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Samuel L. Jackson, Liv Ullman Get Oscars During a Governors Awards With No Campaigning

The annual presentation of honorary Oscars is usually a night for contenders to schmooze with voters, but the pandemic killed that possibility

AWARDS BEAT

What if you had a big party during awards season and nobody campaigned? That’s what happened on Friday night in Hollywood, where the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held its 12th annual Governors Awards, in a ceremony that was very unlike almost all 11 of the ones that had preceded it.

The event — which gave Honorary Oscars to writer-director Elaine May and actors Samuel L. Jackson and Liv Ullman, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Danny Glover — was a heartfelt tribute to four eminently worthy Oscar winners, which made it similar to its predecessors. But it was far lighter on star power than most of the previous ceremonies, all of which took place during the thick of Oscar campaigning and all of which featured dozens of awards contenders working a room full of Academy voters and press.

This time, the show took place three days after the end of voting and two days before the Oscar ceremony, when there was not a single voter left to be swayed. So instead of packing the Ray Dolby Ballroom with table after table where studios assembled all their contenders, the Academy was able to spread the tables out and the people who did attend could focus entirely on May, Jackson, Ullman and Glover.

In addition to the four honorees, guests included Bill Murray, who presented the award to May; Denzel Washington, who presented the one to Jackson; John Lithgow, who did the honors for Ullman; and Alfre Woodard, who handled the task for Glover. Also in attendance: actors David Oyelowo and Alfred Molina and basketball legend Magic Johnson, who was the center of gravity for much of the pre- and mid-dinner table hopping. (“I can’t believe it,” said Molina at one point. “I just met Magic Johnson!”)

In some ways, the evening was reminiscent of the first Governors Awards in November 2009, a ceremony that only used half the ballroom and took place before Oscar campaigners discovered — and one might even say, hijacked — the awards. And it made for a Governors Awards that was perhaps truer to the original conception of an event that Academy President David Rubin said in his introductory remarks was “perhaps even closer to our hearts” than the Academy Awards themselves.

Of course, the Governors Awards were launched precisely because of those Academy Awards and because of the pressure to shorten the telecast that has only increased over the last dozen years. Long before this year’s plan to present eight categories before the live broadcast begins and then edit them into the telecast in shortened form, the Academy took all its honorary awards off the show completely and presented them during their own separate, untelevised night.

The idea was to give those winners a showcase that would feel more substantial than anything that could be done on the telecast and would allow for more honorary awards, while also removing a segment that would invariably add 10 minutes or so to the Oscar telecast. The show allowed for loose and lengthy presentations, and it was an immediate hit that always managed to shine a spotlight on worthy honorees even when it was surrounded by all that campaigning.

It would have been the same this year if the Governors Awards had held to its originally scheduled date on Jan. 15, just before nomination voting began. But the Omicron variant caused the cancellation or postponement of numerous awards shows and Hollywood events, and it caused the Academy to shift the Governors Awards from the thick of campaign season to the Friday night two days before the Oscars.

Nothing anybody said on Friday night could win or lose a single vote; the only reason to be there was to honor Glover, Jackson, May and Ullman. In a way, that made this year’s Governors Awards a calmer, more collegial event, and the tension of Sunday night’s Oscars didn’t hang in the room because you could count the 2022 nominees in the room on one hand.

It also took away some of the charge the event can have, and some of the sense of a younger generation of film professionals showing up to honor the giants who came before them. But it was hard to find too much fault in tributes that began with Bill Murray saluting Elaine May, who immediately pointed out that Murray had delivered a much longer and better speech in the car on the way to the ceremony.

And then the 89-year-old comedian, writer and director took aim at another collaborator with whom she co-wrote “Heaven Can Wait.” “Warren Beatty got me here,” she said. “He said, ‘Go there. I’ll give you the award, I’ll take you there and you won’t be afraid.’ And then he never called me again.”

Denzel Washington followed by paying tribute to Samuel L. Jackson and introducing a film package that took advantage of the show’s lack of untelevised nature by including a montage of Jackson using the 12-letter word that begins with mother. (Jackson explained that it was his “go-to Elmer Fudd stop-stuttering words” as a child.)

And while Jackson held up his Oscar statuette and said, “I’ll tell you, this is going to be cherished,” he also made teasing reference to the stereotypical roles he had to take when he remarked, “It’s been a real pleasure making indelible impressions on audiences as Gang Member No. 2, Bum, Hold-Up Man and the unforgettable Black Guy, just to name a few.”

John Lithgow summed up Liv Ullman’s approach to both acting and directing with the phrase “Don’t turn away,” and told a story of how brilliant she had been when the two of them starred in Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” on Broadway years ago. Ullman followed with one of the most priceless anecdotes of the night, when she described spotting legendary Swedish actress Greta Garbo on the streets of New York at a time when Ullman herself had become Hollywood’s hot new Scandinavian actress.

The reclusive Garbo, she said, panicked when she saw Ullman approaching, and began to run away. “I can run fast,” Ullman said, “but she runs faster.” Garbo disappeared into Central Park, Ullman never saw her again and, she added, “I realized I was a little full of myself.”

Glover was the final honoree, receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for a career and life full of activism and recalling a time when he and Samuel Jackson both appeared in a 1980 play reading in San Francisco that was directed by Morgan Freeman. Although he had a speech on the TelePrompTer, Glover barely glanced at it during his rambling remarks.

“I didn’t know that my speech was gonna be here, so I haven’t referred to the TelePrompTer at all,” he said, and shrugged. “Sometimes, we as actors become a little lost if we don’t have a script … Thank you, thank you, thank you.”  

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