It hadn’t been a great few days for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Leading up to last night’s Governors Awards (the separate ceremony where the honorary Oscars are handed out), the Academy was forced to deal with all the fallout from Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy’s resignations as the producer and host of February’s Oscar telecast. But they ended this rough chapter with a classy and emotional event as James Earl Jones, makeup artist Dick Smith, and Oprah Winfrey all received tributes.
The ballroom adjacent to the Kodak Theatre was filled with stars who will contend for this season’s Oscars. It’s as if my Oscar prediction article in this week’s issue of EW had magically come to life. Here’s everyone I spotted: the whole gang from The Artist (Jean Dujardin, Bérénce Bejo, Malcolm McDowell, and director Michel Hazanavicius), The Help‘s Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer with director Tate Taylor and producer Brunson Green, Shame‘s Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen, The Descendants‘ Shailene Woodley, Bridesmaids‘ Melissa McCarthy, Albert Nobbs‘ Glenn Close and Janet McTeer, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy star Gary Oldman, Rampart‘s Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, A Better Life‘s Demián Bichir with director Chris Weitz, 50/50‘s Seth Rogen and screenwriter Will Reiser, Warrior‘s Nick Nolte with director Gavin O’Connor, Young Adult‘s Patton Oswalt and screenwriter Diablo Cody, W.E. star Andrea Riseborough, We Need to Talk About Kevin‘s Tilda Swinton, Another Happy Day‘s Ellen Barkin, Moneyball director Bennett Miller, J. Edgar screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Jane Eyre director Cary Fukunaga, and The Ides of March‘s Evan Rachel Wood.
The evening began with a bit of fun as people in full Stormtrooper costumes emerged to playfully force attendees to quit mingling and take their seats. At that point, Darth Vader took the stage and revealed himself to be Academy president Tom Sherak, who began his introductory remarks with four wryly loaded words: “How was your week?” Sherak also paid tribute to two past telecast producers who passed away this year: Laura Ziskin and Gil Cates.
The first award of the night belonged to Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones. Alec Baldwin began the tribute to his Hunt for Red October co-star, recalling the time he asked Jones for advice in his career during filming. “We were standing outside a stage at Paramount, and the moment came,” Baldwin said. “We were smoking a cigarette together out in the alleyway and I finally said to him, ‘What advice would you give to me as an actor?’ And he stared at me with that face of his and took the longest pause you could ever imagine, and he said, ‘What advice would I give you as an actor?’ And my heart was racing, I said ‘Yes. What advice would you give me as an actor?’ And he said, ‘My advice to you would be to quit smoking.'” Then Glenn Close offered her own words of congratulations before introducing taped footage from earlier in the day when Jones, on stage after a performance of Driving Miss Daisy in London, received his trophy from his Miss Daisy co-star Vanessa Redgrave and surprise guest, actor Ben Kingsley. “If an actor’s nightmare is being on stage buck naked and not knowing his lines, what the heck do you call this? I mean, look at this! I’ve been on this stage with a great audience, I have my clothes on, I knew my words, and then out from the wings steps Sir Ben Kingsley and he hands me an Oscar! Frankly, what the heck else would you call that but an actor’s wet dream?”
Next up was The Exorcist star Linda Blair, who began the tribute to Dick Smith by recalling all of the grueling makeup work she underwent at Smith’s hands. She was followed by J.J. Abrams, who brought down the house by telling the audience how as “a ninth grader and insanely rabid Dick Smith fan” he wrote a fan letter to Smith and received a memorable care package in return. “I came home from school one day and found a small cardboard box addressed to me. The return address was Dick Smith, Larchmont, New York. My heart pounded as I opened the box. The enclosed note read: ‘Dear J.J., Here’s an old but clean tongue from The Exorcist. Put peanut butter inside it to stick it on. Or moisten inside and sprinkle dental-adhesive powder in. Yours, Dick.'” Tilda Swinton, along with the rest of the crowd, was in hysterics. After another tribute from makeup artist (and former Smith assistant) Rick Baker, Smith, who is 89 years old, gave an extraordinarily touching speech. “To have so much kindness given to me all at once, it’s just too much,” he said. “I am so grateful.”
Then it was time for the tribute to Winfrey, who received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Her friends John Travolta and Die Hard producer Lawrence Gordon each told funny stories about Winfrey’s love of parties and penchant for tequila. Then her former newsroom colleague Maria Shriver introduced a Barnard College student named Ayanna Hall, one of the beneficiaries of Winfrey’s scholarship program. As Hall talked about not being able to afford the tuition for a private high school she hoped to attend, Winfrey wiped away tears from her eyes. Hall invited Winfrey to the stage, at which point Winfrey delivered a riveting 12-minute speech with no script and no notes. The most memorable moment was when the woman who many people argue won Barack Obama the presidency singled out The Help as a movie that affected her recently. “When I saw The Help, that is my story. My grandmother was a maid, her mother was a maid, her mother before her was a slave. My mother was a maid. My grandmother’s greatest dream for me was that I would grow up in a family and have a career where she used to say, ‘I hope you get some good white folks. I hope you get some good white folks like I have. I have good white folks.’ And the only picture I have of my grandmother is of her holding a white child in her maid’s uniform. So the journey from Kosciusko, Mississippi, where nobody ever even imagined it possible that you could be anything other than a maid who had some good white folks who would give you clothes and would let you take food home on the holidays, it’s unimaginable that I would be standing before you, voted by the Board of Governors.” At that moment I glanced over at the table where the cast of The Help was sitting, and Octavia Spencer had tears streaming down her face. From a political point of view, it was the best thing anyone involved in that movie could have asked for. But more than that, for the entire room, it was a truly inspirational moment in a truly special night.
Dave on Twitter: @davekarger