By David Canfield
October 28, 2019 at 10:51 AM EDT

“This is an anxiety-free zone,” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president David Rubin said in his introduction to this year’s Governors Awards. “This is a Hollywood party in the best sense.”

This proved a hard sentiment to argue with. On Sunday, at the 11th annual special Oscars ceremony — for a variety of lifetime achievements — the Ray Dolby Ballroom of the Hollywood & Highland Center was flooded with the town’s brightest stars. Legends abounded, first and foremost the Governors Award recipients: David Lynch, Geena Davis, Wes Studi, and Lina Wertmüller, artists who’ve contributed to and transformed the medium over decades. But as always, the event also marked a major stop on this year’s campaign trail. Think of a contender for a 2020 Oscar nomination, and they were probably in the room.

Indeed, before even Rubin got to talking one sensed momentum build for a pair of this season’s bubble candidates. Just Mercy supporting contender (and former Oscar winner) Jamie Foxx, tasked to kick things off with “three to four minutes of riffing,” called out iconic actors like Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio in his monologue before offering a small, deeply felt personal tribute to Eddie Murphy, who’s jockeying for a Best Actor nod for the comedic Netflix biopic Dolemite Is My Name. “Eddie Motherf—ing Murphy, get on the stage,” Foxx shouted after calling him a “hero.” Foxx got the crowd on their feet and led them in a chant, to prod Murphy to join Foxx; when he did, cheers from the dinner tables only grew louder. Murphy wasn’t one of the night’s honorees, exactly, but he nearly felt like one; once he finally made his way centerstage, Foxx reminisced about the power of watching Murphy as a kid (to which Murphy cleverly cracked, “How old are you?”).

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Guests were still filing in their seats as proceedings got underway. Likely 2020 nominees Jennifer Lopez (Hustlers), Saoirse Ronan (Little Women), Noah Baumbach (Marriage Story), Renée Zellweger (Judy), Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), and Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) mingled alongside others trying to stake a claim in a competitive race, such as Honey Boy‘s Shia LaBeouf and Noah Jupe, and Booksmart‘s Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever.

Many other contenders doled out the night’s big trophies. Supporting Actress heavyweight Laura Dern (Marriage Story) was joined by Kyle MacLachlan to present the first Oscar of the night to David Lynch, their most frequent director. As the pair, recently reunited in Twin Peaks: The Return, recounted meeting Lynch for the first time at a Bob’s Big Boy in advance of their working together on Blue Velvet, and paid tribute to his singular creative spirit and influence — Dern tenderly relayed Lynch’s favorite fishing-themed metaphor for the value of hard work — Lynch sat in the audience, moved to tears. His acceptance speech was very short, very sweet, and filled with gratitude.

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Next came two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks, back in the race this year for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, to launch the section dedicated to Geena Davis (recipient of the 2019 Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award). Davis was chosen for her advocacy work in the realm of gender parity and equality, and Hanks — “a white guy who’s been on the cover of AARP magazine,” as he expertly quipped — was perhaps not the ideal choice to drive home this honor’s particular message. Nonetheless, Davis’ A League of Their Own costar did a fine job, and Constance Wu (making the circuit rounds this year for Hustlers) took the stage next to present. Davis, upon accepting, was a witty delight, unafraid to get in the weeds on data and numbers and armed with some great one-liners. Her best of the night, playing off the Hollywood “bleeding heart” liberal cliché: “If we’re supposed to be a bunch of gender-fluid intersectional feminists, then by God, let’s do it right.”

Davis set the tone for the rest of the night: the imperative for the industry to do better, be more inclusive, and recognize those who’ve had a tougher or less fair road. Such Oscar mainstays as Christian Bale, Michael Mann, and (via video) Kevin Costner partook in the presentation for Wes Studi, the Cherokee American actor whose career has spanned three decades, from Dances With Wolves to Avatar to Hostiles. He became the first Native American Oscar winner on Sunday night. As he grabbed his award from Bale in triumph, the longest standing ovation of the night at last settling, he said slowly and intently, “I’d simply like to say: It’s about time.”

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The honoring of Lina Wertmüller, the first woman ever nominated for best director in 1977 (for Seven Beauties), made for a thrillingly fitting finale. A murderer’s row of female talent assembled to introduce her: fellow Italian Oscar winner Sophia Loren, as well as Greta Gerwig and Jane Campion, two more former nominees for Best Director. Gerwig poetically and rather ravishingly spoke of Wertmüller’s genius and influence; Campion used her platform to lament the fact that only five women have ever received Oscar nominations for directing, zeroing in on the massive gender disparity.

Here the dual power of the Governors Awards came into crystal-clear focus: There was Campion, a past nominee, honoring a pioneer in her field. There was Gerwig, right beside her, on the cusp of earning her second directing nomination in three years. Campion didn’t even need to state the Little Women writer-director’s name to offer her and her movie — which stands apart in a particularly male-heavy season, if Foxx’s name-dropping intro wasn’t indication enough — a small but significant boost.

Or perhaps Wertmüller, in her rousingly hilarious and scattered speech — translated by Isabella Rossellini, also in attendance to celebrate David Lynch — was an even better advocate for pushing things away from the status quo. Geena Davis delivered an urgent message. Wes Studi made history. And then Lina Wertmüller stood there, holding her Oscar, humbled if also a bit perplexed. She muttered something into the mic with a grin, staring at the male-bodied statue.

“She would like to change the name of ‘Oscar’ to a feminine name,” Rossellini translated. “She would like to call it Anna.”

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