By Kristopher Tapley
As awards season launches underneath a shadow for the second year in a row, Oscar contenders aplenty turned out to salute four cinema legends and a bold work of immersive art Saturday night.
But the current headline-making ills plaguing the industry failed to creep into an evening dedicated to celebration. Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour”), Saoirse Ronan (“Lady Bird”), Willem Dafoe (“The Florida Project”) and Allison Janney (“I, Tonya”) were just some of the names on hand to raise a glass to filmmakers Charles Burnett and Agnes Varda, cinematographer Owen Roizman and actor Donald Sutherland at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ ninth annual Governors Awards ceremony.
Also honored was filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu, for his virtual reality installation “Carne y Arena.” The Oscar-winning director of “Birdman” and “The Revenant” received a rare special commendation from the Academy for his efforts.
Luminaries such as Lawrence Kasdan, Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Chastain, Angelina Jolie and Ava DuVernay dropped into the program to pay their respects to the quintet as the non-televised satellite Oscars event unfolded at the Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood, just a few flights above the very spot where new Oscar winners will be crowned in four months’ time.
Related: Donald Sutherland Reflects on Storied Career Ahead of Governors Award
“Tonight’s honorees have each added a single voice to the chorus of world cinema,” AMPAS president John Bailey said in his opening remarks. Indeed, as the Academy softly pivots to the internationalization of the organization amid an ongoing inclusion debate, this year’s lineup of honorary Oscar recipients was one of the most diverse ever.
Roizman’s honor kicked off the evening. Kasdan noted that the “genius brew” conjured by the celebrated cinematographer and director William Friedkin on early 1970s films like “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist” changed movies forever. “We all wanted our movies to look like that,” Kasdan said.
Hoffman, who worked with Roizman on Sydney Pollack’s “Tootsie,” had the honors of presenting, noting that the lenser “sees not only a picture, an image — but a story.”
Visibly touched, the five-time Oscar-nominated Roizman paid tribute to the collaborative nature of the medium. “Film is made up of many silver particles,” he said. “Each one represents someone working on a film.”
The comedy portion of the evening came next, courtesy of Academy directors branch governor Kimberly Peirce. In a long and hilarious ode to filmmaker Agnes Varda alongside documentary branch governor Kate Amend, Peirce probably broke a record at the buttoned-up event for most mentions of the word “orgasm.”
Chastain, meanwhile, noted that “the difference between being an iconoclast and an icon is time, and Agnes Varda has somehow managed to remain on the cutting edge.” Jolie followed, adding that “‘female director’ is a label [Varda] might resist. She is first and foremost an artist. When she started making films, they were not films women weren’t making — they were films no one was making.”
Varda capped her acceptance speech by gifting the evening with one of its most precious photo ops: Cutting a rug on stage with Jolie.
Burnett’s reach and the inspiration he has instilled was also palpable. Filmmakers Reginald Hudlin and Sean Baker, and actors Chadwick Boseman and Tessa Thompson, were among those who paid tribute to the director’s work, which has gone largely under-recognized for much of his career.
Before presenting the Oscar, DuVernay spoke about how she would often look through film history books and note that, inevitably, any section devoted to black filmmaking was grossly limited. It might be a caption, or a paragraph if you’re lucky. “Within the world of that paragraph, you are the universe,” she said to Burnett. “You have centered blackness and rendered us victorious. For that I thank you, sir.”
In accepting the award, Burnett was candid about his insecurities, which weren’t helped by being told early in life by a reckless teacher that he wouldn’t amount to anything. “This award means I’m getting further away from this stigma, this feeling that [my work is] not going to have any meaning, that I don’t have what it takes.”
He’s not sure if that teacher is still around, but if he is, “I hope he reads the trades,” Burnett said.
While the evening mostly steered clear of big sociopolitical statements, Inarritu certainly had something considerable on his mind.
“Ideologies have f—cked up the world,” the “Carne y Arena” director said. “It hasn’t been the people, but the ideas we have about those people … When the word ‘illegal alien’ or ‘rapist’ is fired, the reality of a certain human life or a community is reduced to an idea, and whoever believes or possesses and fires that idea, ends up impoverishing, misleading and degrading their perception of reality.”
He went on to speak about the state of immigration the world over, specifically noting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which was rescinded by the Trump administration in September. He also quoted Buddhist activist Thich Nhat Hanh to make his point: “‘Understanding is love’s other name.’ If you don’t understand, you can’t love.” He closed by noting that he is not interested in technology to reinvent or escape reality, but rather, to use it to embrace reality and wield it as a tool for empathy. That was the goal of his latest work.
The Academy hasn’t given out a peripheral “special” Oscar since it honored “Toy Story” in 1996, so Inarritu’s recognition was a momentous occasion indeed.
The night closed with Sutherland, who has somehow never received an Oscar nomination throughout his storied career. “The closest I ever got was I gave one away once,” the actor joked on Variety‘s “Playback” podcast ahead of the ceremony.
Colin Farrell, Ron Meyer, Jennifer Lawrence and Whoopi Goldberg all joined together in toasting the 82-year-old veteran. “As an actor, I want to make magic, and Donald Sutherland is one of the greatest magicians ever,” Goldberg said.
On stage, Sutherland — who worked with Bailey on Robert Redford’s 1980 film “Ordinary People” — recalled the phone call he received from the cinematographer giving him the news of his accolade: “He said, ‘It’s John Bailey.’ I said, ‘John Bailey? [‘Ordinary People’] was 37 years ago.’ He said, ‘I’ve been made president of the Academy.’ I said, ‘Congratulations.’ He said, ‘No, I’m calling to congratulate you!’”
The actor held court in the ceremony’s final moments with the kind of gravitas Steven Spielberg noted of him in comments delivered earlier in the evening. Standing there, finally an Oscar recipient after a career bordering on 200 credits, he looked right at home.