Academy Honors Francis Ford Coppola, Eli Wallach; Sidesteps Jean-Luc Godard Controversy

At its 2nd annual Governors Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences paid tribute to Francis Ford Coppola’s work as a producer, applauded film historian Kevin Brownlow, warmly embraced veteran actor Eli Wallach and deftly sidestepped any controversy over its decision to bestow an honorary award on director Jean-Luc Godard.

In welcoming the guests to the Highland & Hollywood ballroom in Hollywood Saturday night, Academy president Tom Sherak noted that Godard -- whose selection had raised eyebrows because of the barbs Godard has tossed at Hollywood over the years as well as allegations that he has made anti-Semitic remarks -- could not attend.

“That’s unfortunate,” Sherak said, “but his absence in no way diminishes our respect and appreciation for his work as a filmmaker. And I want you to know that this award is meaningful to him.” 

“Tonight, we will give the Academy’s highest honors to four people,” Sherak said. “Those four people couldn’t be more different from each other, and I couldn’t be happier about that. I have tremendous pride in my Academy’s governors for voting this awards to such a creatively diverse group.”

The Academy turned to several of its past and present governors to testify to Godard’s influential contributions as a director. Cinematographer Haskell Wexler said “for Godard, there’s no separating images from ideas or style from content.” Film editor Mark Goldblatt added, “he freed us from conventions so we could take cinema to a higher place.” Godard also taught Hollywood that directors like John Ford, Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock “were every bit the artists as everyone else we revered from abroad. He opened up my cinematic horizons," observed producer Mark Johnson. Composer Bruce Broughton noted, “No one had ever used music the way he had.”

But it remained for documentary filmmaker Lynn Littman and writer/director Phil Robinson, who had nominated Godard for the honorary Oscar, to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

“There is no question,” Littman said. “Godard has been an irreverent provocateur for his entire career, but he never used his art to promote bigotry, and that’s the key distinction that I had to understand so I could honor him tonight.”

Introducing a toast, Robinson offered, “Mr. Godard, in your long career as a filmmaker and provocateur, let’s be honest, you have said things that have offended pretty much everyone in this room at least once. You’ve also said really snarky things about Hollywood and the Oscars, but then again so has everyone in this room at least once. None of that has deterred this board of governors from bestowing upon you the highest honor we can for artistic achievement. Let’s be clear -- this ain’t the Hersholt Humitarian Award.” 

As the room exploded with laughter and applause, Robinson concluded, with “your brilliance, your innovation and your unapologetic orneriness, you have enriched our art form immeasurably. It’s impossible to imagine contemporary cinema without your influence. And for that and all the great films, we say, thank you Mr. Godard, wherever you are.”

It remained for Sherak to accept the Oscar on Godard’s behalf, as several members of the Academy, including executive director Bruce Davis, congratulated Robinson for how he handled the issue.

Quickly switching moods, the evening turned to a heartfelt celebration of Wallach, who at 94, seated next to his wife of 62 years, Anne Jackson, appeared to twinkle in the spotlight. 

Josh Brolin, who appeared with the veteran actor in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, called working with Wallach “infectious” because “he is doing exactly what he should be doing and loving every minute of it.”

Speaking directly to her husband, Jackson said, “Eli will never get to the point of lifetime achievement because he’s constantly evolving and he knows there is always something to improve.”

Wallach’s longtime friend Tony Bennett serenaded the couple with a couple of tunes; Robert De Niro spoke of Wallach’s “incredible warmth, humor and humanity”; and Clint Eastwood drew laughs by noting that while Wallach was the only living cast member from Baby Doll and The Misfits, he was relieved that he was one of two living castmembers from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, in which Eastwood shared the screen with him.

In his acceptance, Wallach looked back on a career where he has played more than his share of bandits, thieves and killers even though in real life he collects antique clocks, watches tennis matches and lives for his family. He spoke of his surprise upon receiving a letter from the current Pope, who admitted to being a fan of The Magnificent Seven and invited him to Rome. 

On a serious note, he said, “I’m deeply moved by this honor. Your recognition of my artistry means something very dear to me. I don’t act to live. I live to act.”

But he didn’t leave the podium before offering up a ribald joke, worthy of Woody Allen, about a hooker who offers a 90-year-old man “super sex.” Responds the old man, “All right, I’ll take the soup.”

The segment devoted Brownlow, author of the seminal book about the silent film industry The Parade’s Gone By... and such documentaries as Unknown Chaplin and Harold Lloyd: The Third Genius, included film clips from the great films of the past.

Lauding Brownlow for his work in film preservation, producer Lindsay Duran said, “Without his extraordinary and tireless efforts, a magnificent part of our past would have vanished without a trace.” Added Kevin Spacey, “Your devotion to the audience and your unshakable belief in the silent film as an art form is inspiring.”

Observing that 73% of the movies from the silent era have been destroyed, Brownlow used his acceptance to urge those in the room “to do our damnedest to find the films your predecessors destroyed and bring them back into the canon.”

Director Kathryn Bigelow led off the Coppola tribute by invoking the name of legendary producer and studio executive Irving J. Thalberg, for whom the Thalberg Award,  recognizing a motion picture producer, is named. Coppola is the honor’s 38th recipient.

On a lighter note, comedian Don Novello in character as  Father Guido Sarducci offered up a routine in which he suggested Coppola’s success must have come from praying to “St. Fermino of Syracusa, the patron saint of theatrics and the patron saint of wine-makers.”

Roman Coppola, the director’s son, thanked his father for “being so adventurous in your life and your work and taking us along for the ride,” and introduced his sister Sofia, who led the room in a toast.

De Niro, who won his first Oscar for Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II, had some fun by recounting the many honors the director has won for his wines, while George Lucas -- who got his start in filmmaking thanks to Coppola’s support -- testified to Coppola’s influence in ushering in a whole generation of directors in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.

“He’s truly the godfather of a generation who changed the course of motion picture history,” Lucas said.

Coppola admitted he hadn’t prepared any remarks since he’d been shooting a new film until 1 a.m. in the morning, “The fact that this is the Thalberg Award, the significance is not lost on me, because this is an award for producing. This is not about my own writing and my own filmmaking,” Coppola said. “It’s about the talent that I came to really value. It’s more about American Graffiti, The Black Stallion,  Powaqqatsi, about Napoleon performed at the Radio City Music Hall with a live orchestra,” he said. 

“I thank you from the bottom of my heart,” he concluded. “I thank my family. I thank my friends. So many of my friends are here tonight, people I’ve worked with, my colleagues and people whose films I’ve admired. Thank you so much.”