With warmth, a bit of ribaldry and a deep sense of camaraderie, the Academy handed out its Governors Awards at the Kodak Theater Ballroom Saturday night, presenting Honorary Oscars to Jean-Luc Godard, Kevin Brownlow and Eli Wallach, and the Irving Thalberg Award to Francis Ford Coppola.
It was year two for the Acad’s Governors Awards, and if the evening didn’t have quite the star power of last year’s presentations to Lauren Bacall and Roger Corman, it was every bit as emotional and even more intimate.
That intimacy was enhanced by a web of connections among the honorees and their presenters. Though few realized it beforehand, all three Honorary Oscar recipients had ties to Coppola: Godard was once slated to do a movie for Coppola’s Zoetrope studio; Coppola had directed Wallach in “Godfather III”; and Coppola had supported Brownlow’s now-legendary restoration of Abel Gance’s “Napoleon,” which unspooled at Radio City Music Hall with a live orchestra — playing a score by Carmine Coppola.
“It wasn’t planned,” Acad prexy Tom Sherak said. “It’s just one of those coincidences.”
Evening began with a cocktail reception in the outer half of the Kodak ballroom. The Hollywood & Highland venue was bedecked in the now-traditional burgundy, gold and taupe tones with the soon-to-be presented statuettes on display.
Old Hollywood ties are everywhere at the Governors Awards, from a guest list that includes such onetime studio grandees as Frank Mancuso and stars like Eva Marie Saint and Warren Beatty all the way down to the evening’s voice announcer, Melissa Disney.
One table found Robert De Niro sitting with Walter Murch and George Lucas. Another had Josh Brolin and Diane Lane seated between Wallach (with his wife, Anne Jackson) and Tony Bennett. It was that kind of night.
Once the guests found their way to their tables, Sherak kicked off the festivities with a toast to just-deceased Dino De Laurentiis, noting De Laurentiis had been there last year to help present the Thalberg Award to John Calley. “Look skyward,” Sherak told the aud, raising a glass. “To Dino!”
A jazz live combo played during the lobster and short-rib Wolfgang Puck dinner. The red wine poured at the tables was from the vineyards of toon titan John Lasseter. Lasseter was there along with wife Nancy, who runs the winery. John Lasseter told Daily Variety that Coppola “has become such a mentor to me filmmaking wise and in the winery.” He called the chance to share his wine with so many bizzers “awesome.”
Media presence was limited to a modest number of journos and bloggers well known to the industry, and while there was a full video crew shooting for both the large onstage video screen and for posterity, there was no telecast. Thus presenters were given ample time to voice their appreciation and plenty of leeway to use language and stories that wouldn’t fly on a network.
The first presentation was to Godard, who did not attend. Acad governors from several branches spoke of the profound influence he’d had on filmmaking and on their careers.
Cinematographer Haskell Wexler quipped, “I’ve stolen from him, I mean, I’ve paid homage to him.”
Documentarian Lynne Littman said, “Godard dared us to misbehave, both as grownups and as artists. He is still misbehaving, and I’d like to think tonight is the first time we’ve ever given an Oscar for it.”
Wallach was next to be saluted. Brolin rose to offer a toast, needling Wallach for missing his cue in a scene in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.” Wallach, he said, complained, “You know, I have this cockamamie thing in my ear because they want me to look old and I can’t hear a fucking thing.”
“Eli Wallach is not cool,” Brolin added. “Eli Wallach is just happy.”
Jackson rose to read the official presentation to her husband of 62 years, but balked at calling it “Lifetime Achievement,” saying, “He hasn’t even started yet,” then teased, “I taught him everything he knows.”
Bennett, a close friend of Wallach and Jackson, sang two numbers for them, dedicating “Maybe This Time” to Jackson. Then Clint Eastwood took the podium to reminisce about their time together in Spain shooting “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”
Youth is not served at the Governors Awards. Wallach is 95, Godard 79, Brownlow 72 and Coppola 71. Yet the current generation of indie filmmakers was well represented at the banquet, which has quickly carved out a niche as an important place for Oscar campaigning. Specialty labels buy tables, and Oscar consultants make a point of steering their sometimes-startstruck clients into the path of the crowd’s luminaries and tastemakers. Among this year’s contenders enjoying the rarefied air (and working the room): “The Kids Are All Right” helmer Lisa Cholodenko, “Blue Valentine” writer-director Derek Cianfrance and “The Tillman Story” director Amir Bar-Lev.
After dessert and coffee came the presentation to historian and preservationist Brownlow. Kevin Spacey saluted Brownlow, saying: “We bow down to you sir. Your commitment to absolute perfection … has changed film history.”
Brownlow admitted that before the show, he was rather unnerved by all the attention, saying he was most looking forward to “when it’s over.”
When he took the stage, he said, “If you’ve ever wondered what reflected glory looked like, this is it.” He challenged the moguls in the room: “Your predecessors did a terrible job preserving the silent era. It’s up to you to find the films your predecessors destroyed and bring them back into the canon.”
Coppola got the evening’s final tribute, saluted first by Kathryn Bigelow, then Don Novello as Father Guido Sarducci, who ribbed the helmer-producer-vintner-hotelier about praying to the patron saint of theatrics and winemakers. De Niro followed with more teasing about Coppola’s winemaking. Son Roman, daughter Sofia and grandaughter Gia rose to toast Coppola. George Lucas then paid tribute, citing him as an inspiration and a mentor.
“Francis said, ‘George, you know how to make money but you don’t know how to spend it,'” Lucas recalled. “Over the last few years, it’s become clear I’ve learned how to spend money, while he’s learned how to make it.”
Lucas called Coppola “a brother,” and Coppola returned the sentiment as he took the stage. Coppola said he appreciated the honor as a producer because of all the talented people who’d worked on his films.
“This is about the talent I came to really value,” he said. Without prepared remarks — he was shooting the night before and didn’t get to bed until nearly dawn — he noted he was the only one of the generation he led who’d actually worked with the likes of Jack Warner and Adolph Zukor, then entertained the crowd with an impression of Samuel Goldwyn.
Goldwyn, he said, first urged him — in his Yiddish accent — to “write, write, write!” but then, after he’d directed a movie and was pondering returning to writing, said, “You’re a director now, writers are nothing. Direct, direct, direct!”
After the ceremony, Brownlow said he’d enjoyed the evening after all. “I really got lost in those other fellows and I forgot that was going to have to get up.” Coppola said the best part was seeing his family, and Wallach kissed his trophy over and over again. “Their hearts are taken out when they come up to speak,” Wallach told Daily Variety. “I enjoyed it.”
Despite the black-tie attire and formal setting, the Governors Awards are a loose event where warm personal remembrances and risque humor are given full rein, and where honors go to people who command deep respect and admiration for work done decades before. That makes it a compelling and emotional evening for those in the room but inherently unsuitable for television.
And that’s the whole point. The Honorary Oscars were pushed out of the main Oscarcast because they were too “inside” and demanded too much time. In a room full of insiders, with no clock, they thrive.
And while some wondered aloud if there was a way to get them onto a broadcast, Acad prexy Sherak was overheard afterward telling a studio chief they don’t belo
ng on TV and will never be televised as long as he’s president.
“If anything could be just what you hoped it would be, the second annual Governors Awards was exactly that,” Sherak said.