Governors Awards Honorees Maureen O'Hara, Harry Belafonte on Their Long Careers, Oscar Memories and Ferguson

Governors Awards Honorees - H 2014
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Governors Awards Honorees - H 2014

Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and animator Hayao Miyazaki also will be honored at the Academy's Nov. 8 event

A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.


Singer, songwriter and actor Belafonte, whom the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is honoring with its Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, has been fighting for civil rights his entire life — and, at 87, he's not about to stop. As several states institute voting restrictions and protests rock Ferguson, Mo., where a white police officer fatally shot a young black man Aug. 9, the nation continuously is being forced to confront the subject of race, argues Belafonte, adding that the subject "has never been squarely debated."

He faults President Obama for not facing the issue head-on, saying, "He just does not want to touch anything as to race. People in the Afro-centric community, both globally and domestic, are not on Barack Obama's chart. Clinton did more for us, talking about the issues of race. In the absence of such a dialog, we have paid a price for that."

At the same time, he is convinced race underlies much of the criticism that has been directed at Obama by his political opponents. "I don't think what Barack Obama is experiencing is because of Obamacare or health care issues," he says. "It is not about trying to get a $10 minimum wage. I don't think the badgering he is getting is because he has talked about gay rights. I am deeply convinced that it is all about race. What's dismantling and discomforting is that nobody wants to say that. So much is unraveling that we had fought for and gained legally and morally. What we had done with the Civil Rights Movement is now being systematically unraveled."

Belafonte continues to draw inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr., who first called him shortly after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, triggered by Rosa Parks' refusal to take a seat in the back of the bus, began in 1955. "Dr. King reached out to a lot of people. At the time he called me, he had come to New York to talk to the religious community. That's when we met for the first time officially. At the end of four hours, when I came away from that meeting and listening to his speech, I was deeply impressed and deeply moved. I knew then that I would be in his camp, and I would follow him. From the point of view of what his mission was, he hadn't the foggiest idea of where he was going. No one did. We started with an issue around a bus and getting a segregation law changed, and it then became a universal movement. Nonviolence became the code of the day, from South Africa to Tiananmen Square. With the moral power of nonviolence and its application as a tool of social resistance, Dr. King felt we could do an awful lot, and he turned out to be absolutely right."

Looking toward the future, Belafonte, whose film credits include 1964's Carmen Jones, is convinced the protests in Ferguson, which he has supported, are "the first revelation of the tip of the iceberg. It started with Trayvon Martin. As the murder of young men began to escalate, people became far more aggressive about the issue of race. Now, I think Ferguson sits as the first real substantive display of community that is willing to take on the necessary protest and the necessary rebellious nature that is required to make this issue able to be discussed by everybody. I've been sending down sums of money and hopefully we can get back to the place we were at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. I see Ferguson as an opportunity for young people to create a new Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. What does civil disobedience really mean? Not in its tactical design, but its moral power. That's being debated." — GREGG KILDAY

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How did you feel when you heard the news that you will be receiving a Governors Award?

I'm so happy that this Oscar is going to a screenwriter. In general, screenwriters are forgotten, neglected. For once, they're honoring one and I'd like to share this Oscar with all of my [screenwriter] colleagues.

Stephen Sondheim just announced he's working on a musical based on The Exterminating Angel [which Luis Bunuel wrote] and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, which you co-wrote with Bunuel. What do you make of that?

It's going to be a very interesting adventure. I'm very curious to see it and hear it.

You directed three short films early on but then became pretty exclusively a writer. At 83, as you look back on your career, did you ever want to return to the director's chair?

I deliberately chose to not be a director of films because I wanted to practice other forms of writing aside from screenwriting; I also wanted to write books and plays. When you're a director, you are never truly considered a writer.

How would you describe your partnership with Bunuel, with whom you made six films, including 1967's Belle de Jour and 1974's The Phantom of Liberty?

Twenty years of work and deep friendship cannot be summed up in a few sentences. It's just not possible. I'd be talking to you for three hours.

How involved was he in the writing process?

He was very interested in the writing process. There was very little improvisation on shoots with Bunuel. He always worked from precise screenplays.

Which other directors have you particularly enjoyed working with?

All of them, truly. I worked for 34 years with Peter Brook. I worked with Pierre Etaix, with Milos Forman, with Volker Schlondorff. All of these directors enriched me in some way.

You're still working. What's next for you?

Right now I'm touring the United States performing in The Mahabharata, the great Indian epic poem that Peter Brook and I adapted for the stage, for the screen and then for television. I also have several film projects in the works. One is a French movie that will come out in 2015, called L'Ombre des Femmes [which translates as The Shadow of Women]. Philippe Garrel [director of the recent Jealousy] is directing. I also have another film project with Volker Schlondorff.

