between men and women in this regard by mentioning that since Wertmuller’s feat only four others including both of them, Sofia Coppola, and the only female directing winner to date Kathryn Bigelow, have been nominated, while Campion methodically counted out well past 300 men. The clip package showing the breadth and daring of Wertmuller’s films was excellent, with interviews from Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese among others. Speaking in Italian, with Rossellini called back in for translating duty, Wertmuller thanked her husband and daughter, as well as America. “Italy is just a little boot. This is a continent,” she said before disapproving of the purple color of Rossellini’s dress, apparently a no-no in Italian circles I was told later.
Wertmuller attracted quite a crowd joining her onstage including Jon Hamm, who was SOS’d by his The Report producer Jennifer Fox to help out and escort Loren on to the stage. Afterwards he told me he overheard the Italian women talking to each other in their native language apparently unaware Hamm actually speaks Italian himself. He laughed about it saying they were exchanging some kind of randy things about him, and he wondered if maybe he should tell them he speaks the language. Ever the gentleman he decided to stay out of that particular conversation.
At the upbeat after-party, reaction to the show was thumbs up all the way, as it should have been. As Rubin said, it’s a party without the tension of a billion viewers tuning in, but one of which the Academy can be proud.
More from my various conversations at the Governors Awards will be coming up in the return of my Notes on the Season column later this week, but for now let’s keep the eye on the prizes our latest group of Oscar winners just received.