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91-Year-Old Lina Wertmuller Steals the Show at Oscars Governors Awards

With awards also going to Wes Studi, Geena Davis and David Lynch, the fastest, loosest Governors Awards in years was an emotional but rollicking tribute to some really cool people.


The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made statements about inclusion, diversity, gender equity and creative risk-taking on Sunday night at the 11th annual Governors Awards, but it also learned a big lesson as it was making those statements.

The lesson: Sometimes, it doesn’t matter what else you do, because somebody is going to come along and steal the whole damn show.

In this case, that somebody was Lina Wertmüller, the 91-year-old Italian director who was given an Honorary Academy Award for provocative, groundbreaking films that included “The Seduction of Mimi,” “Love and Anarchy,” “Swept Away” and “Seven Beauties,” the 1977 film for which she became the first woman ever nominated for Best Director.

On a night that also bestowed honorary Oscars on director David Lynch and actor Wes Studi and gave the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to actress and gender-parity activist Geena Davis, the diminutive and spunky Wertmüller became almost everybody’s highlight.

Wertmüller complained that the Oscar was male, lobbying for a female version named Anna. She told her translator (Isabella Rossellini, no less) that she didn’t approve of the purple color of Rossellini’s dress, and that if she ever wore purple again she’d “undress her.” She said that 85-year-old presenter Sophia Loren had “made a pact with the devil, because she’s too beautiful.” Although she could barely hold her Oscar, she threatened to keep talking for 24 hours, which more than a few members of the audience said would be just fine with them.

And Wertmüller turned the fastest, loosest Governors Awards in years into a playful, spirited event that was, perhaps, less of an awards-season campaign stop than it has sometimes been, and more of an emotional but rollicking tribute to some really cool people.

Of course, it was more than that. The recent goal of the Academy, which was shaken by the #OscarsSoWhite outcry of 2015 and then the MeToo movement of 2017, was to refashion itself to be more racially and ethnically diverse, more balanced between men and women, more international in makeup and more daring in its choices. And this year’s Governors Awards were a perfect illustration of that goal.

Studi’s award was given for a career in which he has become the foremost Native American actor ever, and it made him the first Native American ever to win an Oscar. Davis’ Hersholt award honored her in-depth research into the gender biases in media, and her crusade to repair those biases. Wertmüller’s Oscar not only saluted the first woman ever nominated for Best Director but embraced the idea of the Academy as an international body. And Lynch, the only white man to go home with a statuette, might as well have been the poster boy for #OscarsSoWeird, with his award saluting decades of adventurous and transgressive filmmaking.

They all accepted their awards in front of what is always the most star-studded room of the fall awards season, because after its launch in 2009 the Governors Awards quickly became the unmissable campaign stop for almost every Oscar contender. In his introductory remarks, Academy president David Rubin called it “an anxiety-free night, so rare in this town” — but with the Ray Dolby Ballroom filled with Oscar voters and press, studios long ago began buying tables to showcase their awards hopefuls.

So “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” was there with Quentin Tarantino, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt; “Little Women” with Greta Gerwig, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh; “Marriage Story” with Noah Baumbach, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson; “Dolemite Is My Name” with Eddie Murphy and Da’Vine Joy Randolph; “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” with Tom Hanks and Marielle Heller; “The Lighthouse” with Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe; “Uncut Gems” with Adam Sandler and the Safdie brothers; “Parasite” with Bong Joon Ho; and many, many more.

Tarantino was one of the first to arrive, greeting a long line of well-wishers and chatting with “The Two Popes” writer Anthony McCarten about crafting scripts based on real events. When another guest came up to him and introduced himself as Mark Lester, Tarantino nodded, said “Nice to meet you.”

Then he paused, looked at Lester and asked, “The ‘Truck Stop Women’ Mark Lester?”

