Governors Awards: Donald Sutherland and Three Other Cinematic Legends Reflect on Their Careers

10:00 AM 11/10/2017

by Gregg Kilday

Sutherland, Charles Burnett, Owen Roizman and Agnes Varda — who will receive honorary Oscars at the Nov. 11 ceremony — look back on memorable roles and paving the way for future filmmakers.

DONALD SUTHERLAND_Charles Burnett_Split - Getty - H 2017
Austin Hargrave; Getty Images

Remedying past oversights, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hand out honorary Oscars on Nov. 11 at its annual Governors Awards to four filmmaking talents who have each left a distinctive mark on the art form.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

  • Donald Sutherland

    During his 55-year career, the chameleon-like Canadian actor, 82, has created a gallery of indelible characters, from the freewheeling Hawkeye Pierce in 1970's M*A*S*H to the buttoned-down detective in 1971's Klute to the distressed dad trying to hold his family together in 1980's Ordinary People and the dictatorial President Snow in the Hunger Games franchise. But Sutherland insists the role he's most recognized for is the spaced-out tank commander Oddball from 1970's Kelly's Heroes. "I don't know what it is — some people say it's hearing me speak. Maybe it's the ears," he says, somewhat mischievously.

    Somewhat inexplicably, Sutherland never received an Oscar nomination, a situation that's been remedied now that he is to receive an honorary Oscar. When Academy president John Bailey called to inform him, he didn't recognize the number and at first thought it was a robo-call. "But I was immensely flattered," Sutherland says."I was filled with self-doubt. I was overjoyed. It's such a huge honor."

    Looking back at his career, Sutherland points to his big break after more than a decade working in British theater and TV as 1967's The Dirty Dozen, "the first American movie I made in 1966, in London. I was part of the bottom six of The Dirty Dozen. When I was hired, I just had one line." But when Clint Walker objected to playing one scene that he thought was stupid, director Robert Aldrich surveyed the rest of the cast and pointed to Sutherland, saying, "'You, with the big ears. You do it.' And it changed my life. [Producer] Ingo Preminger saw it and gave me M*A*S*H."

    He delights in looking back at the various, idiosyncratic directors with whom he's worked, admitting, for example, that the week before M*A*S*H was to have completed shooting, he and his co-star Elliott Gould "went to our agents and said we thought Bob [Altman] should be committed to an institution for the insane. That's not to say he shouldn't have been, but he wasn't."

    Preparing for Bernardo Bertolucci's historical epic 1900, Sutherland arrived on the set with a copy of Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism and proceeded to have long discussions with the director in which they disagreed on how he should play the part of a fascist-leaning foreman. "So we did it two ways — for about a week, I did it my way and I did it his way. And then I gave up, and played it his way," he laughs.

    And then there was a road trip to Milan with Federico Fellini, when Sutherland was getting ready to film that director's Casanova. He'd collected all of Casanova's journals for research, but when Fellini discovered them, he threw them out of the car window. "The journals of Casanova have nothing to do with my film," Fellini proclaimed. "I was in love with him," Sutherland says, recounting a recent visit to Rome when a woman recognized him as having played Casanova and invited him up to visit Fellini's old apartment, in which she was currently living.

    As for Ordinary People, Sutherland cites the scene in which his character tells Mary Tyler Moore's character, "I don't think I love you anymore." Says the actor, "I wept, which seemed like a good idea at the time, but when I looked at the rushes, I said to Bob [Redford], 'I did a stupid actor's thing. I should not have cried at all. I should have been there in grief, not weeping.'" Everyone said no, it was fine. But, as Sutherland tells it, "Three months later, Bob called me up and said, 'No, you were right. Let's do it again.' What bravery. Mary wasn't available. She was doing a play in New York. But Bob said, 'If I play Mary, will you do it again.' And that's what you see in the movie."

    So how did he avoid typecasting? "I'm an actor, that's my job," he says of the roles he has tackled. "My career is like a tray of a lot of things."

    Next up, he joins Helen Mirren in Paolo Virzi's The Leisure Seeker, which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing Dec. 15. The two play a long-married couple who embark on one last road trip in a clunky old camper, and Sutherland says proudly, "I was the only one who could drive it." -- Gregg Kilday

  • Charles Burnett

    When Charles Burnett, 73,  began making films at UCLA in the early 1970s, there was little to no infrastructure for independent feature filmmaking in America. When his final theatrical feature was released, in 1994, the burgeoning indie ecosystem no longer had room for the director’s culturally expressive, deeply humanistic brand of cinema.

    Over the intervening 20 years Burnett made four of the most acclaimed and influential independent features of the modern era, while in the many years between projects he worked as a writer and technician on a number of his UCLA contemporaries’ own first films. This generation of artists, subsequently dubbed the L.A. Rebellion and including such names as Billy Woodberry, Haile Gerima, Julie Dash and Larry Clark, would soon forge a newly independent cinema in their own likeness: vivid, neorealist-inspired narratives centered on African-American life in Los Angeles, these singular films portray everyday dramas with a personal, poetic feel for the rituals and rhythms of the black suburban experience.

