Governors Awards: Oscar Contenders Out in Force as Academy Presents Special Honors

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established its annual Governors Awards 11 years ago, many movie buffs vocally protested the move, suggesting that it was treating the honorees like second-class citizens by giving them awards at a non-televised stand-alone event. But guess what? They were wrong.

As I told The Farewell's lead actress Awkwafina last week when she mentioned that she would be going to the Governors Awards for the first time Sunday night, there is no awards season event that is cooler or ticket that is hotter than the star-studded black-tie affair, which is held each fall inside the Hollywood & Highland Center's Ray Dolby Ballroom.

The Governors Awards is a gala dinner at which the Academy now presents its special awards — an honorary Oscar, a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award or an Irving Thalberg Award — to industry veterans, as opposed to rushing them on and off of the stage of the actual Oscars ceremony to keep the telecast from running long. And it has also become a pivotal stop for talent currently in awards contention.

Indeed, the Governors Awards falls right in the thick of the awards season — after the Telluride, Toronto and New York film fests get buzz started, but two months before Oscar nomination voting begins — when the whole town is looking to rub shoulders with Academy members. Accordingly, distributors buy up a huge portion of the tables each year and fill them with talent from their Oscar hopefuls. (This year included, for the first time, Apple, which hosted the team behind The Banker, and Hulu, which welcomed the star of its documentary feature hopeful Ask Dr. Ruth, Ruth Westheimer.)

The result? The room winds up packed with the entire field of Oscar contenders — far more notables than attend the Oscars, by which time their ranks have been significantly winnowed down by nominations.

Sure, most of these folks would not be at the Governors Awards, one of a dwindling number of Hollywood events that brings together old Hollywood and new Hollywood, if they didn't have something to sell. But you know what? I think that's just fine, because once they are in the room, cool things happen, as I witnessed from my seat at Amazon's Honey Boy table.

Honey Boy's writer/supporting actor Shia LaBeouf enthusiastically led the standing ovation for fellow eccentric David Lynch as Lynch accepted an honorary Oscar; The Report's supporting actor Jon Hamm escorted the glamorous Sophia Loren to the podium to present an honorary Oscar; Hustlers' supporting actress Jennifer Lopez — sans A-Rod, who was broadcasting the fifth game of the World Series — fist-pumped and cheered on the first female ever nominated for the best director Oscar, 91-year-old Lina Wertmüller, as she accepted an honorary Oscar; and Honey Boy's director Alma Har'el, one of the new leaders of Hollywood's gender equality movement (she launched Free the Work last week), admiringly filmed on her iPhone as Geena Davis accepted the Hersholt Award for her gender equality efforts.

As with the Oscars itself these days, there is no host for the Governors Awards — but, at the request of the Academy, Just Mercy's supporting actor Jamie Foxx kicked off this year's gathering by welcoming and firing up the crowd with a few minutes of ad-libbed banter from the stage. He conducted the band, instructing it to "marinate" in between shout-outs to an assortment of contenders in the audience, starting with A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood's supporting actor — "Ladies and gentlemen, Tom Hanks is in the house!" He subsequently name-checked Marriage Story's lead actress Scarlett Johansson, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood's lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio and writer-director Quentin Tarantino and the team behind The Irishman. He then coaxed Dolemite Is My Name's Eddie Murphy up to the stage just to tell him how much he loved his performance in that movie, and asked him to take a photo together for his Instagram. (Nobody was happier about this than the folks from Netflix, which is behind Marriage Story, The Irishman and Dolemite.)

The Academy's new president David Rubin, who received the first standing ovation for an Academy president in history, thanks to a big buildup from Foxx, acknowledged that the Governors Awards is "the unofficial start of Oscar season." He then asked his 53 fellow members of the Academy's board of governors — the people who choose Governors Awards honorees — to rise and take a bow. Incidentally, they include a host of contenders: Marriage Story's supporting actress Laura Dern, Dolemite's cowriter Larry Karaszewski and costume designer Ruth E. Carter, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World's producer Bonnie Arnold, The Apollo's director Roger Ross Williams, Jojo Rabbit's composer Michael Giacchino, The Peanut Butter Falcon's producer Albert Berger, Richard Jewell and Gemini Man's writer Billy Ray and 1917's sound mixer Scott Millan.

Current Oscar hopefuls also played a role in the presentation of each of the four special awards. Hanks helped introduce Davis, who was then presented with her honor by Hustlers' lead actress Constance Wu. Dern handed Lynch his award. Ford v Ferrari's lead actor Christian Bale got to hand Wes Studi, his Hostiles co-star, his honorary Oscar. And Little Women's writer-director Greta Gerwig, who two years ago became only the fifth female ever nominated for the best director Oscar, got to present Wertmüller with her award.

Italian filmmaker Wertmüller, via a translator, gave the night's funniest and feistiest speech, clearly enjoying her trip from Italy to Hollywood and all of the attention she has been getting from the "younger set." On Thursday, she was the guest of honor at a Four Seasons luncheon hosted by Women in Film in coordination with Pascal Vicedomini, Italy's unofficial film ambassador to the United States, and producer Mark Canton. Over a spread of Italian food, Wertmüller was gushed over by other female directors who have followed in her footsteps, such as Martha Coolidge and Nancy Meyers; producer Stephanie Allain; songwriter Diane Warren; and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the second female and first black president of the film Academy. And on Monday, she will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.