Ahead of the 12th Governors Awards, which will be held on March 25, Variety spoke with those being celebrated with honorary awards. Samuel L. Jackson, Elaine May and Liv Ullmann will all receive an Honorary Award, an Oscar statuette that is given to honor “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award will be given to Danny Glover.
Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award
Glover is best-known to audiences as the star of “Angels in the Outfield” and the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, but he is also a film director and political activist. It is for his “decadeslong advocacy for justice and human rights [which] reflects his dedication to recognizing our shared humanity on and off the screen” that the Academy is bestowing the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award on him.
His political activism started back when he was a student San Francisco State in the 1960s. As part of the Black Students Union, he participated in one of the longest strikes (five months long) that resulted in the creation of a Black studies department and the first School of Ethnic Studies in the country.
Since then, he has shown his support for labor from Black New York cab drivers to United Farm Workers and Occupy Oakland.
His activism is not contained to these shores. As a Unicef ambassador and a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. Development Program, he has focused on eradicating poverty and disease and promoted economic development in Africa and Latin America.
In an interview with the AFL-CIO, Glover said: “It’s about the history I lived with my parents. I watched my parents emerge and grow as union members and see how proud they were. And I watched the civil rights movement through that lens.” He added, “It’s the human-rights movement. … They’re both movements for justice, whether it’s justice in the workplace or justice on the street. All that they do is connected to that. That is the umbilical cord that can’t be broken between the two.”
His family history has informed his other activism work as well. For his film “The Drummer,” Glover touched on PTSD among vets. He has said that was in part because of his own brother, a Vietnam veteran who was in the Tet Offensive.
“I think in all humility, I’m just here to be the best example I can be as a citizen, and that is to recognize injustice and be a part of changing that. I’m just hoping we all live our life in the service of creating a better world,” he told NextAvenue. — Shalini Dore
Samuel L. Jackson
Iconic actor Jackson has been playing Avengers boss Nick Fury across the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008 and he continues to play Fury in numerous Disney Plus series.
In the ’80s, he began collaborating with Spike Lee, appearing in “Do the Right Thing.” While his role in the film is not large, Jackson’s performance as Señor Love Daddy, a radio DJ, sets the scene of this iconic film — and arguably one of the best early performances in his career — by asking listeners to “wake up!” It’s short and memorable, but worth a revisit. Jackson would also go on to appear in “School Daze,” “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Jungle Fever.”
By the 1990s he had begun appearing in Quentin Tarantino films. His role in 1994’s “Pulp Fiction,” playing Jules Winnfield, has become iconic. It was a part that Tarantino wrote specifically for the actor. It cemented Jackson’s status in pop culture history as the character’s lines were not only quoted not long after the credits rolled, but it also would also land him a supporting actor nomination that year. Tarantino and Jackson would further collaborate on films such as “Jackie Brown,” “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained.
The Academy is presenting him with an honorary Oscar recognizing his prolific career and contribution to the art of cinema. “Receiving this award feels like I’ve done the job my mom and grandparents always told me to do from the time I was capable of understanding, ‘make us proud, every time you leave this house, you represent us,’” he says. “I can feel them beaming now. Bursting with pride at what their encouragement, confidence and love led me to achieve. Feels like a job well done!” — Jazz Tangcay
Throughout her 60-year plus career, May took chances. The results were deep lows and lofty highs, and that latter category includes her Honorary Award.
May had an unusual start for a filmmaker: improv comedy. In 1957, she and colleague Mike Nichols teamed up to do character sketches, such as a mother and son, or a customer and bureaucrat. They were a fast sensation, with sold-out nightclub shows, television appearances, a successful Broadway run and four Grammy nominations for their comedy records. But they split up after only four years and onlookers wondered if each could succeed on their own. The two, obviously, surpassed expectations.
May became the first woman since Ida Lupino to get a studio contract as a director, writing, starring in and directing the comedy “A New Leaf” (1971). She then directed “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972) but her 1976 “Mikey and Nicky” was way over budget and delayed a year. She and co-writer Warren Beatty were Oscar-nominated for the comedy “Heaven Can Wait” (1978), which was a big hit.
Two of her most successful projects were uncredited script work on Beatty’s “Reds” (1981) and the Dustin Hoffman vehicle “Tootsie” (1982). The two stars agreed to star in the May-directed “Ishtar,” as a sort of thank you.
No good deed goes unpunished. “Ishtar” was critically blasted — Variety called it a “fiasco” — and worse, it lost a lot of money. “Ishtar” put an end to her film-directing career.
May bounced back. She continued to write plays and was again Oscar-nominated for her script for the Nichols-directed “Primary Colors” (1998). And she directed the PBS docu “Mike Nichols: American Masters” in 2016.
In 2012, she was given the National Medal of Arts and four years later, the WGA’s Laurel Award. In 2018, she returned to Broadway after 60 years in Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” earning a lead actress Tony.
The Academy says she is receiving the Oscar for her “bold, uncompromising approach to filmmaking as a writer, director and actress.” — Tim Gray
When making the announcement that Ullmann was being honored with a Governors Award for her acting, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president David Rubin said, “Liv Ullmann’s bravery and emotional transparency has gifted audiences with deeply affecting screen portrayals.”
It’s high praise, but an understatement. The Norwegian-born actor has frequently proven that she is one of films’ all-time greats.
Ullmann was Oscar-nominated for “The Emigrants” (1972) and “Face to Face” (1976). In both, she offered complex portraits of women: in every scene, she can simultaneously convey many thoughts and feelings, a mixture of raw emotions and luminous beauty.
Ullmann made 10 films with Ingmar Bergman, including “Persona” (1966), “Shame” (1968), “Cries and Whispers” (1972), “Scenes From a Marriage” (1973) and “Autumn Sonata” (1978). Some consider her to be his muse but linking her to one director short-changes her versatility since she has done great work for others, including Jan Troell. (She’s also directed five features herself.)
In a 2021 interview with Variety, Ullmann said, “True art can overcome any scary feeling we have. Art is more important than ever. Performances help you know what it is to be a human being.”
She also spoke about her humanitarian work.
While appearing on Broadway in Richard Rodgers’ musical “I Remember Mama” in 1979, she and other stars were asked to help raise funds for Cambodian refugees. Leo Cherne, head of the Intl. Rescue Committee, asked her to travel with the group and meet refugees. She asked how long it would take. “For the rest of your life,” he said. That’s turned out to be true.
That compassion and humanity are a key part in all her performances. Talking about the state of the world, she told Variety, “We have to work together. We have to make a change. We are not witnesses; we are all participants.” — Tim Gray