The Scene: After Rough Week, Governors Awards Ceremony Gives Academy Reason to Celebrate

Oprah Winfrey Rita Wilson Governors Awards 2011 - H
Scott Feinberg

If the Academy's image was a bit dusted up by the Brett Ratner and Eddie Murphy controversies of the past week, it was polished off like a shiny new Oscar by Saturday night's third annual Governors Awards, at which honorary Oscars were presented to actor James Earl Jones (in absentia) and makeup artist Dick Smith and actress/producer/philanthropist Oprah Winfrey received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

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I felt truly privileged to be in the room for the ceremony, which several awards show veterans in attendance described to me as one of the most powerful and moving that they can remember.

The audience was won over from the outset when a man dressed as Darth Vader -- the character to which Jones most famously loaned his inimitable voice in the Star Wars films -- was escorted through the crowd by a bunch of men wearing storm troopers costumes, walked up to the podium, removed his mask, and said, "I'm Tom Sherak, president of the Academy. How was your week?"

Sherak had the audience in stitches with that entrance, and had himself and many in the audience in tears with his moving tribute to two great friends of the Academy who passed away over the past year: Gil Cates, the producer of an incredible 14 Oscar shows, who died of a heart attack last month at 77, and Laura Ziskin, the first woman to produce an Oscar show (she ended up producing two), who passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer earlier this year at 61.

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The tribute to Jones got underway as singer/songwriter Mary J. Blige took the stage, dedicated the tune that she was about to perform to "the lion king himself," and then delivered a rousing rendition of the Oscar-winning song "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" from The Lion King (1994), for which Jones provided the voice of the character King Mufasa.

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Then, Alec Baldwin, who played Jack Ryan opposite Jones' Adm. James Greer in The Hunt for Red October (1990), rose from his seat in the audience with a microphone. The actor recounted how he had envied Jones' career long before they ever worked together, and how, during the making of that film, he and Jones stepped outside of a Paramount soundstage together for a cigarette break, during which Baldwin thought he should seize the moment and ask if Jones could offer him any advice. After a long pause, Jones said: "Stop smoking."

This cued a video montage to Jones, featuring footage of both the actor's half-century screen career and various interviews that he's granted over the years, accompanied by the moving theme music from Field of Dreams (another of Jones' films). The films that elicited the loudest applause from the audience: Coming to America (1988), The Lion King, and, of course, Star Wars (1977).

When the montage finished, Glenn Close -- a best actress Oscar hopeful this year for Albert Nobbs -- stepped up to the podium and spoke of how much actors like herself look up to Jones, whom she described as "a world treasure." She recalled that she was so profoundly impacted by his performance in the play Fences on Broadway back in the eighties that when she went backstage to bow at his feet she was sobbing and kept him waiting for several minutes while she gathered herself together.

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Close then noted -- to the crowd's disappointment but also amazement -- that Jones, who is now 80 years old, could not attend the ceremony... because he insisted on honoring his committment to appear in that evening's performance of Driving Miss Daisy on London's West End.

To the crowd's delight, however, video footage was then piped in from that theater (recorded moments after the curtain came down and then up again tonight), at which Jones was surprised on stage with a special presentation. Co-star Vanessa Redgrave -- herself a two-time Oscar winner who is now gunning for a third this year for Coriolanus -- briefed the British audience on what Jones was missing that night in Hollywood in order to be with them and then called out a special guest to present Jones with an Oscar statuette that former Academy president Sid Ganis had flown over for the occasion: Sir Ben Kingsley, the Oscar winning actor and Jones' friend and co-star in Sneakers (1992). Kingsley paid a lovely tribute to Jones -- noting, "You're always so damn good," which prompted Jones to remove his glasses and wipe away tears -- before handing over his Oscar. People in the London theater and at the Hollywood ceremony cheered simultaneously.

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Jones then stepped up to the microphone to make a few remarks. He began, "If an actor's nightmare is being buck naked and not knowing his lines, what the heck is this?!" Describing the "improbable moment" that had just unfolded before his eyes, he said, "What the heck would you call that but an actor's wet dream!" He added, "There's a word I learned here in England: I'm 'gobsmacked!'" He also noted that he'd made "some of the worst movies ever committed to celluloid," but added, "I so cherish [even] them that I'll refuse to mention them -- you'll just have to Google!" And he closed by recalling his first childhood moviegoing experience, which had featured a shootout that he mistook as being real, and which ad prompted him to yell to those around him, "Make 'em stop! Make 'em stop!" On this night, he said with a big smile, "I can't make them stop, so eventually I joined them!"

