It was a night devoted to James Earl Jones, Dick Smith and Oprah Winfrey, but the Academy couldn't avoid at least one reference to Brett Ratner at the beginning of Saturday's Governors Awards.
"Good evening," said the first speaker to take the stage of the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland. "I'm Tom Sherak, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences."
A pause. "How was your week?"
The audience laughed, knowing that Sherak's week had included Ratner's resignation, host Eddie Murphy's subsequent departure and the quick hirings of producer Brian Grazer and host Billy Crystal.
But after a chuckle at Sherak's joke – which he'd also used the previous night, at an Academy screening of "The Great White Hope" – the 600 assembled Academy members and guests moved on, relieved by the alacrity with which AMPAS had regained its footing and ready to celebrate the three latest recipients of the Academy's honorary awards.
This was the third year the Academy handed out the awards in a separate ceremony, rather than putting them in the Oscar show. The move enabled the AMPAS board of governors to vote more awards: four in 2009 and 2010 and three this year, as opposed to a maximum of two when the honorary awards were part of the main show.
It also allows for longer, more expansive tributes, with more speeches and longer film clips.
The ceremony differed from the two that preceded it in a few ways — and not just the fact that Sherak came onstage dressed as Darth Vader in honor of Jones, or that a bevy of stormtroopers swept the ballroom before his entrance.
Last year and the year before, the Academy partitioned off one-third of the ballroom, and used that smaller portion for an hour of cocktails before the main room was opened for dinner and the awards.This year, though, they filled the entire ballroom with tables, forcing cocktail-hour mingling to take place awkwardly in the aisles rather than in a dedicated, open setting.
And since participants in that mingling included actors Glenn Close, Gary Oldman, Michael Fassbender, Woody Harrelson, Viola Davis, Ellen Barkin, Patton Oswalt, Tilda Swinton, Evan Rachel Wood, Shailene Woodley and Jean Dujardin, and directors Steve McQueen, Michel Hazanavicius, Julie Taymor, Drake Doremus and Sean Durkin, the bottleneck-heavy pre-show setup put a crimp in the meeting and greeting that could have been done by some serious Oscar contenders.
Oldman, in the running for his first-ever Oscar nomination for "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," was typical of the contenders who appeared at the event: casual, pleased to be included but more interested in chatting with Fassbender and McQueen than in aggressively working the room.
"I've been getting lots of invitations lately," he said agreeably. "I seem to be in this orbit now."
Though the ceremony took up more space, the crowd wasn't appreciably bigger than the 550 who attended in 2009 and 2010.
For the third consecutive year, though, the Governors Awards was a warm, collegial and emotional evening, with the tribute to the least-famous winner – makeup artist Smith – in particular showing why it's a good idea to present the Governors Awards on their own show rather than trying to fit them into the already-long Oscar telecast.
With a deft film package by Jon Bloom (who put together all four of the evening's tribute films) and speeches from Linda Blair, J.J. Abrams and Rick Baker, the presentation made a persuasive case for Smith's award, and painted the 89-year-old makeup artist as a pioneer in the field who also happened to be kind to fans and was always willing to educate and share his secrets with the next generation of artists in his field.
Abrams' recollections were particularly entertaining. As a youngster, he said, he wrote Smith a fan letter in which he described his own filmmaking experiments, and asked about how to achieve certain techniques. In return, he said, Smith sent a box and a note that read, "Here's an old but clean tongue from 'The Exorcist,'" with instructions on how to make the tongue bleed.
The actual presentation was made by seven-time winner Baker (right, with his back to the camera, facing Smith), who called Smith "my idol, my mentor and my friend for over 43 years."
Overcome by emotion after receiving a standing ovation, Smith said, "This has been an incredible joy, one of the greatest I've ever had in my whole life … To have so much kindness given to me all in one huge piece is too much."
Smith's segment was in some ways the highlight of the Governors Awards – though James Earl Jones' presentation was a transatlantic treat, and Oprah Winfrey received the most standing ovations as she was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
The honors kicked off with Jones' presentation, which went from Mary J. Blige's rendition of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" (from "The Lion King," to which Jones lent his voice), to a speech in which Alec Baldwin used the words apotheosis and incalculablein the same sentence (you couldn't get away with that on the big Oscar show), to a film package highlighting Jones' career, to another speech from Glenn Close.
But because he is currently starring in a London stage production of "Driving Miss Daisy," Jones couldn't attend the ceremony. Instead, he received his Honorary Oscar after the Saturday matinee performance of the show, with co-star Vanessa Redgrave telling the audience about the honor and then bringing out a surprise guest, Ben Kingsley, who gave Jones the Oscar that had been carried to London by former Academy president Sid Ganis.
"If an actor's nightmare is being onstage buck naked and not knowing his lines, what the heck do you call this?" said Jones, clearly surprised to find the Oscar-toting Kingsley onstage.
Jones recounted his improbable introduction to movies, which terrified him the first time he saw them. "I said, 'Make 'em stop! Somebody, make 'em stop doing that!'" he said. "Well, I couldn’t make 'em stop, so eventually I joined 'em."
After admitting that he'd appeared in some of the worst movies ever made ("but I will not name them – you'll have to Google me"), he summed up his feelings with a word he said he'd picked up in England: "I stand before you deeply honored, mighty grateful and just plain gobsmacked."
The final award of the night was the Hersholt, with Oprah lauded by everybody from John Travolta and Maria Shriver to a young Harlem student, Ayanna Hall, who received a scholarship to boarding school from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation.
At first, though, the tribute seemed more about Winfrey's role in "The Color Purple" and her party-animal prowess than her humanitarian work. Producer Larry Gordon told a long story about meeting and sitting next to her at an event in Santa Barbara, where he socked back a double-digit number of shots and Oprah kept pace with him.
Finally, he said, he toasted his new drinking buddy with what he figured was a heartfelt compliment: "Oprah, you're a fucking moose!" As Gordon recounted the story, Winfrey laughed, though her long-time partner Stedman looked unamused.
John Travolta then added his own stories about drinking shots and partying with Oprah, before Maria Shriver and then Hall turned the focus to the showbiz icon's humanitarian work.
Hall in particular reduced Winfrey to tears before the Hersholt recipient took the stage to deliver what she said were unprepared remarks. And while her speech certainly rambled and stretched the show past the two-and-a-half-hour mark (still the shortest of the three Governors Awards), it was also undeniably heartfelt.
"It's unimaginable that I would be standing before you, voted by the Board of Governors," she said, before breaking down. "And so when I say thank you, the thank you comes from a place even deeper than I know. It's not just for me, it's for everybody who helped make me possible."
The ceremony also included a film montage of previous Honorary Oscar winners, and a touching toast to former Oscar-show producers Laura Ziskin and Gil Cates, both of whom died recently.
(Photos by AMPAS)