James Earl Jones, Oprah, Dick Smith earn kudos at Academy ceremony

It may not be the fall’s very first kudofest, but the Academy’s Governors Awards ceremony Saturday night officially kicked Hollywood’s awards season into high gear.

The quality of the honorees, the star power of the crowd, the emotion of the evening and – last but not least – the intensity of the campaigning at the Hollywood & Highland grand ballroom left no doubt the race for Oscar gold has begun in earnest.

This year’s awards went to James Earl Jones and makeup legend Dick Smith, who both received Honorary Oscars, and to Oprah Winfrey, who received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards.

As attendees arrived they were met with Moet champagne, Wolfgang Puck canapes such as sangria-soaked watermelon, and the music of a live jazz trio. Winfrey and Smith greeted well-wishers during an hour of cocktails, while publicists scrambled to put their clients from this year’s Awards hopeful in the path of luminaries and journalists.

Among Hollywood kudofests, Governors Awards attracts a unique audience, who represent the cream of the industry across generations and disciplines: Sidney Poitier and Seth Rogen; Evan Rachel Wood and June Foray; Michael Fassbender and Peter Fonda; Glenn Close and Viola Davis; Richard Edlund and Gary Oldman; Julie Taymor and Malcolm McDowell, to name just a few.

In its third year, the Governors Awards has become a major stop for publicists hoping to get their clients some attention in the target-rich environment of tastemakers and thought leaders. Among the hopefuls in attendance on Saturday were helmers Sean Durkin (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”), Steve McQueen (“Shame”) and Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”) and Michel Hazanavicius (“The Artist”).

During cocktails McQueen lurked alone in the back. He admitted he was “too awestruck, and too jet-lagged,” to approach some of the stars in the room, saying “I’m just going to gape from afar.” Evan Rachel Wood (“Ides of March”) was equally wowed: “You’re trying to eat your dinner but you’re scanning the room, and your heroes are everywhere you look.”

The program kicked off with an appearance by Darth Vader and “Star Wars” Storm Troopers. Vader approached honoree Winfrey, then made his way to the podium, and took off his mask to reveal Acad prexy Tom Sherak, who quipped “How was your week?” Sherak offered an emotional toast to the late Laura Ziskin and Gil Cates. His voice cracked as he expressed his gratitude for Ziskin’s battle to cure cancer “for all of us who have struggled with cancer,” one of the few times he has publicly acknowledged his fight with the disease.

The Academy kept the burgundy, gold and cream drapes of years past but changed up the layout of the ballroom from the inaugural years of the banquet. Instead of splitting the ballroom in two, with half for cocktails and half for dinner and ceremony, this year the entire room was opened up and cocktails were held in the dining area. The screen and stage were in the middle of the long wall, bars were at either end of the room, and the dining area was defined by a semicircle of banquettes in the middle. The layout provided a more spacious feeling, especially for tables at the back and sides, and brought even the farthest tables closer to the screen and podiums.

Following a steak dinner accompanied wines from John Lasseters vineyards – with Mr. & Mrs. Lasseter on hand to share in the pour – the award presentations began, starting with Jones. Alec Baldwin, who’d eschewed most of cocktail hour to eat early and prepare notes, rose as the night’s first speaker. He said Jones’ career, moving from stage to screen, was the career Baldwin himself wanted. “That’s what every actor wants,” he said. He that during “The Hunt for Red October,” he had waited until well into the shoot to ask Jones for career advice. As they shared a cigarette break outside the soundstage, Baldwin asked for advice as an actor, and Jones, after a long pause, offered “My advice is to quit smoking.”

Jones was unable to attend, as he is in London acting in the stage production of “Driving Miss Daisy” opposite Vanessa Redgrave. The Acad’s solution was to send a camera crew to record Jones receiving his statuette after Saturday’s matinee and surprise him with Sir Ben Kingsley as presenter. Kingsley saluted Jones for his versatility, honesty and passion for acting, saying “You’re always so damn good.” The taped aud in London and the live aud in Hollywood applauded in tandem.

Jones, still in his “Driving Miss Daisy” costume. said he was “gobsmacked” by the presentation. “If an actor’s nightmare is being onstage buck naked and not knowing his lines, what the heck do you call this? I had my clothes on, I knew my words, then out from the wings steps Sir Ben Kingsley, and he hands me an Oscar! What the heck do you call that but an actor’s wet dream?”

Acknowledging that he spends to the legit stage, Jones said “I feel like a lone wolf lurking outside the glow of the cinema campfire, who lunges in to snatch a morsel of movie now and then,” and acknowledged that while some had been good, he’d been in “some of the worst movies ever.”

Smith was next to be feted, with Linda Blair remembering how she came to love him, even as he made her absolutely hideous as the possessed girl in “The Exorcist” – not a little girl’s dream come true – because they shared an affection for animals. J.J. Abrams, next to speak, recalled writing a letter to Smith when he was a boy making 8mm movies, and getting a box back in the mail from Smith containing “an old but clean tongue” from “The Exorcist,” with instructions on how to use it. “My mother was concerned,” said Abrams. “Who was this man named Dick who was sending tongues to her son?” But the exchange kicked off a years’long correspondence and an enduring friendship. Then Rick Baker saluted Smith as the greatest makeup man who ever lived.

Smith, looking frail, stood to say “Forgive me, my memory is not very good these days. When they showed the video (of his career highlights), I thought ‘Wow, that guy had a great career!'” Then he added “This has been an incredible joy. … I have loved being a makeup artist so much, but this puts a cap on all that. To have so much kindness shown to me at once is too much.” Then he broke down in tears. It was the evening’s most emotional moment.

The video salute to Winfrey began with her acting roles and films she produced, establishing both her Oscar pedigree and her bona fides as part of the movie community, before laying out her extensive philanthropic efforts. Larry Gorden recounted a story of doing tequila shots with Oprah, and calling her “a f***ing moose” for her ability to put away liquor. Others at the party excoriated him for speaking to her that way, and he was mortified. But when she saw him the next morning, she approached Gordon, threw open her arms and shouted “Baby, it’s your f***ing moose!” John Travolta followed, saying Oprah had first done tequila shots at his 50th birthday party in Mexico, where she danced all night and into the morning. Then Maria Shriver saluted her longtime friend and introduced Ayanna Hall, who received a scholarship from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation when she was a high school sophomore in Harlem and today is attending Barnard College. Hall presented Winfrey her statuette.

Winfrey said she had not prepared a speech, but she spoke at some length. She said “To be here tonight, if you are not a former colored girl born in Mississippi in 1954, its unimaginable (for you) to know what this journey has meant,” and remembered that she had come from a line of maids, like those in “The Help.” Her grandmother’s wish for her, she said, was that she “get some good white folks” she could serve as a maid.

The Hersholt Award, she said, “means more to me than any film or even an Oscar, because it means you get it. Every single person who incarnates on the planet matters. That’s what I’ve been trying to say through all of my work.”

After Winfrey stepped down the formal program was over, but it was only 10:15 and guests lingered for champagne, coffee and lots of picture taking. Introductions a
mong luminaries continued. Sean Durkin marvelled “It seemed to go by so fast.” Publicists scrambled for parting interviews and first-time attendees marvelled at the warmth and intimacy of the event.

“We’ll see you at the Oscars” said announcer Melissa Disney, wrapping things up. That’s 106 days of screenings, red carpets, formalwear, acceptance speeches and afterparties. But who’s counting?

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