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The second presentation was to Smith, who is 89-years-old and somewhat frail but attended the ceremony anyway. He was seated at a table between his son Douglas Smith and longtime friend/mentee Jill Rockow, and looked deeply moved as he received several heartfelt tributes.

The first came from Linda Blair, whom he made up for The Exorcist (1973) thirty-eight years ago, before the best makeup Oscar category even existed. Blair recalled how the film's director William Friedkin insisted that she herself appear -- rather than a dummy -- in the now-famous exorcism scene, arguing, "If the audience does not know it's you the movie is a joke!" She said Smith wholeheartedly embraced the challenge, and employed layered prosthetics -- then a new makeup technique -- to make her look as demonic as possible and enable her to spin her head around -- "No, I really can't do that," she laughed. Blair recalled having two straws stuck her nose to help her breathe as Smith did his work, and that, "For me, it was not as much fun as I think it was for Dick." She teared up as she congratulated him before leaving the stage.

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Then, writer-director J.J. Abrams -- who this year made the film Super 8, in which the 1965 book Dick Smith's Do-It-Yourself Makeup Handbook is name-checked -- came out and shared the remarkable story of how he came to know Smith. Acknowledging that he was "an insanely rabid Dick Smith fan" as a kid, he said he once wrote Smith a fan letter, never expecting to hear back. To his shock, he came home from school one day to find a box waiting for him with Smith's name and address on the return label, opened it, and found a gift accompanied by a note from Smith explaining that it was "an old but clean tongue from The Exorcist." (Abrams laughed that his mother wanted to know who this man was that was sending him old tongues.)

Abrams recalled that, some time later, he was standing at an airport baggage carousel when he spotted a man who he thought looked a lot like Smith, at which point he remembered reading that Smith only had four fingers on one hand. (See here.) He snuck around to get a look at the man's hand and "was never happier to see a missing digit in my life -- he was The Beatles to me." (Smith then held up that hand from his seat in the audience, prompting great laughter from the audience.)

Lastly, Rick Baker, a seven-time Oscar winning makeup artist, rose from across the table from Smith and said he was honored to have the chance to pay tribute to "my idol, my mentor, and my friend for over 43 years," whom he described as "without a doubt the greatest makeup artist that ever lived."

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Baker explained that he had studied Smith's work as a child, written down his address for future reference, and then, on a trip to New York that his parents dragged him on, reached out to Smith and was invited over to his home for a magical day. (Years later, he lived in that house while he worked as Smith's assistant on The Exorcist.)

Baker then introduced a montage showcasing Smith's incredible artistry and testimonials from many with whom he worked -- including F. Murray Abraham, who won the best actor Oscar for Amadeus (1984) and said "50 percent of the reason I won the Academy Award is because of Dick Smith's makeup" -- before presenting his hero with a second Oscar statuette to go along with the one that he won outright for Amadeus.

Smith, who was visibly moved, stated that his memory isn't what it used to be, and that he thought while watching the aforementioned montage, "Gosh, that fellow had a great career!" He read from some prepared remarks ("I will never forget tonight," etc.) before going off-the-cuff and sharing how much it meant to him to have had the chance to pursue his passion for a career and be rewarded for it with such kindness. "This has been an incredible joy -- one of the greatest I've ever had in my life... I am so grateful," he said as he and many audience members wiped away tears.

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Finally, it came time to celebrate Winfrey, who might well be the most wealthy, influential, and famous woman in the world. At her table, the honoree was seated between her longtime boyfriend Stedman Graham and her hero Sidney Poitier, across from her best friend Gayle King and the actress Rita Wilson (Tom Hanks' wife), and not far down from her close friend Tyler Perry.

Things kicked off with a video tribute highlighting Winfrey's work in film -- she received a best supporting actress nod for The Color Purple (1985), starred in Beloved (1998), and served as a producer on The Great Debaters (2007) and Precious (2009), among other projects -- at the end of which Winfrey had tears in her eyes, received a standing ovation, and kissed Graham, with whom she rarely appears in public.

