Inside LACMA's Art+Film Gala With Leonardo DiCaprio, Jared Leto, Billie Eilish and Ava DuVernay

LACMA Gala - H 2019
(Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images for LACMA)
Marco Bizzarri, Alessandro Michele, Betye Saar, Michael Govan, Eva Chow and Alfonso Cuarón.

Just like the title of the event — Art+Film — LACMA’s annual A-list gala is all about the pairs.

There are two honorees, designed to merge the worlds of art and cinema, and Saturday night headliner duties belonged to assemblage expert Betye Saar and filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. Because Gucci is the sponsor of the chic night, fashion is always included in the conversation, and since this is about pairs and there’s always a musical act, one can’t forget that business, either. Though she was attending for the first time, Yara Shahidi was quick to pull the creative disciplines into one sentence: “It’s fashion supporting film supporting art supporting music,” said the actress and activist, fresh from Chicago, where she interviewed former President Obama at his Obama Foundation Summit. “It’s so much more than a fashion moment.”

She was wearing Gucci, however, like many of the boldfaced names in attendance who helped LACMA rake in a record-breaking $4.6 million to support the Wilshire Boulevard museum’s film initiatives and future exhibitions, acquisitions and programming. In all, more than 800 guests attended the event, which kicked off with an outdoor cocktail reception just after dusk. A dinner in a tented pavilion followed, prepared by Joachim Splichal of Patina Restaurant Group, and before guests made their way back outside for dessert and a mini Anderson .Paak concert under the stars, there were speeches. Those came in pairs, too.

LACMA director Michael Govan went first. He called Saar and Cuarón “legends in their respective fields,” both of whom have history with his institution. Saar currently has “Betye Saar: Call and Response” on view through April 5, and the Art+Film honor marked a rare spin in the spotlight for the Los Angeles born-and-bred talent, whom many people throughout the night noted was long overdue for such a recognition. Cuarón, meanwhile, “has been part of the LACMA family for years,” Govan noted. Most recently, the museum displayed an exhibition of prints of the stills from his Academy Award-winning Roma from last year.

Govan also took the opportunity at the podium to point toward the future of LACMA, as the museum inches ever closer to its massive redesign and reimagining. “We’re about to close our four facilities and replace them with beautiful new galleries,” Govan said, name-checking architect Peter Zumthor and David Geffen, the latter whose name will adorn the new galleries.

Next came Eva Chow, a trustee who co-hosted the affair with partner in crime Leonardo DiCaprio, who always tends to keep a relatively low profile at the event by ducking in a side entrance and skipping the red carpet swirl. “I appreciate all of you coming from Korea, from China, from Paris, from Qatar, from Saudi Arabia, from Turkey, from Mexico,” said Chow. “This is truly an international affair, an international evening.”

The long list of attendees confirm the claim. Making the rounds were Cuarón’s pals Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Laura Dern, Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach, Gucci’s Marco Bizzarri and Alessandro Michele, new parents Ricky Martin and Jwan Yosef, Sienna Miller, Salma Hayek Pinault, Beck, Naomi Campbell, Willem Dafoe, Ava DuVernay, Billie Eilish, Will Ferrell, Disney’s Bob Iger, Jon Hamm, Bong Joon Ho, Liberty Ross and Jimmy Iovine, Regina King, Jared Leto, Keanu Reeves, Zoe Saldana, Cynthia Erivo, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Molly Shannon, Tyler the Creator, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu, Mark Bradford, Lauren Halsey, Thomas Houseago, Luchita Hurtado, Alex Israel, Naima Keith, Christine Y. Kim, Bettina Korek, Barbara Kruger, Shio Kusaka, Eugenio López, Julie Mehretu, Rodney McMillian, Catherine Opie, Almine Rech Picasso, Pilar Tompkins Rivas, Nancy Rubins, Kristin Sakoda, Britt Salvesen, Mary Weatherford and Jonas Wood.

LACMA trustees made the rounds, too. In the room were Ambassador Nicole Avant, Willow Bay, Ambassador Colleen Bell, Allison Berg, Troy Carter, Ann Colgin, Janet Crown, Kelly Day, Viveca Paulin-Ferrell, Victoria Jackson, Suzanne Kayne, Robert A. Kotick, Florence Sloan, Wendy Stark Morrisey, Geoff Palmer, Janet Dreisen Rappaport, Carter Reum, Lynda Resnick, Robbie Robinson, Steve Tisch and Elaine Wynn.

It’s a big mix, and that was not lost on Hayek Pinault, who kept close to husband Francois-Henri Pinault most of the evening, which also featured sponsorship by Audi, wines by JNSQ and JUSTIN, champagne by Laurent-Perrier and sips by Fiji and Pom Wonderful. “Gucci knows how to do it,” she explained of the “very chic” party. “It’s not just the people from the industry. There’s a larger, more expansive group of interesting people because of the art and because, of course, the cinema. With Alfonso, you know, he’s one of my best friends so I’m being biased, but he deserves it tonight.” 