“Yeah,” said Lester, who had indeed directed that 1974 B movie starring Claudia Jennings. And with that, Tarantino broke into a huge grin and said he could still sing the film’s theme song.

If Tarantino was the most in-demand guest for selfies, Bong Joon Ho wasn’t far behind, attesting to his film’s passionate following this season.

In the past, the Governors Awards format has been pre-show mingling, followed by introductory remarks, followed by an hour-long break for dinner in which at least as much schmoozing as eating takes place, followed by the awards presentations, followed by a fairly quick exit for most guests. But this year’s was different, with dinner starting at 6 p.m. but ending at 6:30, an accelerated schedule that removed most of the event’s table-hopping time.

And when the program started, it did so in an uncharacteristically ramshackle way. Jamie Foxx took the stage, told the band to keep playing (to “marinate,” he called it) and the audio engineer to turn up his microphone, and rambled through an intro about how great the year’s movies had been.

He singled out Hanks, DiCaprio, Tarantino, Scarlett Johansson and a few others, admitting “I literally have nothing planned … They told me to riff for three or four minutes.” And then he called a confused “Eddie Motherf—ing Murphy” to the stage, rhapsodizing about the actor’s work in “Dolemite” before turning the stage over to Rubin.

Lynch received the night’s first award with intros from Rossellini and from “Blue Velvet” costars Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern, who talked about meeting with Lynch at Bob’s Big Boy and about how almost every other filmmaker they’ve worked with since then has wanted to know what Lynch is like.

Of course, Lynch himself proved to be as cryptic as ever. He thanked the Academy, thanked “all the people who helped me along the road,” congratulated his fellow honorees and then added, “And to everyone here tonight, have a great night. You have a very interesting face.” Then he left.

Geena Davis was celebrated by Tom Hanks (who noted the questionable appropriateness of having “a white guy who’s been on the cover of AARP the magazine” kicking off a tribute to Davis’ work for gender equality) and Constance Wu. Her passionate but self-deprecating comments described her surprise at finding that Hollywood creators weren’t even aware of how tilted toward male characters the media was, and how that didn’t fit with the perception of liberal Hollywood.

“If we’re supposed to be a bunch of gender-fluid intersectional feminists, then by God let’s do it up right!” she said.

And the way to do it, she added was easy: Go to work on Monday morning, pick up whatever script you’re working on, cross out a bunch of character first names and change them from men to women.

“And then cast me,” she added with a grin. “Is there a reason it can’t benefit me personally?”

The program grew more emotional with the presentation to Studi by Q’orianka Kilcher, poet Joy Harjo (the first Native American poet laureate of the United States) and Christian Bale, who said, “As an artist, he has had a profound influence on the perception of his people.” Studi received the biggest round of applause to that point in the program, said he was proud to be the first Native American Oscar winner, and added, “I’d like to say, it’s about time.”

And then it was Wertmüller time. Loren made the first set of remarks and introduced a film package, and then directors Greta Gerwig and Jane Campion — two of the four women nominated for Best Director since Wertmüller — gave their own tributes.

At the end of the nonagenarian’s remarks, the room was in love with her. And then, after he speech seemed to be finished, Wertmüller leaned back to the microphone and delivered one more scolding. “Next time, please, not the Oscar, but also a female Oscar,” she said. “Women in the room, please scream, ‘We want Anna, a female Oscar!'”

With that, the show ended and the after-party began. Some of the stars headed for the exits right away, while “Booksmart” stars Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlin Dever hung around, as did Jordan Peele, Tim Robbins, Harvey Keitel, Taika Waititi, Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach and a few others. Tarantino stayed inside the ballroom longer than almost anyone, a cinema fanatic in his element.

And outside on the patio, new David Rubin was beaming over his first Governors Awards as president. “There’s so much heart in this night,” he said, and then pointed to a nearby banquette, where Lina Wertmüller held court serenely, her new Oscar on the table in front of her.

“And Lina’s going to shut this place down,” he said.