Governors Awards: Current Oscar Hopefuls Threaten to Steal Honorees' Limelight

Bryan Cranston at Governors Awards - H 2015
Courtesy of Matt Petit/A.M.P.A.S.

Gena Rowlands was celebrated as a game-changing actress. Spike Lee spoke about the adversity faced by minorities in the business. And poor health forced Debbie Reynolds to miss the biggest night of her career. I could go on about the three people honored at the 7th annual Governors Awards, but let's face it: the event is now at least as much about the dozens of current Oscar contenders in the room as it is about the handful of industry vets they're ostensibly there to honor.

So let's talk about that.

There were few serious hopefuls who weren't at the Hollywood & Highland Center on Sunday night. Those who were there were seated at tables paid for by distributors angling to get them face time with the Academy members who packed the room (including almost the entire Board of Governors, which hosts the event — hence its name). Cate Blanchett, a two-time winner now in the running for both Carol and Truth, acknowledged the elephant in the room when asking attendees to face the left side of the ballroom for a group photo like those taken at the earliest Oscars ceremonies: "Say 'cheers' — or 'vote for me!'"

In fairness, some current contenders had legitimate reasons for being there: Blanchett and Laura Linney (Mr. Holmes) were part of the tribute to Rowlands; Jane Fonda (Youth) and Meryl Streep (Ricki and the Flash) helped to celebrate Reynolds; and Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight), joined by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes, handed Lee his prize.

But there really is only one reason the others were there — including some of the community's most reserved (Carol's Rooney Mara) and reclusive (Black Mass' Johnny Depp) members. And that was self-promotion, facilitated by distributors, which fly in talent specifically for this event and countless others scheduled around it throughout the weekend, and publicists, who are seated with the talent inside the room in order to make the necessary introductions.

The Academy is apparently fine with all of this, even promoting current contenders' attendance on advance tip-sheets and inviting them to make their way into the ballroom via a separate entrance: a red carpet lined with photographers. And you know what? Despite initial reservations, the more I think about it, so am I. If this is what it takes to get today's Hollywood out to celebrate yesterday's — in other words, if this is what it takes to get them to, forgive the pun, do the right thing — then so be it.

While circulating throughout the room between segments of the show, I chatted with and observed attendees of all sorts. This is not a full list of who was in attendance, as I've provided in past years, but rather a list of a handful of things I personally witnessed:

Depp bending on one knee to introduce himself to, compliment and straighten the tie of nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay (Room), who, accompanied by his mother, received compliments everywhere he went.

Concussion's Will Smith, seated across the aisle from me, with a young relative who he brought as his guest, as well as the film's director Peter Landesman and Dr. Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian doctor Smith plays in the film.

Streep catching up with her Julia costar and fellow multi-Oscar winner Fonda; huddling with Reynolds' daughter Carrie Fisher (Star Wars: The Force Awakens); and posing for pictures and chatting with Trainwreck's Amy Schumer.

Straight Outta Compton's F. Gary Gray, O'Shea Jackson, Jr., Jason Mitchell and Ice Cube taking in the scene.

Rachel Weisz (Youth), accompanied by husband Daniel Craig (Spectre), introducing herself to Lily Tomlin (Grandma) after Tomlin wrapped up a conversation with her costar Sam Elliott.

A group of Netflix-connected filmmakers — Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire) and ultimately Tomlin — hanging with Netflix chief Ted Sarandos and vp of original documentary and comedy programming Lisa Nishimura.

The Danish Girl's Tom Hooper fielding compliments and questions about his muse Eddie Redmayne (who couldn't attend as he's shooting a film, like Straight Outta Compton's Corey Hawkins).

Mr. Holmes' Bill Condon, Ian McKellen and Linney sticking close together throughout the night.

And Fonda — whose brother Peter Fonda also was in attendance — congratulating Rowlands: "I'm so proud of you! I'm so excited for you!"

The 88th Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 28. The 7th Academy Governors Awards was, for all intents and purposes, its dress rehearsal. In fact, there may have been more big names at the former than there will be at the latter.