Paulin-Ferrell agreed. Same for Saar. “I love Betye Saar,” she said. “It’s time. It’s actually past her time. Michael has been a genius in bringing together the groups of art and film and celebrating them. There’s so much crossover creatively and it’s so important that the art and film communities communicate with one another.”

The first award of the night went to Saar, and that presentation saw the art and music worlds communicating with one another courtesy of John Legend. The EGOT winner delivered a touching tribute that kicked off with a story about how Legend filled his very purchased property with works by Saar.

“Back in 2004, I was buying my first apartment,” he recalled. “I thought it was pretty fancy but looking back it might not have been so fancy. The first big thing I ever purchased was this apartment, and the next big thing I wanted to purchase — aside from furniture — was some art. I reached out to a friend of mine named Sarah Lewis, who is a professor at Harvard now. We were in our mid-20s at the time. She took me around to look at some art. A couple of pieces that I bought with my new money were some Betye Saar pieces.”

Legend then detailed Saar’s career, calling her “one of the most important artists of her generation” and “an icon of feminist and the black arts movement.” He singled out individual pieces like Sambo’s Banjo and The Liberation of Aunt Jemima, the latter of which is perhaps her most iconic piece. He praised her ability to “remember, reclaim and remix” black history by using items unearthed at flea markets, swap meets and secondhand stores to in order to deliver spiritual and moral truths about the culture at large.

Saar made her way to the stage to accept, greeted by a standing ovation. At 93 years old, the Gucci-clad honoree kept it short and sweet. “It’s really wonderful to be able to live your life doing as you love to do, and that’s what art is to me,” she said. “I’ve always been kind of a junkie collecting stuff and saving it. It’s called assemblage; that’s what I do. I’m so pleased to have all of you come and celebrate this, as well as our film person. All I can say is thank you.”

Netflix chief Sarandos next came to the stage to honor Cuarón. But remember the part about the pairs? Cuarón had not one, but two guests singing his praises, a rare but moving showing for this event. Sarandos called Cuarón one of the “true masters of cinema,” someone who “helps us connect to ourselves through his personal films” like Y Tu Mama Tambien, A Little Princess, Gravity, Great Expectations, Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the recent Roma.

“You see his world through impossibly long and all-encompassing shots and remarkable close-ups and sometimes through a keyhole to remind you that the world can be so big and so small,” said Sarandos before citing Cuarón’s personal Roma, which was inspired by his youth in Mexico. “I lived Roma with audiences from Telluride to Mumbai and seemingly everywhere in between. They saw their childhood in his childhood. They saw their country in his country. They saw their homes in his home. They saw their families in his family. They saw themselves in Alfonso.”

And Sarandos said he, too, learned a lot about himself from working with Cuarón. “You helped teach me to slow down and move fast at the same time. You helped me appreciate color in your glorious black and white Roma and you helped me appreciate every little sound all around me.”

Then came Glover in a surprise showing. He said Cuarón is a filmmaker who “has made some of the most captivating films of the last 30 years,” including Y Tu Mama Tambien, which he saw in 11th grade. “My parents were not happy about it,” he said. “It changed how I felt about masculinity, all that stuff.”

He also rewatches Children of Men every time he’s about to create something new because “I feel like it represents exactly what art is supposed to do, which is be so honest that it’s prophetic.”

The night’s standing ovation came when Glover welcomed Cuarón to the stage to accept. He offered to take guests on a journey that “started a few hundred thousand years ago,” though he promised not to do it in real time. The journey began with references to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and ended with a nod to technology and the importance of storytelling. “Suddenly a world of infinite narratives has opened up to us all in the palms of our hands, and in this confusion of infinite possibilities we are in now, still casting around for truths, the same truths as our ice age ancestors, this is maybe why humans still gather in dark spaces to hear simple stories of good and bad, of important things in life that never change — love, loss, friendship, loyalty,” he said. “As our paths grow darker, more harried, more fragmented, there has never been a more important time to tell humanity’s story.”

Will Ferrell then came to the stage for a quick story about his new haircut. “I’m not going to lie to you, I’m getting a lot of compliments about my haircut. 'Navy SEAL handsome' is what a major studio executive told me. So, Alfonso, if you do a Navy SEAL movie, I’m ready to go. You can kill me in the first 10 minutes, I don’t care,” he joked. But the real point of his presentation was to welcome the 800 guests outside for the final pairing of the evening.

That would be newly crowned music superstar Billie Eilish welcoming Anderson .Paak to the stage for his night-ending performance. But first, she said this of seeing .Paak at a festival when she was 15 years old: “It completely, fully changed my entire perception of what an artist looks like, what a performer is and what a show could be. It honestly, like changed my life, to be honest with you. He has the most beautiful smile I’ve ever seen.” He put it on display by performing, with his band The Free Nationals, a mini concert featuring tracks “Heart Don’t Stand a Chance,” “Come Down,” “Tints,” “Am I Wrong” and an encore of “Jet Black.”