Better Than the Oscars?

Better Than the Oscars?

On Saturday night, November 11th, 2017, Hollywood held one of the most heartwarming events of the season, the 9th annual Governors Awards, presented by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Los Angeles. The evening was filled with warmth, grace and a deep appreciation of talented cinema icons including poetic filmmaker Charles Burnett, French New Wave legend Agnès Varda, trailblazing cinematographer Owen Roizman, inimitable actor Donald Sutherland, and creative award winning director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu.  

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Amidst the sexual harassment scandals clouding this year’s movie season with a sense of disillusionment, this evening was a breath of fresh air in how it celebrated the legacies of people who changed the industry for the better. Sporting all the exuberance of her youth at age 89, Varda took part in an impromptu dance with presenter Angelina Jolie after delivering her acceptance speech. While holding his Oscar, Burnett said he hoped that the teacher who told him that he would never amount to anything reads the Hollywood trades. Both Roizman and Sutherland teared up while talking about their families and their careers. And Iñárritu made an impassioned speech about immigrants. These were the sorts of moments that made the whole evening worthwhile. There were no time limits placed on their speeches, no air of competition, and no losers, only winners. The awardees were chosen by the Governors of the Academy for their excellence. It was a love-fest from beginning to end.   

Academy president John Bailey kicked off the evening along with a toast from Steven Spielberg and a serenade of Diane Warren’s “I Was Here” performed by Sheléa (Academy CEO Dawn Hudson was also in attendance). Roizman, a five-time Oscar nominee, was honored by reflections from director Lawrence Kasdan, actor Dustin Hoffman and Daryn Okada, a Governor from the Cinematographers Branch. In addition to her dance with Jolie, “Cleo from 5 to 7” director Varda was praised by Jessica Chastain, Directors Branch Governor Kimberly Peirce (in a bawdy speech noting that Varda was the first woman director who showed her women characters unabashedly enjoying sex), and Documentary Branch Governor Kate Amend. Varda was joined by her daughter Rosalie and her grandchildren, and by the co-director of her current documentary, “Faces, Places,” the international artist J.R. 

Charles Burnett’s legacy, which includes such classics as “Killer of Sheep,” and “To Sleep With Anger,”  was hailed by actors Tessa Thompson and Chadwick Boseman, and directors Sean Baker and Reginald Hudlin, a Governor of the Directors Branch. His gold Oscar was presented to him on stage by director Ava Duvernay in a beautiful speech in which she hailed him as “an artist who relished sharing the inner lives of working class African-Americans on screen in all our complexity. Character and stories with round edges and dimension… [Characters] so often forgotten, dismissed and ignored… [but with Burnett] felt expansive and robust and revered.” 

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She called him a giant who was gentle, generous and full of grace. He was praised by Duvernay and the others for making the black community visible and represented. Overcoming his shyness to take the stage, the talented Burnett gave a very moving speech about why he wanted to make movies, but how he didn’t know whether his works had value, and how being recognized for his craft was important. He was joined by his filmmaker son Jonathan, Linda Koulisis, Robert Townsend, Sheryl Lee Ralph, music composer Stephen James Taylor and many actors from his movies.  

Actors Whoopi Goldberg, Colin Farrell and Jennifer Lawrence joined Ron Meyer, from the Board of Trustees of the Academy Museum, to salute Sutherland, star of acclaimed films including “M*A*S*H” and “Ordinary People.” Ron Meyer told an astonishing story about how he and his wife had dinner with Sutherland 21 years ago and Sutherland told his wife that she was pregnant with a boy. At the time they didn’t know she was pregnant. But sure enough, nine months later, their son was born! So perhaps Sutherland’s acting chops come from that deep, intuitive ability to inhabit his characters. He paid tribute to his wife Francine Racette and sons including talent agent Roeg, and actor Kiefer and his twin sister Rachel and other family members and friends. 

A special award was also presented to director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu for his “Carne y Arena,” a virtual reality installation about the immigration experience in the U.S., created by him and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, producer Mary Parent and visual effects house ILM. Gregory Nava, a Governor-at-large from the Writers Branch, presented the Oscar to Iñárritu. Their speeches were some of the most substantive politically, telling about the experiences of Mexicans and other immigrants leaving their country for better lives. Iñárritu’s virtual reality installation that allows you to experience this viscerally is now on exhibit at LACMA. He made a truly convincing case for compassion, kindness and empathy. 

After the program was over, the most often repeated sentiment from both men and women was how often they teared up from the emotion of the evening. This was indeed one of the most beautiful evenings I have ever experienced. This type of celebration bodes well for the future of cinema, the industry and society. 

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