Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic; Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: Image Credit: Rhythm & Hues

"This is kind of amazing," legendary documentarian D.A. Pennebaker said, looking down at his honorary Oscar. "I mean, everybody here probably has one of these already."

A nervous ripple of laughter went through the ballroom.  Actually, many people were at the Academy's Governors Awards because they don't — but want one.

The four-year-old event, which presents lifetime achievement Oscars to deserving individuals, has become a prime campaign spot for those hoping to persuade members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to vote for them.

In addition to Pennebaker, the recipients of the Governors Awards included American Film Institute founder George Stevens, Jr., DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg, and stuntman Hal Needham.

But the crowd of nearly 600 gathered at the Hollywood & Highland complex was an unabashed cavalcade of awards contenders: Lincoln director Steven Spielberg stood talking with Les Miserables filmmaker Tom Hooper; Zero Dark Thirty director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal attended with cast members Edgar Ramirez and Jason Clarke; Christopher Nolan was the standard-bearer for The Dark Knight Rises, and Quentin Tarantino was there, hot off the debut screening of Django Unchained hours earlier at the Directors Guild of America.

Among the potential Best Actors in the crowd were The Sessions' John Hawkes and Silver Linings Playbook's Bradley Cooper, while Ewan McGregor from The Impossible and Emayatzy Corinealdi from Middle of Nowhere also made the rounds, and even 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis stayed up late for the event with her Beasts of the Southern Wild co-star Dwight Henry.

Lincoln screenwriter Tony Kushner chatted with The Perks of Being a Wallflower author/screenwriter/director Stephen Chbosky, and The Master's Amy Adams and On The Road's Kristen Stewart were there among the possible supporting actresses. There almost seemed to be more wannabe nominees than voters – which led to the nervous chuckles when Pennebaker assumed most of the room had already won one of those golden statuettes.

Although movie fans have been seriously talking Oscars since September, this evening is like Academy Award speed-dating, with wannabe nominees doing their best to meet and greet members before nominations voting begins Dec. 17.

Talking to voters tonight, there seems to be a consensus on at least six sure-things for Best Picture: Argo, Les Miserables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty.

The room was buzzing over Django Unchained. Few at the Governors Awards had seen it, but everyone wanted to know what the word was on Tarantino's southern-fried vengeance tale. (Early reaction from those who were at the DGA showing seems strong.) As it begins screening this coming week, we'll get a better sense of where it stands.

The big, unresolved question is what could be the bottom four? The Academy's rules allow for as few as five or as many as 10 Best Picture contenders, depending on how many get enough No. 1 votes.

The Impossible? The Master? Flight? Perhaps some offbeat darling such as Moonrise Kingdom or Beasts of the Southern Wild? Or maybe one of the big studio crowdpleasers: The Hobbit or The Dark Knight Rises?

Ask a different person and you'd get a different answer. Voters are all over the map on those choices, but the top six – those are definite. Where they rank… ?  That also changes with each voter.

Of course, they came not just to schmooze, but to pay tribute to the four honorees.

Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic; Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images
Credit: Image Credit: Rhythm & Hues

D.A. Pennebaker – Documentarian

Pennebaker, 87, is best known for the 1967 Bob Dylan documentary Don't Look Back, and was nominated for an Oscar for 1993′s The War Room, about Bill Clinton's first campaign for president. He was credited with popularizing the cinema verite movement, which created more dramatic non-fiction movies by allowing filmmakers to be more mobile in accompanying their subjects.

"All that I learned about film came from watching the movies that you people out here made," Pennebaker told the crowd. "That was my education in film. Thinking about this award has made me feel that finally, you guys now consider us fellow filmmakers. Thank you."

A reel of his work was introduced by Sen. Al Franken, the subject of a 2006 documentary Pennebaker produced called Al Franken: God Spoke, who joked that the filmmaker is known by the nickname "Penny" "not because of his name, but because of his budgets."

Michael Moore, an Oscar-winner for Bowling For Columbine and an Academy governor from the doc branch, presented the actual Oscar to Pennebaker, calling him "a true pioneer of this art film we all love so much."

