The Ceremony: Academy Honors Oprah Winfrey, James Earl Jones and Dick Smith in Emotional Evening

James Earl Jones Oprah Dick Smith - H 2011
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James Earl Jones Oprah Dick Smith - H 2011

Maria Shriver, Ben Kingsley, Vanessa Redgrave and John Travolta took part in the ceremony held Saturday.

Emotions ran high at the third annual Governors Awards on Saturday night as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebrated the careers of actor James Earl Jones and make-up artist Dick Smith and then paid tribute to Oprah Winfrey, the recipient of its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Jones, who accepted his honor remotely, from a theater stage in London where he is currently appearing in Driving Miss Daisy opposite Vanessa Redgrave, said, “I am deeply honored, mighty grateful and” – showing off a word he had learned in the U.K. – “just plain gobsmacked.”

Smith, who was hailed as the godfather of make-up, was nearly overcome as he got out the words, “I have loved being a make-up artists so much…to have so much kindness given to me…is just too much…I am so grateful.”

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Winfrey, from her seat in the audience also wiped away a tear, as a young Barnard college student, Ayanna Hall, who had gone to school on a scholarship from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, testified about the impact that Winfrey has had on thousands of lives. Speaking from her heart rather than prepared remarks, Winfrey explained the guiding principle between her commitment to philanthropy, saying, “Your life matters. You matter. What you do matters.”

After a week in which the Academy first saw Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy drop out of producing and hosting the 84th Academy Awards, forcing the Academy to rush to quickly recruit Brian Grazer and Billy Crystal to save the show, the evening represented a reassuring return to tradition, even if this particular dinner, a non-televised dinner at which Academy governors mingle with Oscar hopefuls, is a relatively new invention.

The program began with Darth Vadar, in a nod to Jones’ signature vocal performance in Star Wars, making his way through the grand ballroom at the Hollywood & Highland Center to the podium, where he removed his helmet only to reveal Academy president Tom Sherak beneath the mask.

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In the only public acknowledgement of the Oscar show near meltdown, Sherak began his remarks by asking, “How was your week?,” to a round of laughter. He then quickly segued to the matters at hand. After calling out each of the honorees by name, he also took a moment to remember the producers Laura Ziskin, who died in June, and Gil Cates, who died Oct. 31. Both had produced Oscar shows – Ziskin twice and Cates 14 times – and, said Sherak, “to us, they were family” as he offered up a toast.

The formal ceremony began with Mary J. Blige performing Can You Feel the Love Tonight from The Lion King, for which Jones played the voice of Mafusa.

Alec Baldwin kicked off the testimonials to Jones by reminding the crowd of the range of roles Jones has played, confessing “I wanted James Earl Jones’s career – that’s what every actor wants” and also tossing in a pretty credible impersonation of Jones’ deep bass voice. Glenn Close, admitting that watching Jones perform on stage in Fences reduced her to “a sobbing, stammering mess,” said, “I just want to say thank you for what he has given me and all those who have been touched by his supreme artistry.”

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Although Jones, 80, couldn’t attend in person, his acceptance, filmed on the stage of the Wyndham Theatre after he’d completed a matinee performance, still had a spontaneous feel to it. After taking their bows, Redgrave asked the audience to stay in their seats for the presentation of the honorary Oscar, which former Academy president Sid Ganis, who was in the theater audience, had brought with him to London.

Making a surprise appearance, Oscar winner Ben Kingsley walked out of the wings to hand the statuette to Jones. Delighted, Jones, said, “If an actor’s nightmare is being on stage naked and not knowing your lines, what the heck do you call this? I have my clothes on, I know my words, and then out from the wings steps Sir Ben Kingsley and he hands me an Oscar! Frankly, what the heck else to call it but an actor’s wet dream.”

The portion of the program devoted to Smith’s work was introduced by Linda Blair, who was 13 when she starred in The Exorcist. For that movie, Smith transformed her into a head-spinning demon. “For me, it was not as much fun as I think it was for Dick,” she recalled fondly. “It was not a little girl’s dream.” But she explained how Smith worked hard to perfect the make-up demands of director William Friedkin , who insisted that Blair be recognizable beneath the effects. 

Writer, director and producer J. J. Abams, who included a nod to Smith in his recent film Super 8, told of how as a movie-obsessed kid he’d written Smith a fan letter and how Smith sent back “an old, but clean tongue from The Exorcist,” complete with instructions that Abrams should use peanut butter to stick it to his own tongue. The two struck up a correspondence that went on for years.

Fellow make-up artist Rick Baker paid further testament to Smith, who received just one Oscar, for Amadeus, during his career, saying not only did he invent “some new technique on basically every film he ever did” but then he also shared his inventions with his fellow make-up artists, circulating mimeographed notes that he scrupulously kept to describe his art.

Prefacing his own remarks by saying “Please forgive me, my memory’s not very good these days,” Smith, 89, concluded, as his voice broke, “I will never forget tonight from the bottom of my heart.”

While a taped piece about Winfrey’s career began with excerpts from her film performances in The Color Purple and Beloved and noted some of the movies she’s had a hand in producing like The Great Debaters and Precious, the focus was on her many philanthropic activities.

First, though, producer Larry Gordon earned the biggest laughs of the night by recalling a party in Santa Barbara where he was amazed by Winfrey’s ability to match him in downing tequila shots. “Oprah,” he told her at the time, “you’re a f—king moose.” The other guests were horrified, but the next morning, spotting him across the room, Winfrey defused the situation by throwing her arms open wide and proclaiming, “Baby, it’s your f—king moose!” “Congratulations my dearest, darling moose,” he told her.

John Travolta, one of Winfrey’s long-standing friends, took credit for introducing Winfrey to tequila at his 50th birthday part, and added, “I would give you a second Oscar and that for your film acting because you are a damn good actress.

It was left to Maria Shriver – who has known Winfrey since they worked together at WJZ-TV in Baltimore in 1978 – to laud Winfrey’s generosity. “She’s incredibly comfortable giving. She likes to give to her family, to her friends, to her community and to her country. She’s always thinking how she can help others,” Shriver said. “She’s not good at one thing, she’s really not good at sitting there accepting the love that so many people want to give her.”

When she did take the stage, Oprah, 57, credited Quincy Jones for seeing her on a TV talk show in Chicago and casting her in The Color Purple, saying it was “the only reason I am here tonight.”

 “I never imagined myself receiving an Oscar, certainly not for doing what I believe is a part of my calling, a part of my being," she added. 

Speaking of her life’s journey, she cited The Help, explaining the movie told the story of both her grandmother and her mother, who both worked as maids.

Given her background, she continued, “It’s unimaginable that I would be standing before you, voted by the board of governors. So when I say thank you, the thank you comes from a place deeper even than I know, because it’s not just from me, it’s from everybody who made me possible.”