111112B_0002__111113130815-275x325Moving tributes and significant awards-season star power created a stirring combination at Saturday evening’s third-annual Governor’s Awards, which honored James Earl Jones, makeup artist Dick Smith and Oprah Winfrey. The night seemed to be as much about celebrating three formidable careers as it was about subtley reminding those in attendance that the Academy Awards are just three months away.

In fact, every major and mini-major studio had talent-filled tables, and publicists and campaign strategists were working the Grand Ballroom from end to end. It was a slight shift for this relatively new Academy event that is known for being a more casual and fun alternative to the lengthy list of eat-and-greets that characterize the season. While this year still offered interesting juxtapositions of recognizable faces (my favorite was Winfrey congratulating “The Help’s” Octavia Spencer on her role), award hopefuls were sitting at a good majority of the room. The Weinstein Company brought “The Artist” director Michel Hazanavicius and stars Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo; Focus Features had Gary Oldman from “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”; “Albert Nobbs’ ” Glenn Close introduced Jones; “Young Adult” screenwriter Diablo Cody and star Patton Oswalt were there; and Tilda Swinton, star of “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” was a striking presence in the ballroom.

Yet even though Oscar loomed (literally lining the back of the room and figuratively woven through the night), the Governor’s Awards remain about paying tribute to the incredible work and lives of industry luminaries.

Academy president Tom Sherak, who approached the podium in full Darth Vader regalia, opened his speech by saying, “How was your week?”, a nod to the tumultuous week the org had following the exit of Oscar producer Brett Ratner and host Eddie Murphy and the appointment of Brian Grazer and new host Billy Crystal. Sherak set the tone for the festivities by remembering two former Oscar producers: Gil Cates, who passed away last month, and Laura Ziskin, who succumbed to breast cancer earlier this year. Of Cates’ Oscar producing prowess, Sherak said, “Gil did it 14 times, setting a new standard for bravery.” Sherak went on to discuss Ziskin’s relentless quest to find a cure for cancer, becoming noticeably emotional while speaking. He concluded by asking everyone in the room to raise their Champagne flutes to toast the producers.

For the first tribute of the night, Mary J. Blige sang “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” for Jones, and Alec Baldwin provided some funny anecdotes about working with Jones. Jones is starring in “Driving Miss Daisy” in London opposite Vanessa Redgrave, so both Redgrave and Jones joined the ceremony via pretaped segment. Jones was surprised to see Ben Kingsley walk out on stage during a Saturday afternoon matinee to present him with the honorary Oscar (which former Academy president Sid Ganis hand-carried to Europe, by the way). Jones said he’s just learned a new word from Londoners that expressed his feeling about the Oscar: “I’m gobsmacked!”

111112B_0057__111113125224Makeup artist Dick Smith was next up, getting an introduction from Linda Blair, whom he transformed from a cherubic child into “The Exorcist.” Director J.J. Abrams, who gave the funniest and most heartfelt speech of the night, described writing to Smith as a kid and receiving a slightly worn but perfectly good stunt tongue from the film from his hero via mail. Makeup artist Rick Baker also described how enthusiastic Smith always was in passing on knowledge about the trade. It made watching Smith accept his Oscar humbly and with great emotion all the more poignant. (After the ballroom started to empty out later in the evening, everyone seemed to be buzzing about what a wonderful moment this part of the ceremony turned out to be.)

In the final tribute to Oprah Winfrey, Larry Gordon told a funny story about meeting Winfrey for the first time over tequila shots. John Travolta, who said Winfrey discovered tequila at his 50th birthday party in Mexico, paid homage to her humanitarian efforts, saying it is “power used correctly.” Longtime friend Maria Shriver introduced the woman who ultimately presented Winfrey with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award — Harlem-raised Ayanna Hall, whom Winfrey had never met but had provided with tuition for private school. Hall revealed that because of Winfrey’s help, she applied to and was accepted by seven colleges. In Winfrey’s acceptance speech, she said she never imagined receiving an Oscar but she felt it showed that the Academy understands her commitment to giving back. She also talked about how much she identified with the characters in “The Help” because her mother worked as a maid. The program ended shortly after Winfrey finished her speech.

Although the seven-foot-tall Oscars in the back of the room were cleared out just as quickly as the crowd dispersed, it looked like another successful Governor’s Awards.