As much as they have become a serious Oscar-season campaign event, the fourth-annual Governors Awards, held Saturday at Hollywood and Highland’s Ray Dolby Ballroom, remain even more so a sincere tribute to Hollywood’s all-timers.
The careers of honorees D.A. Pennebaker, George Stevens Jr., Hal Needham and Jeffrey Katzenberg were all roundly celebrated by a crowd that included A-list representatives of seemingly every picture contending for an Academy Award.
And so, on a cool Saturday evening that featured hordes of provisional umbrellas but a sparing of the week’s rain, the pre-ceremony meeting and greeting operated at a fervent pace, before seamlessly giving way to a quartet of tributes, not one of which failed to be moving.
To be sure, as Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences prexy Hawk Koch pointed out in his introductory remarks, the honorees appreciated the importance of the occasion.
“I can still hear D.A. Pennebaker asking in disbelief, ‘Are you kidding?’” Koch said, recalling his phone calls to each in September to inform them of their selection. “And Jeffrey Katzenberg, believe it or not, was speechless.”
Sen. Al Franken, the central figure of one of Pennebaker’s documentaries, introduced the cinema verite pioneer, joking that he is nicknamed Penny “not because of his names but because of his budgets.” Then came a fiercely impressive career highlights film, including a line from “Don’t Look Back” subject Bob Dylan about the doggedness of Pennebaker’s small crew.
“If they ran, you ran,” Dylan said. “At a certain point, you just became oblivious to it.”
Michael Moore was the next to pay homage, saying the Academy was “honoring the man who, with his friends, invented nothing less than the modern documentary.
“He took the camera off the tripod, (and) in that moment, the world of filmmaking changed,” Moore said. “Pennebaker’s idea was that you would write the movie after you shot it. This was anarchy.”
Pennebaker himself reveled sweetly in the moment, offering gratitude to numerous people in a lengthy and decidedly non-linear journey through his career, before closing on a note about feeling at times like an outsider in the film community by working out of New York.
“Now there's a bridge, and you folks now consider us fellow filmmakers, and that's wonderful,” he said.
Annette Bening then began the salute to George Stevens Jr. by highlighting his exceedingly multifaceted life in the industry as the son, grandson and great grandson of Hollywood mainstays, something well supported in the short film provided by another son of the industry, Davis Guggenheim. A regal Sidney Poitier was next, pointing out that he had been directed by both George Stevens, pere and fils.
Stevens recalled that because his father was away at war during the 1944 Academy Awards, he was asked to come to the ceremony to accept the Oscar – at age 11 – in case “The More the Merrier” won for director. As a result, he had to grudgingly pass up baseball tickets to see the Hollywood Stars play the San Francisco Seals.
“I knew the batting averages of every player in the Hollywood Stars lineup, but I had never heard of ‘Casablanca,’” said Stevens.
But Stevens soon became an integral part of the biz as a director and producer, as well as a key ambassador and historical preservationist, influenced by memorable words from his father, driving home after the latter won the Oscar for “A Place in the Sun.”
Said Stevens: “He leaned over, smiled and said something that shaped my life: ‘We’ll know what kind of movie this is in 25 years.’ “He was talking about the test of time.”
Needham, the stunts pioneer (who also directed films including “The Cannonball Run”), was then celebrated in the context of how neglected his profession has been by the Academy.
“I have ripped off a lot of shots from you,” said “Django Unchained” director Quentin Tarantino, “and today I say, ‘Thank you very much.’ ”
Producer Al Ruddy told perhaps the story of the night, involving a test of a Needham-constructed missle that, when tested, set a soundstage ablaze.
In his own words, noting that he had broken 56 bones in his career, Needham called himself “the luckiest man alive and lucky to be alive.”
The evening wound up with Will Smith and Tom Hanks introducing Katzenberg, noting his relentless but indispensible fundraising gifts for important causes, such as the Motion Picture & Television Fund.
“It’s not just the invitation to breakfast,” Hanks said. “It's the lunch that lasts exactly 47 minutes. It's the follow-up phone call. It’s the tour of the facility. It’s the follow-up phone call. It’s the letter to remind you of the phone call and the tour of the facility. And finally, it’s the contribution you make.”
Katzenberg labeled his career a story of mentors who offered time, talents, words and wisdom, remembering the moment of meeting Governors Award attendee Kirk Douglas years after having seen him on the big screen in “Spartacus.”
“It's Kirk who taught me you haven't learned to live until you learn to give.”
Proceeds from the Governors Awards will be directed toward fundraising for the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, set to open in 2016.