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Inside the Academy’s Governors Awards, from Oprah and Darth Vader to J.J. Abrams and Scads of Oscar Contenders

Inside the Academy's Governors Awards, from Oprah and Darth Vader to J.J. Abrams and Scads of Oscar Contenders

Arriving at the Governors Awards is overwhelming at first because there’s a new star around every shoulder. The Board of Governors invites a swath of Oscar voters to attend the swanky Wolfgang Puck-catered dinner at Hollywood and Highland, so studio publicists make sure as many of their award contenders are on hand to work the room as possible.

Academy chief Dawn Hudson admitted that she had some sleepless nights during Oscar hell week before the telecast changing of the guard was complete. Tom Sherak, the embattled AMPAS president, started off the proceedings wearing a Darth Vader costume. “How was your week?” he asked. The crowd roared. 

Maria Shriver, John Travolta, and Larry Gordon introed Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award winner Oprah Winfrey, with supporters Stedman Graham, Sidney Poitier, David Geffen, Rita Wilson, Gayle King and Tyler Perry on hand. While Winfrey clearly has many friends in the Hollywood community and owes her stellar television career to her strong early movie roles in “The Color Purple” and “Beloved” (thanks to mentor Quincy Jones), and deserves any number of awards for her extraordinarily generous and effective charity efforts, truth is Winfrey was a strange fit for the film industry’s coveted Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Even if she has produced a few films such as “The Debaters” and “Precious” and wants to return to movie acting.

Poignant, however, was heartfelt thanks from young college-bound scholarship recipient Ayanna Hall, one of 65,000 people Winfrey has supported through college, who said: “I only hope I am half the woman she is and hope I share my gifts with others the way she has with me.” Winfrey gave an off-the-cuff speech that expressed her amazement that a poor colored girl from Mississippi who was expected to become a maid could win an Oscar. “‘The Help,’ that is my story,” she said. “All of us can make a difference through the life we live.”

Alec Baldwin, who scribbled his own notes, and “Albert Nobbs” star Glenn Close introduced 80-year-old James Earl Jones (“Dr. Strangelove,” “The Great White Hope,” “Coming to America,” “The Lion King,” “The Hunt for Red October”), who accepted his honorary Oscar via video from Sir Ben Kingsley on the boards in London after a performance of “Driving Miss Daisy” opposite Vanessa Redgrave. “You’re always so damned good,” said Kingsley, praising Jones’ bosso profundo voice and “passionate honesty and deeply rooted, unique empathy.” Jones responded: “This is an actors’ wet dream,” admitting that among all the good films he made, he wound up in some of worst movies committed to celluloid. “I’m gobsmacked.”

The most moving presentation went to makeup artist Dick Smith (“The Godfather,” “Scanners,” “Altered States,” “Little Big Man,” “Amadeus”), age 89, who inspired hero worship in presenters J.J. Abrams and Rick Baker “before any of us had heard of a pixel,” said Abrams, and befriended young Linda Blair as she submitted to his most difficult career challenge, turning her into the vomit-hurling, neck-wracked Devil in “The Exorcist.” He stuffed straws up her nose, whited out her eyes with contacts, and wrapped her like a mummy in polyester strips. He cast every part of her anatomy. He extended her teeth and tongue and put goo in her hair. “It was not a little girl’s dream,” Blair said. “He’s the greatest makeup artist alive,” said Baker. Overcome with emotion, his mentor accepted the award to a rousing standing ovation. “I have loved being a makeup artist so much,” Smith said, “but this puts a crown on all of that. I am so grateful.”

Among the Oscar hopefuls were “The Help” lead actress contender and LAT Envelope cover girl Viola Davis, sitting with co-star Octavia Spencer and Dreamworks’ Stacey Snider, “Rampart”‘s Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster, “Moneyball” director Bennett Miller, “We Need to Talk About Kevin”‘s Tilda Swinton in a white pantsuit, foul-tweeter Ellen Barkin of “Another Happy Day” (“@NicSperling just told me not to fuckin curse in my tweets at the muthafuckin Governors Awards. I say fuck her.”), “The Ides of March” star Evan Rachel Wood, “The Descendents” stars Shailene Woodley and Robert Forster, “Shame”‘s Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen, “The Artist”‘s Michel Hazanavicious, Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, “Win Win” writer-director Tom McCarthy, who has been slaving away on an original script, as has “Jane Eyre”‘s Cary Fukanaga, who has handed in a musical with new songs from different contemporary artists to Fox Searchlight. “Young Adult” star Payton Oswalt gushed over the performance of slim and charismatic Mexican star Demian Bichir in must-see “A Better Life,” who has both Pedro Almodovar and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu wanting to work with him. Ruddy-faced Nick Nolte was in fine fettle, railing against Lionsgate’s marketing of “Warrior” and recalling folding his arms at the Academy’s tribute to Elia Kazan, for which Martin Scorsese has never forgiven him, he said.

Also in high spirits was Gary Oldman, waiting to hear if reshoots will be called on “Dark Knight Rises,” which finally wraps on Monday after seven months: then he can lose his neat mustache. Playing John Le Carre’s low-key George Smiley in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was a welcome “sitting on a chair role,” he said, that did not require him to do action stunts. He relied on director Tomas Alfredson to tell him when he was getting information across under Smiley’s poker face, or needed to amp it up an notch.

On the way out, I commisserated with Dustin Lance Black, who has taken some critical brickbats over the controversial “J. Edgar” script.  I watched the board of governors pose for a photo, struck by how few women are among them–editor Ann Coates, producer Gale Anne Hurd and publicist Cheryl Boone Isaacs were the ones I counted there. Disney/Pixar Animation czar John Lasseter, actor Ed Begley, Jr., screenwriter Frank Pierson, Fox co-chairman Jim Gianopulos and producer Mark Johnson are typical of the membership. These are the folks who really call the Academy shots.

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