Governors Awards: Top Contenders Celebrate Legends at Dress Rehearsal for Oscars

Benedict Cumberbatch Keira Knightley Governors Awards - H 2014
Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

The Academy's sixth annual Governors Awards was, like the five before it, as special a night as any on the Hollywood awards season calendar.

I refer to it as "special" because it was a beautifully orchestrated and moving ceremony (hat-tip to the evening's producer, Reginald Hudlin, and Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs) celebrating four remarkable people: Golden Age actress Maureen O'Hara, prolific writer Jean-Claude Carriere and animation master Hayao Miyazaki received honorary Oscars, and 87-year-old actor-activist Harry Belafonte became the 37th recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

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I refer to it as part of the "awards season calendar" because it decidedly is. Each year, more and more tables are bought by studios and filled with Oscar-contending talent. They gamely show up, knowing that attendance guarantees them not only a chance to witness history, but also the opportunity to casually (or not so casually) rub shoulders with more Oscar voters and tastemakers than they will encounter in just about any other room prior to voting. Only 600 people are seated in the room, but almost everybody is somebody.

This all provides a close observer with the opportunity to witness some pretty cool things.

Before dinner, Jessica Chastain, a star of Interstellar (as well as A Most Violent Year, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby and Miss Julie) and perhaps the most beautiful and talented redheaded actress in the movies today, nervously approached O'Hara, perhaps the most beautiful and revered redheaded actress of Hollywood's Golden Age. O'Hara happily agreed to pose with her for a photograph, in which Chastain grinned with delight.

Selma's writer-director Ava DuVernay introduced me to the gorgeous young actress Tessa Thompson, who stars in Justin Simien's Dear White People and DuVernay's forthcoming film. We all had a chuckle upon realizing that both of Thompson's directors were film publicists until getting behind a camera quite recently. Now DuVernay is the director of one of the most anticipated films of the year.

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Jack O'Connell, the star of the forthcoming Unbroken, did a classy thing and snuck away from the event for a few minutes to go downstairs to the Dolby Theatre and surprise an audience attending an AFI Fest screening of another of his films, 71, which will be out next year and could be an awards player.

I was able to introduce Laura Poitras, the director of the acclaimed Edward Snowden documentary Citizenfour — who is back from four days of much needed R&R in Berlin — to one of her heroes, the great Sidney Poitier, who was delighted to meet her. I snapped a picture of the two of them together and offered to email it to Poitras, who gave me an address that, she joked, will guarantee that the NSA gets a look at it, too.

Elsewhere around the room, Boyhood's young actress Lorelei Linklater and IFC's chief Jonathan Sehring sat across from each other, surveying the scene. Birdman's Michael Keaton squeezed Wild's Reese Witherspoon in a big hug as the two Fox Searchlight contenders posed for a pic, with Birdman's Edward Norton looking on. And the date of The Gambler star Mark Wahlberg, his young daughter, just wanted to meet The Fault in Our Stars' Shailene Woodley — who, as fate would have it, was among the few 2014 Oscar contenders not present.

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Once the show got underway, several others showed up onstage as presenters. American Sniper director Clint Eastwood was part of the O'Hara presentation, and John Lasseter, whose Disney-Pixar is distributing Big Hero 6, was at the center of the Miyazaki segment.

Out in the audience, one could hear a pin drop as Harry Belafonte delivered his jaw-droppingly eloquent and moving speech — that is, until it ended, at which point whistles of approval from David Oyelowo, who plays Belafonte's late friend Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, pierced through the applause.

Once the ceremony concluded, I boarded an elevator full of stars — among them The Judge's Robert Downey Jr. and Wild's Laura Dern — and headed down to the valet area, where the wait for cars to come around enabled many other contenders to congregate with one another. Dern and Jake Gyllenhaal, who have known each other since costarring in October Sky 15 years ago, chatted. Get On Up's Chadwick Boseman was introduced to Mr. Turner's Timothy Spall. And Rob Marshall, the director of the forthcoming Into the Woods, bowed before the great director Norman Jewison.

Among those waiting for their cars was The Imitation Game's director Morten Tyldum and star Benedict Cumberbatch, who were running late for a nearby post-screening Q&A, so when their film's distributor Harvey Weinstein got his car, he offered them a lift, remarking of the moving evening, "This is what it's all about."

Other contenders who were present included The Imitation Game actor Keira Knightley and composer Alexandre Desplat; The Judge actor Robert Duvall; Fury actor Logan Lerman; Fort Bliss actor Michelle Monaghan; Belle actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies actor Andy Serkis; The Theory of Everything actors Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones; Into the Woods actors Emily Blunt and James Corden; Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle and actor J.K. Simmons; A Most Violent Year writer-director J.C. Chandor and actor Oscar Isaac; Obvious Child actress Jenny Slate; Snowpiercer actress Tilda Swinton; Cake actor Jennifer Aniston; Boyhood writer-director Richard Linklater and actors Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette; Two Days, One Night directors Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne and actress Marion Cotillard; Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller and actors Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo; Black and White writer-director Mike Binder and actors Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer; The Homesman actress Hilary Swank and composer Marco Beltrami; Big Eyes actor Christoph Waltz; Wild director Jean-Marc Vallee; Get On Up director Tate Taylor; How to Train Your Dragon 2 director Dean DeBlois; American Sniper screenwriter Jason Hall; The Lego Movie writer-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller; Inherent Vice actor Katherine Waterston; Gone Girl composer Atticus Ross; and The Human Capital director Paolo Virzi.

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg