Awards Watch: Governors Awards

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Honorary Award: Gordon Willis

During a 30-year career studded with landmark films -- including the "Godfather" trilogy -- Willis has never received a competitive Oscar and was nominated just twice, for "Zelig" in 1983 and "The Godfather: Part III" in 1990.

"The only time I really expected to get a nod was on the first 'Godfather' film, and I was somewhat surprised and disappointed that I didn't," admits the cinematographer, who retired after shooting the 1997 thriller "The Devil's Own." "After that, it didn't bother me and it didn't change my perspective on what I did." Nevertheless, he's pleasantly surprised that the Academy decided to salute him. "I got the call late one night, around 11 p.m., and it was totally unexpected."

Willis' work in "The Godfather" is so revered that another cameraman, Tom McDonough, refers to it in his memoir as the "Sistine Chapel of cinematography." The film's signature look -- brassy-amber period hues, ink-black shadows and an artful application of toplight -- had a seismic impact in cinematography circles.

"When I was photographing the first 'Godfather,' I was just trying to create a visual structure that would tell the best story," says Willis, who caught flak at the time for obscuring the actors' faces with shadows.

"I made a decision to light Marlon Brando in a manner that would define his character. Overhead lighting wasn't a new idea, but it was a new idea to extend it for an entire movie, on everyone and everything. I did what I felt was appropriate, and it turned into something iconic."

Willis acknowledges that he occasionally butted heads with director Francis Ford

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Coppola, whose penchant for on-the-spot improvisation clashed with his own rigorous discipline. "Francis is a spur-of-the-moment kind of person, and I'm the opposite. I believe in having a firm strategy and a map in my hands, while he has a tendency to keep pushing the clay around. I probably gave him more problems than he gave me -- I was not an easy person for Francis to deal with. But our personalities combined to produce some great work."

Willis proved equally adept with comedy and "romantic realism" while shooting eight pictures for Woody Allen, including "Annie Hall," "Manhattan," "Zelig" and "The Purple Rose of Cairo." "Working with Woody was like kissing your first girl -- you never forget it and it's always great in your mind. One of the best things I ever did was the scene in 'Manhattan' where Woody and Diane Keaton are sitting on a bench at dawn, silhouetted against the Brooklyn Bridge. It's a very romantic shot that says a lot about New York."

Never one to linger on sentiment, Willis wryly concedes that he and Allen, both native New Yorkers, share reputations as world-class curmudgeons. "I was a real disciplinarian on the set. I didn't like people fooling around, and neither did he, so we got along very well. One night he and I were having dinner and somebody asked, 'What is it you both like?' Woody answered, 'It's not really that we like the same things; we hate the same things!"

Another frequent collaborator was the late Alan Pakula, for whom Willis shot a series of brooding, cerebral thrillers, including "Klute," "The Parallax View" and "All the President's Men." "Alan was a very elegant guy, and I had a good working relationship with him on the first couple of pictures we did," Willis says. "He was extremely intelligent, but his brain got in the way sometimes. He was constantly asking, 'What are our options?' But if you're standing in a room that's got one door, and a fire breaks out, you've got to go through that door! I would tell him, 'Six months from now, when you're cutting this, you're going to have so many options you're going to forget what you were doing when you actually shot the scene.' It's not a very good idea to over-simplify, but it's a very, very good idea to simplify. I always tried to be very specific."

Summing up Willis' enduring legacy, current ASC president Michael Goi offers: "For cinematographers, excellence in visual storytelling is the ultimate goal, and Gordon Willis achieved it on every film he shot. There's a reason he's been idolized by several generations of cinematographers, and it's not simply because he shoots 'dark'; it's because he shoots perfect visual stories. Whatever the situation -- a man taking a night drive in the rain with his girlfriend's suicidal brother ('Annie Hall'), a pair of reporters searching through stacks of library records ('All the President's Men'), two men embarking on an early morning fishing trip from which only one will return ('The Godfather: Part II'), or a prostitute and a private detective buying fruit at an all-night stand ('Klute') -- his visual choices are so daring, so profound and so perfect that you cannot imagine that moment looking or feeling any other way. That's what makes Gordon Willis the cinematographer's cinematographer."

-- Stephen Pizzello



Honorary Award: Lauren Bacall

 
It was a seminal moment when Lauren Bacall turned to Humphrey Bogart in 1944's "To Have and Have Not" and purred, "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow."

Just 19 at the time, it was her first film performance -- and with it, she became a star. Over the course of the next half century as she conquered film, mastered television and swept Broadway off its feet, she became a legend.

In recognition of that career -- one that continues to this day -- the Academy is honoring Bacall with an Honorary Award.

She continued her initial success playing opposite Bogart in "The Big Sleep" (1946), "Dark Passage" (1947) and "Key Largo" (1948). Their onscreen chemistry was undeniable, probably because it wasn't an act. The two fell in love during their first film and married the following year. They remained together until Bogart's death in 1957.