    Burnett’s 1977 debut, Killer of Sheep, an unassumingly modest film following a slaughterhouse worker and his family through an episodic series of vocational and domestic travails in Watts, is widely considered the movement’s crowning achievement — though, like Burnett’s second film, 1983’s My Brother’s Wedding, it was never released theatrically in its time and was thus not widely seen outside the festival circuit until an overdue restoration in 2007. In the early '90s, Burnett made tentative inroads toward more commercial filmmaking with To Sleep With Anger and The Glass Shield (distributed by the Samuel Goldwyn Company and Miramax, respectively, and featuring Danny Glover and Ice Cube among their ensemble casts). Both films played high-profile festivals and were well received upon opening, but neither attracted much of an audience, even among the black community. In the words of critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Burnett’s mainstream successes only increased his anonymity in the mainstream.”

    In the years since, Burnett has continued to work, more prolifically than ever, in television and documentary. In 1996, he made a television film for Disney called Nightjohn, which was met with enthusiastic acclaim, and his subsequent work in nonfiction (Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property) and narrative filmmaking (Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation), while not widely seen, has continued to deepen his thematic preoccupations with African-American history and its fraught present-day permutations. 

    What does receiving an honorary Oscar mean to you, and what does it feel like to have your career honored by an institution like the Academy?

    Let me put it this way: If it was a pleasant surprise for anyone it was a pleasant surprise for me! A shock, really. I still can’t believe it and I’m still kind of processing it. It came out of the blue. I don’t exactly have a new film in the running or anything, so for me it was more like, why? (Laughs.) But of course I’m very happy. I’m not turning anything down, that’s for sure! I make these small little independent films, and I’m just happy that people appreciate them. But I’m particularly happy for the actors in my films, and the people that I’ve worked with. Because they’ve stood by me and have given me a lot of support over the years. I’m really happy that their contributions can be rewarded.

    I’m curious if you feel, in some small way, like you’ll be accepting this award on behalf of the generation of independent African-American filmmakers that you came up with at UCLA, artists whom you often collaborated with but who in many cases weren’t able to make more than one or two feature films?

    Right, we all sort of came up together. We were all sort of making films en masse around the same time, and black independent film came up on its own during that period. We’d all lend each other support. I’m still in contact with many of the people I went to school with. We still call each other up and talk about the things we want to do. So with this award we kind of all share in that. I’m very happy for them as well.

    You’ve lived almost the entirety of your life in Los Angeles, and many of your films have been set in South Los Angeles. What's your relationship with Hollywood been like over the years, particularly when you were working on the periphery of the industry?

    I sort of feel like I’m still on the periphery, in a way. I don’t necessarily make blockbuster films, you know. They have been reviewed quite well, but they’ve never really been commercially successful.

    I’m sure Academy recognition must have been the furthest thing from your mind when you were starting out making features like Killer of Sheep, but was there a sense among your friends and collaborators that something important was going on in independent African-American cinema at that time, whether or not people were paying attention? 

    I think for us it was just working, whether or not it was successful. Just making a film was the important thing — getting your vision out there. And making a living, of course, was also important. I’ve always looked at working as a success. So in that sense I’ve never been disappointed or anything like that. I do wish I had made more films, or could have made more films. But I consider myself lucky in many ways, so I can’t complain.

    You’ve more or less worked independently throughout your career. As you began to garner critical success, was there an urge to test your skills in mainstream Hollywood, or to continue to pursue filmmaking in the slightly more commercial vein of something like The Glass Shield? Or has your subsequent work in TV and documentary simply come down to opportunities.

    It was opportunity, I think. Having an agent helps, of course. (Laughs.) They can place you in contention for certain projects and things like that. But there were other things [that precipitated the move away from theatrical filmmaking]: You start to raise a family, you buy a house, things like that. There’s a force that sort of moves you toward doing things that can make a living for you and your family. There’s also kids and tuition, student loans — these things are factors when making changes to your personal life.

    In the last couple years the Academy’s taken steps to diversify its membership, resulting in last year’s best picture win for Moonlight, a film openly indebted to your work. Have you met Barry Jenkins? And how do you feel about the measures the Academy has taken to broaden their membership?

    Yeah, I got to meet him on several occasions and he’s quite a nice guy –– a very talented guy. And there are a lot of other filmmakers like him that deserve attention. I think opening up the Academy has been great, so even a low-budget film can now do quite well compared to the big-budget films. I hope it gets more of these kinds of films financed, and hopefully proves that these small films can find an audience — that any film can be successful if you advertise it right. Moonlight is a good example of what independent film marketing can do. I’m very happy for him. He’s an unassuming guy that’s done quite well. There are many other talented filmmakers out there with good scripts, and I hope they can get the same kinds of opportunities.

    Looking back do you feel like you paved the way in a sense for an independent filmmaker like Barry Jenkins to move so quickly from critical recognition to widespread embrace?

