The champagne was flowing on Sunday night as the top echelon of Hollywood’s film industry came together to bestow honorary Oscars to five veterans of cinema: trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson, producing powerhouse couple Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, prolific composer Lalo Schifrin, and storied publicist Marvin Levy.
Tyler Perry, Quincy Jones, and Ava DuVernay all paid tribute to Tyson, who became the first African-American woman to receive an honorary Oscar at Sunday’s Governors Awards, speaking of the numerous challenges she overcame as a black actress in America and the formidable career she has forged on stage and on screen.
“African Americans hold Cicely in such high regard, she is a queen to us … she would only do roles that served us,” Perry said. DuVernay recited a list of black actresses and filmmakers, many of whom were in attendance at the awards, and their one word for defining Tyson.
“Lupita Nyong’o said she’s vibrant, Taraji [P.] Henson said she’s a treasure, Aunjanue Ellis: ‘unparalleled’; Regina King: ‘authentic’; Cynthia Erivo: ‘regal’; Shonda Rimes: ‘legendary’; Amandla Stenberg: ‘groundbreaking’; Anika Noni Rose: ‘our gift’; Gabrielle Union: ‘unapologetic’; Kerry Washington: ‘divine’; Viola Davis: ‘our muse’; Oprah Winfrey said, without hesitation: ‘noble – she’s nobility personified,'” DuVernay said, adding that her word for Tyson was “flower.”
But it was Tyson’s speech that stirred up emotions across the room, many wiping tears from their eyes as the veteran actress spoke about a friend whom she had asked to escort her to the Oscars 45 years ago, when she was nominated for Best Actress in Sounder. She said she asked the same friend to accompany her on Sunday as she finally picked up the coveted accolade, but the friend sadly died two days after she made the request.
The Harlem-born actress, who turns 94 next month, was welcomed on stage with a standing ovation. She said she “cried and cried and cried” when she was told she would be receiving the Oscar and thanked her peers, especially Oprah and Whoopi Goldberg, for supporting her along the way.
“I could not be here if it were not for you, if you had not stood beside me, around me, underneath me,” the actress said to the audience.
The Governors Awards, known as the honorary Oscars, are often awarded as a lifetime achievement in film to those who may not have won an Oscars statuette. Tyson, whose illustrious career has spanned seven decades, was only ever nominated for one Oscar.
Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm and producer of franchises such as Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and Star Wars, became the first woman to receive the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award — which honors achievements in producing — alongside Marshall, her producing partner and husband. The duo received onstage tributes from Matt Damon and Steven Spielberg, the latter of whom entertained the audience as he spoke of hiring Kennedy as his assistant for Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark. “She went from taking notes to taking over,” Spielberg quipped.
The veteran director was also the one who introduced the couple, after hiring Marshall to work on Raiders of the Lost Ark. Before long, he said, “one day I walked into my office and saw the two of them making out on my couch!”
Kennedy, 65, who has been nominated eight times in the Best Picture category (which honors producers) including E.T., The Sixth Sense, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, said she was “very proud to be the first woman to accept this award” and used her speech to emphasize the need for more diverse voices in film. “We all know changes in the industry should be embraced, must be embraced because as our industry changes who gets to tell their story.”
The Governors Awards has a more relaxed and camera-less atmosphere than February’s Oscars. Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson shared a laugh with Melissa McCarthy and filmmaker Marielle Heller, who is directing Hanks in the upcoming Mr. Rogers film. Lin-Manuel Miranda chatted with the cast of Crazy Rich Asians while Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira caught up with Joel Edgerton.
Lady Gaga held court, conversing with the likes of Clint Eastwood while Michelle Yeoh reunited with her Memoirs of a Geisha director Rob Marshall. Emily Blunt and Kathryn Hahn warmly hugged and chatted, while Armie Hammer shared an embrace with his Call Me By Your Name costar Timothee Chalamet, who jokingly referred to Hammer as “my lover.”
Hanks was also on hand to pay tribute to veteran publicist Marvin Levy, a long-time Spielberg collaborator who worked on publicity campaigns for the likes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. As he accepted his statuette, Levy sang a snippet of the Hamilton song “The Room Where it Happens,” saying, “This is the first time the Academy has considered one of us for this kind of award so it’s the most humbling too.”
Levy also spoke of when he organized Hollywood star power to attend marches in Washington D.C. to protest on certain issues. “When it comes to politics, celebrity is a controversial word right now but that’s what we do — we use celebrity to fight for civil rights,” Levy said, as the crowd cheered him on.
Eastwood served up the night’s strangest moment when he was introducing the honorary Oscar for composer Schifrin. Unable to read the teleprompter, Eastwood asked Schifrin to come up on stage, where he rambled through an impromptu question-and-answer session with the veteran composer and then interjected comments during Schifrin’s acceptance speech. “He’s afraid I’m going to compete with him as an actor, that’s why he’s sabotaging my speech,” Schifrin quipped on stage, as Eastwood laughed.
A student of jazz, Argentinian musician Schifrin is the man behind some of Hollywood’s most iconic scores, notably Starsky and Hutch, Cool Hand Luke, and the thrilling theme song for the Mission: Impossible franchise. He has been nominated for six Oscars, but had never won one.
“Receiving this honorary Oscar isn’t a dream; it’s a mission accomplished,” Schifrin said, as he picked up his statuette.