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“Tonight, we all aspire to reach higher. We all aspire to dream bigger tonight — to be greater,” Steven Spielberg intoned Saturday night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 9th annual Governors Awards, during which which honorary Oscars were presented to actor Donald Sutherland, 82, whose career ranges from MASH to Ordinary People to The Hunger Games franchise; director Charles Burnett, 73, a pioneer in black independent film with movies like 1977’s Killer of Sheep; cinematographer Owen Roizman, 81, who has shot such iconic movies as The French Connection, The Exorcist and Tootsie; and director Agnes Varda, 89, who helped kickstart the French New Wave with such movies as 1955’s La Pointe Courte.
The Academy also presented a special award to Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Inarritu “in recognition of a visionary and powerful experience in storytelling” for his virtual reality art installation Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible), which captures the experience of migrants crossing the U.S./Mexico border.
With Hollywood swept up in a storm of scandal at the moment, the Academy’s 54-member board met in an emergency session on Oct. 14 to expel Harvey Weinstein, and also committed itself to developing “ethical standards of conduct that all Academy member will be expected to exemplify.” The board is scheduled to debate the new code of conduct at its December and January meetings.
At Saturday’s private black-tie dinner at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center, however, newly elected Academy president John Bailey, the presenters (many of them Academy governors) and the honorees all steered clear of the volatile topic of the day, choosing to celebrate artistic achievement as a way of underlining the film industry’s best accomplishments rather than focus on its current failings.
To be sure, there was inevitably some political subtext that couldn’t be ignored.
Before Varda was brought to the stage, she was lauded by helmer Kimberly Peirce, documentary film editor Kate Amend, Jessica Chastain and Angelina Jolie as a pioneering distaff filmmaker. “‘Female director’ is another label she might resist — she is, of course, first and foremost an artist,” Jolie admitted before saying, “We need to draw strength from artists like Agnes. Those women who went first, who took that first step, showed the way for all of us.” To which, the impish Varda, after thanking the four women, teased when she did finally step up to the podium: “Are there no men in this room who love me?”
In lionizing Burnett, who spent most of his career working on low-budget indies way outside the studio system, director Reginald Hudlin spoke of discovering Killer of Sheep as a high school student: “To a small kid growing up in an all-black town in the Midwest, the characters were utterly relatable.” The Florida Project writer–director Sean Baker testified that Burnett’s work has inspired filmmakers like himself “who regard their work as a political and social act.” And in presenting Burnett with his statuette, filmmaker Ava DuVernay proclaimed, “Charles Burnett has made the black community visible, and he’s been visible to the black community.”
In explaining why he made Carne y Arena, which was a five-year experiment in using new technology to tell immigrants’ stories, Inarritu spoke about how ideology distorts reality, saying, “When the world ‘illegal alien’ or ‘rapist’ is fired, the reality of a certain human life or a community is reduced to an idea, and whoever believes or possesses and fires that idea ends up impoverishing, misleading and degrading the perception of reality and the one of all who it impacts. But no matter how many tweets to the right or to the left and all our blah blah blah, true reality will remain unaltered.” He went on to say, “I dedicate and receive this beautiful recognition on behalf of all the immigrants from Mexico, Central America, Asia, Africa and all corners of the world whose reality has been ignored and held hostage by ideologies and definitions, denying them the possibility of being understood and loved.”
Other presentations focused more on celebrating the crafts of cinematography and acting.
Lenser Daryn Okada credited Roizman for figuring out “how to achieve an intense realism using soft light, not in a controlled studio set but primarily on location, which is much more challenging,” while Dustin Hoffman expressed his appreciation that when he was fretting that the makeup design for Tootsie wasn’t working, Roizman backed him up, even though that meant shutting down production for a week to get the makeup right.
When it came time to salute Sutherland, Whoopi Goldberg testified, “Donald Sutherland is one of the greatest magicians ever”; NBCUniversal vice chairman Ron Meyer, who once served as the actor’s agent, spoke of their 40-year friendship; and Jennifer Lawrence, who shared the screen with him in The Hunger Games, said, “Donald is the most committed, professional, kind person I have ever met,” adding, “Donald has not only made his characters fascinating, no matter what he’s doing, he’s made his movies and the movies of his time worth watching.”
The evening also had its lighter moments.
Before leaving the stage, Varda exclaimed, “I feel I’m dancing,” and, as she began to sway from side to side, Jolie took her hands and together the two danced in tandem.
And as he concluded his acceptance, Sutherland borrowed a line from Jack Benny, getting the last laugh of the night by saying, “I don’t deserve this, but I have arthritis, and I don’t deserve that, either.”
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