Her sultry demeanor and piercing eyes captivated movie audiences in such films as "Young Man with a Horn," "How to Marry a Millionaire," "Blood Alley," "Written on the Wind" and "Murder on the Orient Express." She won a Golden Globe and received her only Academy Award nomination "The Mirror has Two Faces" (1996). The cool-as-a-cucumber confidence also transformed well to the stage. She took home a Tony for her performances in both "Applause" (1970) and "Woman of the Year" (1981).

But what may be most surprising about the 85-year-old actress, whose upcoming work includes the films "Carmel" and "Wide Blue Yonder," is how uneasy her chosen craft has always made her.

Bacall admitted to Larry King in a 2005 appearance on his CNN program how anxious she was her first day on the set of "To Have and Have Not." And how that nervous feeling, to this day, has never quite gone away.

"I always am before I go onstage. I always am when I start a movie. And I just am because -- I don't know. It's just kind of ingrown," Bacall revealed to King, adding how it influenced her renown screen persona. "It's just built into me. I mean, that was what started 'the look,' was nerves, just trying to keep my head steady."

-- Chris Koseluk



Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award: John Calley

 
One Saturday morning about six years ago, John Calley got a phone call from Howard Stringer, his friend and boss at Sony Pictures Entertainment. Both were book collectors with an enthusiasm for mysteries and thrillers. "He said, 'I'm reading something that might be fun for you,' " Calley recalls. " 'It's called 'The Da Vinci Code.' "

When he received the book, Calley read it in two hours and was enthralled. He phoned author Dan Brown's lawyer at home and that same day Sony acquired rights to what became a mega-hit franchise.

Again Calley's "gut instinct" was golden in a business he calls "Vegas but in a much more complicated and dangerous way."

Over five decades, Calley has shown a knack for picking hits. After starting in TV and advertising, his film career began at Filmways in 1961 with such classics as "The Loved One," "The Cincinnati Kid" and "Catch-22," which launched his business and personal relationship with filmmaker Mike Nichols.

Calley headed production at Warner Bros. for a decade beginning in 1968, shepherding (among others) "A Clockwork Orange" (1971), directed by Stanley Kubrick -- who'd been Calley's friend since they were both teenagers -- "Superman" (1978) and "Chariots of Fire" (1981). He left the studio at the height of his power to spend 13 years as a self-described "hermit" seeking to discover himself. That ended in 1989 when he joined Nichols to produce "Postcards From the Edge" and then "The Remains of the Day."

In 1993, Calley took on United Artists as the company's new president and COO. At age 63 he wanted to "see if I could do it again." He proved himself with pictures like "Leaving Las Vegas" and "The Birdcage."

He took over Sony Pictures in 1996, becoming president and COO, breaking boxoffice records with such movies as "Men in Black," "Air Force One" and "My Best Friend's Wedding."

In 2003, he returned to producing with "Da Vinci" and other movies as well as the TV miniseries, "The Company," through his company, John Calley Prods.

-- Alex Ben Block



Honorary award: Roger Corman

 
With such titles such as "The Brain Eaters," "Candy Stripe Nurses" and "Chopping Mall" (1986) among the almost 400 films Roger Corman has produced in 65 years, even the proclaimed "King of the Bs" concedes he may not be the most obvious choice for an Academy honor.

"I was totally surprised," says Corman, who has also directed 50-plus films, including "It Conquered the World," "Pit and the Pendulum" and "Frankenstein Unbound." "I didn't think the Academy would recognize someone who makes primarily independent, low-budget films."

But the mark Corman has made on films is undeniable. He arguably launched the modern independent film movement when he released "Highway Dragnet" in 1954. It's hard to say how many "cult classics" there are among his credits, but a short list includes "Little Shop of Horrors," "The Trip," "Targets," "Bloody Mama," "Grand Theft Auto," "Rock 'n Roll High School," "Battle Beyond the Stars" and "Suburbia."

Just as long is the list of top Hollywood talent who can thank Corman for giving them a shot early in their careers. Allan Arkush, Peter Bogdanovich, James Cameron, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, Curtis Hanson, Ron Howard, Gale Ann Hurd, Jonathan Kaplan, John Sayles and Martin Scorsese, to name a few -- are all Corman alumni. And if you catch an early performance of David Carradine, Robert De Niro, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson or Sylvester Stallone, chances are you're watching a Corman flick.

"I was convinced that each was good," Corman says about the talent that has worked for him. "But I had no idea they would rise to the heights they did."

At 83, as he basks in his Academy recognition and lends his expertise to such projects as the 2008 big-budget Universal remake of his 1975 classic no-budget "Death Race 2000," Corman also keeps doing what he does best. The latest batch he's produced includes "Scorpius Gigantus" (2006), Supergator" (2007) and "Cyclops" (2008).

-- Chris Koseluk
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