"Tonight, we're honoring a man who, with a group of his friends, invented nothing less than the modern documentary," Moore said. "They decided that non-fiction films could be daring, provocative and — dare I say it — entertaining."

George Stevens Jr. — Founder of the American Film Institute

"Producer, playwright, activist, politician, archivist, champion, gatekeeper, benevolent despot, artist, author, mentor. In his life and work, George Stevens has been all these things and more," said Annette Bening as she introduced a short film about his history.

Stevens' biggest impact was as founding director of the American Film Institute, though the 80-year-old also was an early champion for the National Endowment for the Arts and a tireless champion for film education and preservation. The son of Academy Award-winning director George Stevens (Giant, A Place in the Sun), he also co-founded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1977, an event he continues to produce.

The Oscar was presented by Sidney Poitier, a longtime friend who worked with him on the 1991 TV movie Separate But Equal. "When you work with George Stevens, art and activism are never very far apart," Poitier said.

Stevens told the crowd that he grew up fearing that filmmaking wasn't for him. "I didn't want to devote my life to being the second-best film director in my family," he said.

He recalled riding home from the Oscars with his father in 1952, after he claimed the directing award for A Place in the Sun. "The Oscar was on the seat between us. I was pretty excited, and I think he thought I was a little too excited. He leaned over, smiled, and said something that shaped my life: 'We'll have a better idea what kind of film this is in about 25 years.' He was talking about the test of time.  It was the test of time that was the underlying idea and ethic of the American Film Institute and later the Kennedy Center Honors."

Hal Needham — Stuntman

Probably the most colorful part of the Governors Awards was this presentation for the legendary stuntman and Smokey and the Bandit and Cannonball Run director.

Needham's first movie was 1957′s The Spirit of St. Louis and his filmography is studded with classics such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Little Big Man (1970), and Blazing Saddles and Chinatown (both 1974). "I broke 56 bones, my back twice, punctured a lung, had a shoulder replaced, and knocked out a few teeth," he said.

The 81-year-old was credited with improving stunt safety by inventing special camera rigs and protective measures that made the sequences feel more real, while also being less likely to harm the stunt performer. "I guess what I was looking for was to save myself some trips to the hospital."

Producer Al Ruddy presented him the Oscar by recalling an outrageous story from the making of 1982's Megaforce about how they accidentally fired a real rocket across a studio lot, burning down a soundstage in the process. Tarantino also spoke to introduce footage of Needham's work. "I've never worked with you. I've worked with a lot of people you know. And I've ripped off many shots from you," Tarantino jokes. "And today I say 'thank you very much.'"

Jeffrey Katzenberg — Humanitarian Award

The fourth award of the night was not only an Oscar statuette, but the Jean Hersholt Award, recognizing humanitarian good deeds of the DreamWorks Animation chief.

Tom Hanks reminded the crowd that it was Katzenberg who initiated the star-filled telethons that now accompany major disasters, seeking to unite viewers and raise money for relief. "I believe it was probably Sept. 14, 2001, a few days after the worst day any of us can remember in our lifetime," Hanks said. "Jeffrey Katzenberg made calls… and said we're trying to do something new, something different. We have to break the rules on this one." Without him, Hanks said, we wouldn't have had the Sept. 11 telethon.

"That set a standard for the way Americans help out America in times of need," he said.

Katzenberg, 61, has been a longtime chairman of the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund, which provides care for the elderly or ill film and television workers, and he has helped to raise $200 million for the organization, in part through events such as his famed "Night Before" Oscar party.

His other philanthropic endeavors include, as listed by the Academy, serving on the boards of the California Institute of the Arts, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, AIDS Project Los Angeles, the Geffen Playhouse, The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and the USC School of Cinematic Arts.

"My first mentors — my parents. They gave me life and they gave me a deep appreciation for what it is to give to others," said Katzenberg, who recently lost his mother. He used his moment on the stage to remember her.

"She passed away a little over a month ago, and I really regret that I never told her this enough… But my father is here tonight, and I want to say now how much you mean to me. And how much I love and appreciate you for all that you have loved and given to me."

For more on awards season, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter.

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