    I think things on there own kind of made it all happen. Now there’s festivals like Sundance that make it possible to get these kinds of films recognition. So that’s been the biggest factor, I think. When we first got recognized it was from the European film festivals in Germany, France, Belgium –– places like that. That made it possible for us to get co-financing, and was a huge factor in making it possible for us to make films. Another factor has been the studios dissolving in a way that they’re no longer the only way to get a film shown. And I think for a new generation someone like Spike Lee is an important influence, as he was for us. He really put filmmaking on the map for people of color. He deserves a lot of credit as well.

    What are you working on now?

    Well there are a number of projects and scripts we’re trying to get funding for. But right now I’m trying to finish up a documentary on integrating hospitals, which we’ve been working on for a couple years now. It’s about the civil rights movement in terms of hospital care. We’re nearing postproduction and we’re trying to find finishing funds. We just have to do the narration and music and we’ll be done. — Jordan Cronk

  • Owen Roizman

    Decades before Baby Driver or The Fast and the Furious gave audiences an adrenaline rush with their automotive action sequences, cinematographer Owen Roizman, 81, shot the 1972 best picture Oscar winner The French Connection, the New York-set crime thriller that contains what is still widely considered one of the greatest car chases in cinematic history.

    But despite countless honors and Oscar nominations for films as varied as The French Connection, the horror classic The Exorcist, Sidney Lumet’s satire Network, Sydney Pollack’s comedy Tootsie and Lawrence Kasdan’s Western Wyatt Earp, a golden Oscar statue had eluded one of Hollywood’s most respected cinematographers — until now.

    In The French Connection’s supercharged chase, directed by William Friendkin and edited by Gerald Greenberg, detective Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle (Gene Hackman) is in hot pursuit of a fleeing hitman, who has boarded an elevated train. And Brooklyn native Roizman gave moviegoers a kinetic cinema experience like nothing they had seen before. “It was all blocked out ahead of time,” he says of the sequence, which was shot on location in Brooklyn. “We broke it down into about five sections of stunts. We covered each with five cameras outside the car and three inside: one was mounted on the front for a subjective POV, one was over Gene Hackman’s shoulder and one over the dashboard. Then we did pieces — faces, hands — to give Jerry [Greenberg] a lot of material. Plus we had the interiors of the train. We shot a ton of footage.”

    Roizman says he would sometimes undercrank the camera, slightly, 20-22 frames per second [compared with the standard 24], “just enough to enhance the speed and action.” He remembers: “When I first read the script, it was so exciting I couldn’t wait to shoot the movie. I had never shot anything like that before. We had no idea at the time how good it was going to be. Producer Phil D’Antoni just saw Bullitt, and he said to me, ‘The only thing I’m asking is make this car chase even better.’” — Carolyn Giardina 

  • Agnes Varda

    Male directors such as Jean-Luc Godard are credited with launching the French New Wave, but the Belgium-born Varda actually paved the way with her first feature, La Pointe Courte, which debuted at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. And, at 89, she still is going strong: Her latest film, Faces Places, a documentary about the French countryside that she co-directed with artist JR, bowed in May at Cannes.

    What was your reaction to learning you've been awarded an honorary Oscar?

    I should feel grateful, in a way, to be recognized as a filmmaker. My daughter is totally excited and happy. She said, "Oh my God! It happened to you!" Because I remain modest, maybe it’s too much, and maybe it’s too ridiculous at the same time. I received an honorary Golden Palm in Cannes, because I’ve been there since the '50s. I’ve got a lot of things but never got the Golden Palme and so they gave me an honorary Golden Palm. They have given two or three — to Woody Allen and the actor I adore, Clint Eastwood.

    I believe I should accept it with modesty because it means something. An honorary Oscar is proof that I am in the margins. I feel like I am recognized as a real filmmaker, but also I am in the category of not making money.

    Looking back, did you realize at the time you were helping to launch the French New Wave?

    I know I was a pioneer. I made a radical film [La Pointe Courte] in 1954 and what they called the New Wave started in '59, '60, those years. When I made my first film, I was out of the world of cinema and I didn’t know anybody around and I don’t even see film. So out of the blue I invented the film, and I succeeded to make very little money, but it was something I wanted to do. It’s a story between couples and a kind of documentary of fishermen. I was overly interested in real life, in real documentary, though it was a fiction. That film has been accepted into the Cinematheque, but it never made a dime. It opened maybe two weeks. But then it was in every university.

    It’s shown as an example that started a movement of cinema, and then all of the beautiful work of the French New Wave of Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy and Alain Resnais. They moved cinema on another level than it was before. So the New Wave is everywhere now, thank God. In every country new filmmakers have the field, including Estonia and others.

    Jean-Luc Godard also received an honorary Oscar. 

    He’s so radical in his research, and that’s why I admire him. The 3D film he made [Goodbye to Language] is still the most beautiful 3D. Everyone uses 3D, and here comes a man who makes a very difficult film to understand. But the 3D is beautiful. It touches you and helps you try to understand what this is all about. We need socialists. We need people who don’t make film as a business. That’s what we have in common cause — we have tried to achieve something. — Jordan Riefe