Image Credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty ImagesIf you wanted a preview of what the Governors Ball will look like after the 83rd Annual Academy Awards air on Feb. 27, 2011, you simply needed to score a ticket to last night’s 2nd Annual Governors Awards. Inaugurated last year as a separate ceremony from the Academy Awards, the event is ostensibly designed to celebrate the Honorary Oscar and Irving Thalberg Award honorees in a more thoughtful and meaningful way than a seven minute TV segment. (It also, of course, helps to streamline the infamously bloated Oscar ceremony.) Honorary Oscar winners Jean-Luc Godard, Eli Wallach (pictured, left), and Kevin Brownlow (right), and Thalberg winner Francis Ford Coppola (center), were indeed thoroughly feted in style, with heartfelt testimonials and toasts from colleagues and friends. (French New Wave legend Godard honored his well–documented decision not to attend the ceremony.)
But whereas last year’s Governors Awards contained just a small handful of actors, directors, and screenwriters angling for a nomination, this year’s event was near-to-bursting with bold-faced names eager for face time with Academy voters. To wit: Natalie Portman (Black Swan), Aaron Eckhart (Rabbit Hole), Robert Duvall (Get Low), and Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine) dutifully worked the Grand Ballroom above the Kodak Theater, as did Conviction stars Hilary Swank, Juliette Lewis, and Sam Rockwell. The Social Network‘s Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, and Armie Hammer continued their campaign to be Oscar’s youngest (and, arguably, most adorable) troika of acting nominees in years. Social Network screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and Fair Game director Doug Liman appeared to make a point of happily greeting every luminary within a 50 foot radius, whereas The Kids Are All Right‘s co-writer-director Lisa Cholodenko appeared to keep closer to her own table. And at the pre-event reception, I caught the directors of Toy Story 3 (Lee Unkrich) and How to Train Your Dragon (Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders) congratulating each other for their films and wishing each other good luck in the awards season ahead. (The award for the night’s most random guests, meanwhile, goes to U.S. representative and frequent Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and his wife Elizabeth. No kidding.)
In fairness, some of the Oscar hopefuls had good reason to be there. Writer-director Sofia Coppola led the toast to her father — and the stars of the younger Coppola’s upcoming film Somewhere, Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning, watched from a nearby table. True Grit‘s Josh Brolin toasted acting legend (and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps co-star) Eli Wallach with a hilarious story about Wallach’s inability to make out his cue due to his prop hearing aids — while Brolin’s wife and Oscar hopeful for Secretariat Diane Lane looked on. Portman’s Black Swan co-star Vincent Cassell represented his fellow Frenchmen introducing the video package for Godard, wryly noting the director’s Swiss heritage. Kevin Spacey (Casino Jack) presented the honorary Oscar statue to renowned film historian and conservationist Kevin Brownlow. And as for Annette Bening, a Best Actress frontrunner for The Kids Are All Right, she’s a current member of the Academy’s board of governors.
Still, before the ceremony had even started, there was some grumbling that all the Oscar politicking had killed the fun and relaxed atmosphere that made its first year so enjoyable. But the event still had plenty of genuine moments of celebration. The absent Godard won lavish praise for his groundbreaking contributions to the language of cinema — and some pointed comments about his iconoclastic attitudes towards Israel, Hollywood, and the Academy Awards. “Let’s be clear,” said Academy governor and screenwriter Phil Robinson (Field of Dreams), “this ain’t the [Jean] Hersholt Humanitarian Award.”
Wallach, who starred in his first film at 41 and his most recent at 94, was clearly the evening’s sentimental favorite, thanks to his numerous supporting character roles in films like The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. After his wife, actress Anne Jackson, and friend and colleague Robert De Niro, both delivered warm and funny testimonials about Wallach, Tony Bennett stood and delivered two songs in tribute to Wallach and Jackson with such verve and power it had the entire ballroom on its feet. Wallach accepted his honor with good humor, capping his speech with a story about a prostitute who visits an elderly man as a gift from his two sons. “I’m here to give you super sex!” exclaimed the prostitute. After a pause, the old man replied, “All right, I’ll take the soup.”
Had the Academy not decided to spin off the Governors Awards from the regular Oscar ceremony, Kevin Brownlow most likely would never had received an honorary Oscar for his dogged and indispensable work at preserving and restoring silent films, there were understandably fewer testimonials for Brownlow, something he himself acknowledged in his acceptance speech when he noted, “If you’ve ever wondered what reflected glory looks like, this is it.” Then the man who dedicated his life to saving silent film went on to give the longest speech of the night, ending with an admonition to Hollywood to relax its copyright laws for the sake of preservation.
Finally, Coppola received the rarely-bestowed Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award for his contributions as a producer, from his own films (The Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now) to producing and exec.-producing other people’s films, such as American Graffiti, The Black Stallion, and his daughter’s Lost in Translation. Oddly, for such a high honor, the salute to Coppola’s accomplishments traded on jokes about his well-established career as a maker not of movies, but of fine wines. The first person to speak about Coppola, in fact, wasn’t a filmmaker, but actor Don Novello’s longstanding comic character Father Guido Sarducci. (Novello appeared in The Godfather Part III and is starring in Coppola’s newest directorial effort, Twixt Now and Sunrise, current shooting in northern California wine country.)
By contrast, George Lucas — whose first two, pre-Star Wars films were produced by Coppola — appeared to be quite emotional delivering his halting paean to Coppola’s lifelong crusade for first-time filmmakers. “Francis was the guiding light,” said Lucas. “He’s truly the godfather of a generation who changed the course of motion picture history.”
Earlier that night before the ceremony began, that storied filmmaking generation was definitely on Coppola’s mind. “There are many films and many directors that we gave chances to,” Coppola told EW, leaning against one of the giant mock Oscar statues guarding the ballroom entrance (he’s just had knee surgery). “That’s something I’m very proud of.” Then Sofia Coppola stepped forward to steal a photo op with her father before returning to the press line.