What has been your most memorable professional experience?

Working with Peter Brooks on The Mahabharata, a nine-hour play, and then the film and television miniseries versions, was the most difficult and fascinating thing that I've done. — JON FROSCH

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Iconic Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, 73, didn't attend the three Oscar ceremonies at which his films were nominated, including the 2003 awards when he won the best animated feature Oscar for Spirited Away — but he's not missing the Governors Awards, where he will receive an honorary Oscar statuette.

"This was sort of an order from my good friend John Lasseter, that I had to go to America to receive the award. I said 'Yes sir, I'll go,' " Miyazaki says, adding "he promised me that I could drive his model train after the ceremony. That's what I'm looking forward to."

The Academy has handed out only a few honorary Oscars in animation, putting Miyazaki in the company of the likes of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones. "It was something that was totally unexpected for me and I feel very honored to receive the award," says the master of hand-drawn animation and founder of Japan's Studio Ghibli.

Miyazaki is best known for Spirited Away, as well as Princess Mononoke (1997), Ponyo (2009), and Oscar-nominated features Howl's Moving Castle (2004) and The Wind Rises. The latter, which was nominated earlier this year, tells the story of Jiro Horikoshi, the engineer who designed the fighter planes that Japan used in World War II; it was also Miyazaki's final feature-length film for theatrical release.

"But I do want to continue making short films such as the ones we show at the Ghibli Museum. I will continue making those," he adds. "We will continue to make short films for the Ghibli Museum with a small staff of animators. But I think gradually it will quietly disappear in the future."

Looking back, Miyazaki admits: "I first wanted to be a manga artist — just to draw pictures in comic style. But I realized that there are many ways of showing various expressions by animating them, and that's what drew me to becoming an animator when I was a student."

His early recollections of animation include Disney's Melody Time: Blame It on the Samba. He also remembers meeting several of Disney's "Nine Old Men" (a group of early Disney animators who worked closely with Walt), adding that he was "very impressed with their character, people like Frank Thomas and Ward Kimball."

Miyazaki summed up by saying that he feels a "great solidarity" with today's animators, "people who know that life is short, time is short —people we are working despite feeling those thoughts. I can understand them so well and would like them to continue to work on their own aspirations." — CAROLYN GIARDINA

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You gave so many great performances during your career, but none was nominated for an Oscar. Which do you think came the closest?

Oh, I think The Quiet Man. There are friends of mine who have seen it eight or 10 times — I can't believe it. I think they're mad.

When you were in the thick of your career, was an Oscar something that you hoped for?

Of course! Everybody in the industry hoped, wished and prayed that we’d win it. It’s one of the great awards.

When you first came from Ireland to Hollywood in 1939 to make The Hunchback of Notre Dame, how did you feel? Were you excited or nervous?

Well, I wasn’t scared, but I was impressed, delighted and pleased that I was learning to be a part of the industry.

You made so many of your best movies with John Ford and John Wayne. Why did the three of you work so well together?

We respected each other and loved the abilities that we each had. John Ford had a magnificent ability to direct actors. And John Wayne was very Irish.

You and Wayne had such great chemistry onscreen. Were you ever interested in each other offscreen?

No. He was a great friend, and we remained friends until the very end of his life.

Many people feel that Technicolor was almost made for your cream skin and red hair and lips. How do you think its advent impacted your career?

Thank you for your recognition of my skin, hair and lips! I do feel that it meant an awful lot to my career. And people would finally recognize me in the streets!

Your last acting credit was in 2000. Do you miss acting?

I’ve never stopped acting. You do it in the bed at night, or during the day or in the grocery store while you’re shopping.

Would you ever act in a movie again if a good part came along?

It would have to be awful good!

I hear that these days, more than new movies, you enjoy watching soccer matches.

Oh God, yes! Since I was a little tiny girl, I’ve watched the Shamrock Rovers [Dublin’s professional team]. I watch them almost every week.

Who will you be at your table for the Governors Awards and what do you plan to say that evening when all of the eyes of Hollywood are on you again?

I’m afraid I’ll have no written speech; I’ll do it off the cuff and my heart will be speaking. And I’ll be with my own family, Chris Columbus [who directed her in the 1991 film Only the Lonely] and some other colleagues.


Lastly, if there’s a young person out there who hasn’t seen any of your films, which one or two would you most want them to see?

Well, I hate to say something very rude, but I would want them to watch more movies than you’re talking about! But the one about Ireland, The Quiet Man, and the one about Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street. — SCOTT FEINBERG