Then, Larry Gordon, a man from Santa Barbara who met Winfrey there at a house party, rose from her table and acknowledged, "I don't know what the hell I'm doing here." His speech only got funnier, as he recalled that at the aforementioned party he and Winfrey began drinking tequila, that Winfrey "kept up with me shot for shot [into] double digits," and that, at one point, he drunkenly said to her, "Oprah, you're a fucking moose!"

Chastised by the friends who had invited him to the party, he was only permitted to attend brunch the following morning because Winfrey was going out of town and wouldn't be there -- only she didn't and she was. When he heard she was arriving, he told the crowd, "I didn't know whether to shit or go blind," prompting prolonged laughter. He said that when Oprah spotted him across the room, though, she came over, arms wide open, and said, "Baby, it's your fucking moose!" They have been friends ever since.

The next speaker was the actor John Travolta, Winfrey's longtime friend, who credited her with teaching him to not let others change one's perception of oneself, helping him to see the world differently and more hopefully by looking at it through her eyes, and even "leading to the White House a very bright young man," prompting a round of applause for embattled president Barack Obama. He closed by saying, "I would give you a second Oscar, and that is for your acting, because you are a damn great actress."

Maria Shriver, the TV personality and former first lady of California, then strode out onto the stage to speak about Winfrey, whom she first met and befriended 33 years ago when both were working on local television and residing in the same unglamorous apartment complex. Shriver recalled that Winfrey, who was then far from famous, used to preach in various churches on Sundays, and confided in Shriver that she had great dreams about her future. Shriver said that Winfrey's belief in herself helped Shriver to believe in herself.

Then, Shriver -- noting that Winfrey would find it most meaningful to receive her Oscar statuette from a "real person" rather than famous -- invited to the stage Ayanna Hall, a young girl from Harlem, who explained that she had never met Winfrey before that night, but that a scholarship from her had made it possible for her to realize her dreams. She says that it was only because of Winfrey's generosity that she was able to attend Miss Porter's high school, apply to seven colleges (all of which accepted her), and make plans to head to Barnard in the fall -- "It's amazing how one phone call can change your life." Hall then said, "On behalf of the more than 65,000 others she's sent to school, I get to say the words, 'Thank you,'" and proceeded to present the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to her.

With tears in her eyes, Winfrey opened by saying, "I didn't prepare a speech because I just wanted to feel whatever this is... tonight, I came prepared to be open." She recounted the circumstances, era, and location of her childhood -- a black girl raised in poverty in 1950s Mississippi, in a situation that she likened to the one in The Help ("I thought, 'That is my story, that was my mother's story, my grandmother's story") -- and said that, when one considers those facts, "It's unimaginable that I would be standing before you voted by the Board of Governors--" before choking up, prompting a standing ovation from the audience. Over the applause, she repeated several times, "Unimaginable. Unimaginable. Unimaginable."

Winfrey closed, "To receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award means more to me than any film, any acclaim, even an Oscar. It means you get it." She said that, unlike other Academy Award recipients whom she had interviewed who claimed that they kept their Oscar in their bathroom or "forgot" where it was, she knew exactly where hers would be: on her desk, in front of her, to remind her of her mission in life: to help others.


Attendees with 2011 awards hopes included Ellen Barkin (Another Happy Day), Dustin Lance Black (J. Edgar), Diablo Cody (Young Adult), Viola Davis (The Help), Drake Doremus (Like Crazy), Jean Dujardin (The Artist), Michael Fassbender (Shame, A Dangerous Method, and Jane Eyre), Robert Forster (The Descendants), Ben Foster (Rampart), Cary Fukunaga (Jane Eyre), Woody Harrelson (Rampart), Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day), Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs), Nick Nolte (Warrior), Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), Patton Oswalt (Young Adult), Elizabeth Reaser (Young Adult), Seth Rogen (50/50), Octavia Spencer (The Help), Gore Verbinski (Rango), Kim Wayans (Pariah), Evan Rachel Wood (The Ides of March), and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants).

Others in attendance (in addition to those mentioned above) included Margaret Avery, Ed Begley Jr., Claude Jarman Jr., Norman Jewison, Malcolm McDowell, Walter Mirisch, Bill Pohlad, Kelly Preston, Greg Russell, Sharon Stone, Julie Taymor, Diane Warren, and Sean Young.