Governors Awards: A Night for Honorary Winners, and Oscar Contenders

The Academy’s annual ceremony for honorary Oscars has become an irresistible stop on the campaign trail

Last Updated: November 13, 2011 @ 1:29 AM

The spotlight at Saturday night's Governors Awards will be on James Earl Jones, Oprah Winfrey and makeup artist Dick Smith, all of whom will be presented with honorary Academy Awards (in Winfrey's case, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award).

But another agenda will be in play inside the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland, where the black-tie reception, dinner and awards ceremony will be full of folks who hope to win competitve Academy Awards next February.

The Governors Awards was launched two years ago, in part to shorten the running time of the Academy Awards and to give Honorary Oscar winners a fuller, longer and less formal presentation than they'd receive on the big show.

And that first year, AMPAS found out that the Governors Awards was a lot of fun – a lower-key and collegial event at which Quentin Tarantino could ramble on about Roger Corman and onstage tributes could be mixed with less formal toasts.

But Hollywood learned something about the Governors Awards that night, too: When you bring together 500 influential Academy members and a handful of legends, you have a very good campaign opportunity.

So Jeff Bridges, Tom Hanks, Marisa Tomei, Vera Farmiga, Warren Beatty and Annette Bening  showed up for the 2009 awards, in which honors went to Corman, Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis and John Calley.

And then the floodgates opened in 2010, when the governors voted honors to Eli Wallach, Francis Ford Coppola, Kevin Brownlow and the absent Jean-Luc Godard. Representatives showed up from nearly every contending film: Tom Hooper from "The King's Speech," Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer from "The Social Network," Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman from "Black Swan," Melissa Leo from "The Fighter," Lee Unkrich from "Toy Story 3," Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu from "Biutiful," Lisa Cholodenko from "The Kids Are All Right" ….

The third Governors Awards will include a big contingent from the top contender "The Artist," and a slew of acting contenders that is expected to include "Shame" star Michael Fassbender, who otherwise has shown a notable reluctance to do much that might be construed as campaigning.

They'll be mingling with those who've come to honor Jones, Winfrey and Smith for their careers, in an untelevised event that, said Warren  Beatty at the first Governors Awards, is "so much better than … worrying if 35.5 million people are watching us, or only 29.2 million."

At the end of the evening that same night, producer and Academy official Kathleen Kennedy summed up the Governors Awards.

“It captured that intimate, elusive feeling that everybody wants the Oscar show to have,” Kennedy said. “I think this will become the fun event that everybody wants to go to.”

It has done exactly that — especially if that everybody includes Oscar contenders.

TheWrap will have full coverage of the Governors Awards after the event on Saturday.