Governors Awards: A Moving Affair Packed With Big Names of Past and Present

Angelina Jolie, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Piero Tosi were feted by the Academy at a ceremony that was also attended by many 2013 Oscar hopefuls.
AFP/Getty Images

Angelina Jolie, the recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, held back tears as she discussed her work on behalf of refugees and her U.N.-like family. Steve Martin cracked jokes but was also genuinely moved as he accepted an honorary Oscar. Claudia Cardinale showed up on behalf of costume designer Piero Tosi to collect his award. And 70 years after she received her first Oscar nomination, 88-year-old Angela Lansbury finally got her "little gold man."

It all happened Saturday night at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' fifth annual Governors Awards at the Ray Dolby Ballroom of the Hollywood & Highland Center -- in my humble opinion, the most special evening of the long and winding Oscar season, save for the Oscars itself. (Click here to watch video highlights.)

As has become the custom over the five years since the presentation of these special awards was controversially taken off of the main Oscars telecast and given its own evening, many current Oscar hopefuls were in attendance, ostensibly to celebrate the honorees, but also to rub shoulders with Academy members and tastemakers.

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs welcomed a full house that included stars like Brad Pitt (seated beside his partner Jolie), Tom Hanks, Harrison Ford and Matthew McConaughey, directors ranging from Steve McQueen, David O. Russell and J.C. Chandor to Spike Jonze and Peter Berg and such producers as Anant Singh and Ron Yerxa. Over cocktails and between courses, they all mingled with Academy officials like CEO Dawn Hudson, Paula Wagner (who produced the evening), Oscar show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron and members of the board of governors like Annette Bening and Kathryn Bigelow.

PHOTOS: 25 of Fall's Most Anticipated Movies: 'Ender's Game,' 'Catching Fire,' 'The Wolf of Wall Street' and More

The first award presented was the Hersholt to Jolie, who became only its 36th recipient ever and, at just 38, the youngest of them all. (Jolie was previously awarded a best supporting actress Oscar 14 years ago for her work in Girl, Interrupted.)

The Bosnian and Serbian stars of her 2011 directorial debut In the Land of Blood and Honey, which highlighted genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia during the 1990s, gathered on stage, with one calling her "a true artist and citizen of the world" and another cheering the fact that she "brought actors from both sides of the conflict and made us play together." Then a Morgan Freeman-narrated video recounted her work on behalf of refugees and against sexual violence, which dates back to her time in Cambodia while making Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and has earned her the title of UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador and now Special Envoy. Afterward, legendary 83-year-old actress Gena Rowlands took the stage and noted that Jolie had flown in for the occasion from Australia, where she is shooting a film about WWII hero Lou Zamperini -- who, she said, was in attendance. (Zamperini, 96, received a standing ovation.) Rowlands marveled at how Jolie balances her six children with her professional and humanitarian work, with the added responsibility of having "to keep that smile on Brad's face." Finally, George Lucas took the stage and, following some brief remarks, presented Jolie with her Oscar.

As a standing ovation subsided, Jolie, clearly choking back tears, said, "It's quite overwhelming" before addressing her son Maddox, who was seated at her table, "Mad, I'm not gonna cry, I'm not gonna embarrass you, I promise!" She also acknowledged her "hero" Zamperini and partner Pitt. While her father, the actor Jon Voight, with whom she's sometimes at odds, joined her at her table, she reserved her most heartfelt thanks for her late mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who encouraged her to go into the arts and to "live a life of use to others." As a result of seeing remote parts of the world while making films, Jolie said, "I realized how sheltered I had been and I was determined never to be that way again." She closed by emphasizing that she, but for the grace of God, might have wound up like one of the women refugees she has come to know. "I don't know why this is my life and that's hers," she said, "but I will do the best that I can with this life."

The next segment of the evening was devoted to Tosi, a five-time Oscar nominee and the first costume designer to ever be awarded an honorary Oscar. While he was not in attendance and indeed has never been to the U.S. due to a fear of flying, Anjelica Huston narrated a video that provided some background about him -- like the fact that he met Luchino Visconti, with whom he would collaborate on 10 films, in art school -- and featured clips of some of the films in which his work was most beautifully featured, including Death in Venice (1971), for which he designed over 700 costumes.

