During the course of her career, Debbie Reynolds never won an Oscar. In fact, she was nominated just once — as best actress for the 1964 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences board of governors decided to remedy that in 2015 when it voted to award her its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, presented at the 74th Governors Awards. The Hersholt is awarded to an individual “whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry,” and the Academy cited Reynolds' role as a founding member of The Thalians, the charitable organization founded by entertainers in 1955 to promote the awareness and treatment of mental health issues. Reynolds served as the group’s president almost continuously from 1957 to 2011 as the Thalians raised millions it contributed to the Mental Health Center at Cedars-Sinai and UCLA’s Operation Mend, which assisted military veterans.
Because of poor health, Reynolds could not attend the ceremony, and so her award was accepted on her behalf by her granddaughter Billie Lourd.
But first, Hollywood praised Reynolds for both her career and her philanthropic efforts.
Zooey Deschanel kicked off the evening's series of tributes by singing the song "Tammy," which became a popular hit in 1957 when it was introduced in Reynolds' film Tammy and the Bachelor.
Jane Fonda and Meryl Streep then testified to Reynolds' charitable work. Said Fonda, "The award we are giving Debbie tonight, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, is presented not for her body of work as a performer, although we all recognize and cherish Debbie as the vibrant movie star who brought so much life and energy to her classic film roles, but for the outstanding work she has done outside her day job to improve our city, our country and the world. Debbie's philanthropy is both wide and deep."
Reynolds was so devoted to the issue of mental health, Fonda joked, that "she persuaded her daughter Carrie to pretend that she suffered from mental illness."
Carrie Fisher herself appeared in a video account of her mother's career and causes, saying, "I have no idea how she did all the things she did."
Streep went on to praise Reynolds' "passion to preserve the iconic costumes that we associate with Hollywood's golden age."
Reynolds did provide a audio acceptance, played for the crowd, in which she said, "I'm thrilled beyond words, shocked, and you couldn't be more amazed that a little girl from Burbank even came near this sort of accolade."
And Lourd, when she finally came to the podium to accept the award, concluded, "It honestly feels super weird to be up here without her. I've never seen her miss a show in her life" — words that now, in retrospect, almost play like a fitting epitaph for the indefatigable performer.
Watch the videos below.