Honorees Corman, Willis, Bacall attend inaugural event

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences returned to its origins as it feted four Governors Award honorees with an elegant evening of high spirits and warm intimacy that clearly benefitted from the lack of time considerations mandated by TV.

The dinner-kudos ceremony, held Saturday at the Hollywood and Highland grand ballroom, saw producer Roger Corman, cinematographer Gordon Willis and thesp Lauren Bacall each get multiple standing ovations during a half-hour apiece of clips, testimonials and toasts. Interestingly, one of the emotional highs of the event was the presentation to the fourth honoree, producer John Calley, absent due to illness, who was given the 35th Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award. In his place, seven former recipients of the prize — Warren Beatty, Dino De Laurentiis, Norman Jewison, George Lucas, Walter Mirisch, Steven Spielberg and Saul Zaentz — took the stage, with Tom Hanks handing the Oscar to Spielberg, accepting on Calley’s behalf.

The event delivered on AMPAS prexy Tom Sherak’s promise to mix old Hollywood and new, with first-time director Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) chatting with showbiz royalty like Beatty, Bacall and Anjelica Huston, while Tom Hanks showered praise on “Precious” star Gabourey Sidibe. Minutes later, Sidibe told Daily Variety , “I have moments where I stop, look around the room and realize where I am, and freak out. So I try not to have those moments too often.”

But even Hollywood vets were impressed with the guest roster. The Acad limited it to 550, making these extremely hot tickets.

As the first major event during the movie biz’s kudos season, the Governors Awards are in position to become a bracket to the Oscars. Before the show, producer Laurence Bender said, “Just the chance to get dressed up so early in the season is exciting.”

The ballroom was divided in half by huge curtains. After a one-hour cocktail reception, the curtains parted and guests entered the dining area, where a string quartet was surrounded by the four engraved trophies, on display under glass.

At the far end of the room was the stage with a retractable screen, and podiums on either side. Each honoree was toasted by two or three colleagues, first tableside (lending intimacy to the tributes), then onstage for the presentation of the honor.

When the Acad first announced this separate ceremony, produced by Bruce Cohen, there was some debate about whether separating them from the main telecast represented a demotion for the winners or a promotion, since the allotment of a few brief minutes to survey a decades-long career was inherently rushed. The consensus Saturday was that the move was a smart one. The evening took on aspects of a family reunion mixed with a thoughtful career tribute and affectionate celebrity roast.

At a tableside toast, Ron Howard called himself a graduate of the “Roger Corman University of Profitable Cinema.” He recalled how on the first pic he directed, the Corman-produced “Grand Theft Auto,” the indie maven assured him, “Ron, if you continue to do a good job for me on this picture, you’ll never have to work for me again.”

Quentin Tarantino gave an enthusiastic overview of Corman’s career, with clips, and told Corman, “The movie lovers of planet Earth thank you.” Helmer Jonathan Demme handed Corman the Oscar. In his thoughtful remarks, Corman challenged the industry to “keep gambling, keep taking chances.”

Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel recounted the Willis-lensed pics that are now landmarks of cinematography, with tongue-in-cheek explanations of why they were not even nominated for Oscars. Jeff Bridges presented the award to Willis, who assured “all the beautiful women I’ve worked with in this business who were terrified of looking like Marlon Brando, it’s over now, you’re safe.”

Following a 20-minute dessert break, Annette Bening toasted Bacall and introduced Kirk Douglas, who recalled trying to seduce his acting-school classmate Bacall in Greenwich Village some 60 years ago, “without success.” In an emotional speech, Anjelica Huston praised the actress as “a mother, a friend, a guide, a teacher.” Bacall held the statuette over her head with a whoop and kicked off her characteristically brassy acceptance by quipping: “I can’t believe it. A man at last!”

After reminiscing about Humphrey Bogart — “He gave me a life, and changed my life” — and the other leading men she’d worked with, Bacall said, “I feel very emotional and very grateful, not least of all that I’m still alive. I mean, after all, some of you are surprised, aren’t you? Nevertheless, I am, and I’m here to stay, and you’d better get used to the idea.”

The evening concluded with the Calley salute, with Norman Jewison expressing relief that “Nobody’s telling you to speed it up,” a sentiment echoed by Beatty in his tribute. Calley’s voice was heard only in clips from past interviews and Spielberg, backed by the other six former winners, said, “To John: When you watch this at your home tomorrow, please note how proud all of us are to welcome you to our ranks.”

After a longish evening, guests were buzzed enough to linger afterward for photos, chocolate truffles and a final drink — and to appreciate how well the event turned out.

“I thought it was wonderful. It takes us back our origins,” Corman said after the ceremony.

He spoke for many in the room who appreciated how the event echoed the very first Academy Awards, especially because it was so different from the main Oscar ceremony.

Bill Condon, who along with Laurence Marks got high marks for producing this year’s Oscarcast, echoed Corman’s sentiment: “It felt like a return to the beginning, didn’t it? A banquet with people who know each other.”

Helmer Joe Dante said the leisurely pace made a big difference: “You’ve finally got a situation where people can be honored and they don’t have to be rushed off the stage after two minutes.”

The collection of so many greats in one room impressed even the celebs in attendance. Nia Vardalos called it “a very welcoming room, but it’s daunting. For me it was just incredible that we were here.”

And many shared Dante’s summation: “I think there are going to be a lot more like this.”

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