RELATED: Governors Awards Preview: Angelina Jolie, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin and Piero Tosi Reflect on Careers

Tosi's protege Milena Canonero, a three-time Oscar-winning costume designer herself, then took the stage on behalf of her 86-year-old "friend and mentor" and said that he "wanted you to know how touched he was by this Oscar." She noted that his table was filled with many other costume designers whom he revered including Albert Wolsky and Ann Roth, the latter of whom rose from her seat and said, "For my money, Piero Tosi is the greatest costume designer in the world, no question, hands down." She was followed by Jeffrey Kurland, a costume designer who serves on the Academy's board of governors, who cited Tosi's work as a personal inspiration and called the night "an appropriate climax to an exciting year for costume designers," who this year were given a branch of their own by the Academy. But the biggest surprise was saved for last, as the legendary Italian actress Claudia Cardinale, 75, who was costumed by Tosi in eight films, was introduced and received a standing ovation. "Piero asked me, an actor, to collect his prize because he believes that the work of a costume designer is mainly dedicated to us," she said.

The ceremony then turned to Martin, whose portion of the evening was kicked off, surprisingly enough, by Bill Taylor, a visual effects artist who serves on the Academy's board of governors, performing a magic trick that Martin taught him at Disneyland back in 1962, when they both worked there as teens. A video montage of the work of the "Renaissance man" included laugh-out-loud clips of his films The Jerk and Father of the Bride, among others, and featured testimonials from the likes of Paul Feig and Steve Carell. One longtime friend and four-time collaborator of his, the comedian Martin Short, then took the stage and proceeded to roast the evening ("one of those magical nights when the one-percenters come together to honor one of their own"), the award ("the highest honor an actor can receive in mid-November"), the president ("President Obama said if you like your Oscar you can keep it") and the honoree ("The word 'genius' has been used a lot tonight, so I might as well call Steve one. … Of all the people I have a fake show business relationship with, Steve is my fake closest show business friend. … Steve is so white he could be the next GOP nominee for president. … Steve hosted the Oscars during the years when the Academy was going for the coveted 65-to-80-year-old demographic."). Short then introduced "a two-time Oscar winner -- from the 1990s," Tom Hanks, who congratulated Martin for having made films that were "both of his time and are timeless," and handed off the Oscar to him.

"The botox is fresh," Martin, 68, said to hearty laughter after stepping up to the podium. He teased Hanks ("I saw Captain Phillips -- I didn't think it was so funny"), thanked almost every one of his film directors, and then he, too, teared up as he acknowledged his wife and child. After noting that it felt good to know that his work "has at least meant something to someone," he closed by saying, "Thank you movies and thank you Academy for a true reminder of the glorious benefit that I have received."

RELATED: Academy's Governors Awards Selections Generate Applause, Raise Questions (Analysis)

Finally, it was Lansbury's turn. The beloved 88-year-old three-time Oscar nominee -- for Gaslight, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Manchurian Candidate, all in the supporting actress category -- at long last got the honorary Oscar that her fans had been lobbying the Academy about on her behalf for years. (She became the oldest actress to ever receive the prize, surpassing Myrna Loy by three years.)

Emma Thompson, her adoring co-star in 2005's Nanny McPhee, recalled Lansbury being a good sport when she had to have a pie thrown in her face for a scene in that film. Then, a James Earl Jones-narrated video reviewed highlights of her career, including the fact that she started out making $500 a week at MGM; became the youngest two-time acting Oscar nominee in history at age 20; acted opposite everyone from Katharine Hepburn to Orson Welles to Judy Garland; and decided to leave movies almost entirely after finding herself repeatedly cast as mothers, which resulted in the beginning of a magnificent new career on Broadway and on television in the hit show Murder, She Wrote. Geoffrey Rush, with whom she appeared in a 2009 play on the Great White Way, called her "the living definition of range" and asked rhetorically, "When they talk about the Golden Age of Hollywood, aren't they just talking about you?" Then emerged Robert Osborne, the film historian and host of the Turner Classic Movies channel, who complimented the Academy's board of governors on "one of the best decisions they've ever made" and told Lansbury, "Nobody deserves this golden boy more than you. … Ms. Lansbury, here is your Academy Award at last."

Lansbury took the stage to the loudest standing ovation of the night, tearing up before mustering the words, "This is amazing." She said she'd asked Osborne to speak because virtually all of her collaborators have passed away -- "They were long gone, and I was still around" -- and because, she said, she owes a debt to TCM and Osborne "for keeping me alive all these years." She closed, "You can't imagine how happy and proud I feel," but guaranteed that it was much better than how she felt "shivering with hope and then disappointment" all those years ago when she previously thought she might leave an Academy gathering with an Oscar.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg