Oscars’ Governors Awards Party in the Shadow of Hollywood’s Dark Times

Agnes Varda, Donald Sutherland and Alejandro G. Inarritu are among the honorees on a night that was a moment of truth in an odd awards season

Governors Awards winners
Left to right: Agnes Varda, Alejandro G. Inarritu, Owen Roizman, Charles Burnett, Donald Sutherland / AMPAS

The Academy’s 9th annual Governors Awards, which took place on Saturday night at the Ray Dolby Ballroom, was a Hollywood event that managed not to be overshadowed by Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and the other entertainment figures whose transgressions have dominated the news lately.

Instead, the focus was largely on two hours of warm and sometimes touching tributes to directors Agnes Varda and Charles Burnett, cinematographer Owen Roizman, actor Donald Sutherland and Alejandro G. Inarritu’s VR installation “Carne y Arena,” with a side helping of Oscar campaigning from a room full of contenders.

In a way, this year’s ceremony served as a moment of truth of sorts for 2017’s awards season. The event always does double duty as a celebration of career accomplishments and a supercharged campaign stop, with tables full of contenders from all the hot new movies mingling with Oscar voters and press during a crucial period early in the season.

But with new names of transgressors and new lists of disgraceful behavior surfacing almost every day, can we feel good about the endless round of parties and kudos-fests that bestow shiny trophies on the work of an industry whose culture allowed predators to flourish for years?

If the culture of Hollywood is broken, is it unseemly to be celebrating its products?

“Yes,” said one top actress in attendance succinctly. “Unless we’re celebrating work that points the way to the future.”

But the Governors Awards focuses on the past, which meant that most people in the room wanted to pay tribute to Varda, Roizman, Burnett, Sutherland and Inarritu. And it’s hard to look askance at a night that saluted one of the greatest international female directors in cinema; the cinematographer of “The French Connection” and “Network”; a pioneer in African-American filmmaking; an actor whose career includes “M*A*S*H” and “Don’t Look Back”; and a VR work that asks viewers to walk in the footsteps of immigrants trying to cross the desert into America.

Sure, talk during the lengthy cocktail hour often drifted to Weinstein, long a fixture at these events; to Spacey, who most likely would have been in attendance on behalf of “All the Money in the World” had his scandal not caused Ridley Scott to hastily cut his performance from the film; and to the looming shadow of additional names to come.

A person with ties to the currently-shooting Freddie Mercury biopic worried about whether audiences could shun that film because its director, Bryan Singer, has been accused of sexual misconduct; on the other side of the room, a past Oscar winner was buttonholing people and asking, “Who’s going to be next? What have you heard?”

But that was largely undercurrent, a tacit acknowledgment that this is an odd awards season. It wasn’t a real distraction from the main business of saluting the honorees, or the secondary business of seeing and being seen.

So as guests arrived on the top floor of the Hollywood & Highland center, mutual admiration societies sprung up everywhere. Steven Spielberg huddled with Laurie Metcalf, “Blade Runner” director Denis Villeneuve chased down “Lady Bird” actress Saoirse Ronan, Guillermo del Toro chatted with Andy Serkis and everybody grinned as the 7-year-old star of “The Florida Project,” Brooklynn Prince, bounced up the steps in a bright red party dress.

“I think she was born for this,” said Prince’s director, Sean Baker.

On the big screens inside the ballroom, the first words to appear were a statement of purpose: “This is not the Oscars. No nominees, no rules, no envelopes.”

First-term Academy president John Bailey opened not by talking about the code of conduct that the AMPAS board has been asked to create, or by promising more diversity the way his predecessor, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, has done at the last two Governors Awards, but by simply praising the winners – whose films, he said, “have set a high bar for us to emulate.”

After a schmooze-filled dinner, Steven Spielberg opened the proceedings, and then other Academy governors kicked off each of the individual presentations: Daryn Okada for fellow cinematographer Roizman, Kimberley Peirce and Kate Amend for Varda, Gregory Nava for Inarritu, Reginald Hudlin for Burnett and Whoopi Goldberg for Sutherland.

Other presenters included Dustin Hoffman for Roizman, Jessica Chastain and Angelina Jolie for Varda, Sean Baker and Ava DuVernay for Burnett and Colin Farrell and Jennifer Lawrence for Sutherland.

Roizman was the most emotional winner and Sutherland the most eloquent, with Burnett wielding the best punchline: After talking about his junior high teacher, Mr. Baker, who in front of class told him he’d never amount to anything, he added, “I don’t know if that teacher is still around. But if he is, I hope he reads the trades.”

But the award to Varda, a pioneer in the French New Wave whose career contains more than 60 years of adventurous narrative features and documentaries, was in many ways the high point of the evening. Peirce kicked off the presentation with a lengthy description of how influential Varda’s unapologetic female characters were, interweaving a story about her own battles with the MPAA ratings board over a female orgasm depicted in Peirce’s “Boys Don’t Cry.”

Varda looked a little baffled by the comparison, but Peirce brought the house down – as did Documentary Branch governor Kate Amend who began her own remarks by noting, “Well, sadly, we don’t have a lot of orgasms in documentaries.”

Chastain then lauded Varda for her credo that “rebelliousness is part of being a woman,” and Jolie added, “To be around Agnes is to feel more oxygen come into the room.”

The 89-year-old filmmaker tried to brush off the praise, but her eyes welled up and it was clear she was touched. Her own speech was playful and impish, beginning by noting that all her presenters were female – “Are there no men in the room who love me?” – and ending in a little onstage dance with Jolie.

Inarritu’s speech, though, was the most passionate. He received a rare special Oscar for “Carne y Arena,” a VR installation that ran at the Cannes Film Festival and is now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and one that immerses an audience – one viewer at a time – in the world of immigrants trying to come from Mexico to the United States.

Before receiving the award, Inarritu told TheWrap that he made the film with absolutely no thought of “this awards stuff.” But director and Academy governor Michael Mann pushed for the special award, saying that “Carne y Arena” “is to virtual reality what Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ was to film.”

“There is no better prize in life than the one you win without competing,” Inarritu said when he took the stage. After a round of thank-yous, his speech turned into a charged denunciation of the ideologies and words that have been used to demonize and stereotype people.

“Only ideologies have f—ed up the world,” he said. ” … When the word ‘rapist’ or ‘illegal alien’ is fired, the reality of a certain human life or community is reduced to an idea, and whoever believes or possesses and fires that idea ends up impoverishing, misleading and degrading their perception of reality.”

He concluded, “I dedicate and receive this beautiful recognition on behalf of all the immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Asia, Africa and all corners of the world whose reality has been ignored and held hostage by ideologies and definitions, denying them the possibility of being understood and loved.”