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After first pointing to a number of films — from The Birth of a Nation to Tarzan of the Apes to Disney’s Song of the South — that inflamed racial tensions in America, Harry Belafonte called upon Hollywood to use its powers “to see a better side of what we are as a species,” as he accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ sixth annual Governors’ Awards on Saturday night.
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The singer, actor and producer, who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the ’60s, was honored for his lifelong commitment to civil rights and social justice, both in America and around the world. And he used the occasion to remind the roomful of A-list filmmakers and glittering celebrities that movies can be a force for both good and ill.
Belafonte, 87, began his remarks by pointing to D.W. Griffith‘s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, set in the post-Civil War South, noting that it was the first film ever to screen at the White House, but that it also “set races against each other” until “blood flowed in the streets of our cities.” He recalled watching Tarzan as a child and how its treatment of Africans was “an early stimulus to the spirit of my rebellion, a rebellion against injustice.” And in recounting Hollywood’s past failures, he also singled out McCarthyism and the blacklist, before acknowledging that “today’s cultural harvest yields a sweeter fruit,” citing such movies as Schindler’s List, Brokeback Mountain and 12 Years a Slave.
Belafonte shared the moment with his longtime friend, actor Sidney Poitier, whom he invited to the stage to thunderous applause, calling him “a man who gave so much of his own life to redirect the ship of racial hatred in American culture.”
In thanking the Academy for its recognition, Belafonte added, “It powerfully mutes the enemy’s thunder.”
The tribute to Belafonte was the capstone of an evening held at Hollywood & Highland at which the Academy also presented honorary Oscars to French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, master Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki and screen siren Maureen O’Hara.
The Academy has made a concerted effort in recent years to open up its ranks to filmmakers from around the world, and that was certainly reflected in the evening’s flavor, for as Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said as she kicked off the proceedings, “this is truly an international celebration.”
Before she even spoke a word in her acceptance, the Irish-born O’Hara sang a few lines of “Danny Boy.” Speaking through a translator, the Tokyo-based Miyazaki, who was born on the eve of World War II, said part of the luck he enjoyed during his career was the fact that he lives in a “country that has not been at war for the last 50 years.” And the French Carriere offered a long list of the filmmakers from around the world with whom he’s collaborated, saying “they all taught me something, each of them.”
O’Hara, 90, the evening’s first recipient, was hailed by Nicole Kidman, who appeared in a package of film clips, who said, “her essence was the mixture of being so strong and yet so romantic.” Appearing on stage, Liam Neeson paid tribute to his fellow countryman, saying, “She’s more than just an Irish movie star. She’s one of the true legends of cinema.” Clint Eastwood, who was also on hand, recounted how, as a $75-a-week contract player at Universal, he was determined to get a small part in the 1955 movie Lady Godiva of Coventry just to get a glimpse of O’Hara.
Seated in a wheelchair, O’Hara, famous for her fiery screen presence, showed she still has something of a devilish wit — in fact, she advised the audience to say some good prayers at night “so the devil has to go somewhere else.” With a detectable Irish lilt in her voice, she thanked Charles Laughton, with whom she starred in her first Hollywood film, 1939’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, her frequent co-star (in movies like The Quiet Man) John Wayne, “and, of course, that old devil himself — the great [director] John Ford.”
Pixar and Disney Animation’s chief creative officer John Lasseter did the honors when it came time to introduce Miyazaki, 73, who he testified ranked with Walt Disney in the history of animation. “They have moved me, they inspire me and they helped shape me as a filmmaker,” Lasseter said of the 11 feature animated films, including the Oscar-winning Spirited Away, that Miyazaki has directed, drawing all of the storyboards himself. “Every time I watch a Miyazaki movie, I learn something new about the craft of filmmaking,” Lasseter added.
Celebrated for his hand-drawn animation, Miyazaki, in his acceptance, said that he was lucky “because I’ve been able to participate in the last era when you can make films from paper, pencil and film.” He also drew a laugh by adding, “But my greatest luck is that I have been able to meet Miss Maureen O’Hara.”
Philip Kaufman, who directed 1988’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which Carriere adapted from the novel by Milan Kundera, introduced the screenwriter, saying, “there is something very weird and strange about Jean-Claude Carriere,” given that he has credits on 139 films, including The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. “It’s about time we gave him an Oscar,” he said of Carriere, who’s received three screenwriting Oscar nominations.
Unlike a lot of Hollywood screenwriters, who view directors as the enemy, Carriere, 83, said, “A screenwriter is nothing without a director.” But he also acknowledged that “very often screenwriters are forgotten,” likening them to “shadows passing through.”
Chris Rock took part in the presentation to Belafonte, after first offering a shout-out to Boone Isaacs and getting big laugh from the crowd when he said, “It’s nice to see a black president that America still likes.” Expressing his own debt to the honoree, he said, “I would not be here if it were not for Harry Belafonte.”
Susan Sarandon listed Belafonte’s accomplishments as both a performer and an artist. “He became a global artist before the term even existed,” she said, lauding him as “a man whose true passion for activism has helped change the lives of tens of million of people for the better.” Summing up the mood of the evening, she said, “It is an honor for all of us to be in the same room with him.”
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