The annual non-televised Governors Awards inspires the Academy Board of Governors to think high, beyond ratings and brevity, and present honorary Oscars to Hollywood’s most deserving artists. Under the guidance of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Governors (now 17 women strong out of 51) is actively inviting a more diverse membership each year. And their recent award recipients have been diverse as well, from Oprah Winfrey and Harry Belafonte to this year’s Spike Lee.
But fair and equal representation in our industry must be Hollywood’s goal, said Boone Isaacs at the start of the evening. “Words are not enough. We need to take action. The world is watching to see how we respond to this critical issue.” She announced the Academy’s new five-year plan A20/20 to get entertainment industry execs to open up their hiring practices and exhorted the power-brokers in the room to mentor and encourage and promote women and people of color, so that their cast and crews more resemble the real world.
At evening’s end the director of “Do the Right Thing,” wearing a purple velvet suit, orange specs, gold custom Air Jordans and a “Chi-Raq” promo beret, who has famously been robbed of an Oscar statuette thus far, predictably used his platform (after off-hand intros by “Malcom X” star Denzel Washington and Spike Lee Joint regulars Wesley Snipes and Samuel L. Jackson —who co-star in upcoming Amazon release “Chi-Raq”) to also push diversity. “Spike Lee has put more people to work in this industry than anyone in this business,” said Washington; the clip reel attested to Lee’s talent discoveries, from Rosie Perez to Rosario Dawson. “It’s easier for a black person to be president of the United States than to be head of a studio,” Lee told the crowd.
More than ever this year, this lovely tribute event has been hijacked by the Oscar season and overrun by campaign wranglers making sure that their contenders are front and center. That’s because so many people come to town for the magic combo of AFI FEST and awards mongering, and the Governors Awards is packed with Academy voters.
This year you could feel the relative heat at the studio tables hosted by senior executive brass, who at this early stage are often supporting the hopes of their talent before reality sets in. Fox’s Jim Gianopulos and Stacey Snider were hanging with David O. Russell (who is still in the mixing room on “Joy”) and Ridley Scott and Drew Goddard, director and writer of Oscar frontrunner “The Martian”; Sony’s Tom Rothman was sitting with Will Smith, star of less viable biopic “Concussion”; Universal’s cheery Jeff Shell, Ron Meyer and Donna Langley, coming off a torrid box office run, hosted writer-star Amy Schumer of “Trainwreck,” success d’estime “Steve Jobs” writer Aaron Sorkin and director Danny Boyle; and F. Gary Gray’s “Straight Outta Compton,” which is coming up on the outside; Paramount has hopes for long shots “Anomalisa” (Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson’s R-rated stop-motion critics’ fave) and Adam McKay’s starry financial meltdown comedy “The Big Short,” based on the Michael Lewis bestseller; Lionsgate is still pushing Denis Villeneuve’s intense border thriller “Sicario,” which is scoring with audiences and whose cinematographer Roger Deakins is a respected eminence grise who has never won the Oscar after 12 nominations; and Warner Bros.’ Sue Kroll and Dan Fellman supported director Scott Cooper and stars Johnny Depp (with Amber Heard) and Joel Edgerton for “Black Mass.”
This year the studio specialty divisions and indies are back in strong position, from established IFC FIlms (Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years”), Focus Features (Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” and Sarah Gavron’s “Suffragette”), Sony Pictures Classics (Lazlo Nemes’ “Son of Saul,” Paul Weisz’s “Grandma”), Weinstein Co. (Todd Hayne’s “Carol” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”), Roadside Attractions (Bill Condon’s “Mr. Holmes” and “Love & Mercy”) and Fox Searchlight (John Crowley’s “Brooklyn” and Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth”) to rising Bleecker Street (Jay Roach’s “Trumbo”), A24 (Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” James Ponsoldt’s “End of the Tour” and Asif Kapadia’s “Amy”) and Open Road (Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”).
So many contenders were working the ballroom that it was like shooting fish in a barrel: I ran into “Spotlight” director McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer on their way to join Michael Keaton. The movie is the current frontrunner, along with “The Martian,” which one studio chief described as one of those times when “everything lined up for Ridley Scott: great script, Matt Damon at his best.”
Meyer and his former lieutenant Stacey Snider, who left Universal to join Steven Spielberg at DreamWorks (which is returning to Universal), and is now running Fox under Gianopulos, were talking about how hard it is to find strong women directors. They had scanned the recently published list of 100—at least they’re thinking about it. They’re game.
Quentin Tarantino, whose “The Hateful Eight” has started screening, hung with his “Reservoir Dogs” star Harvey Keitel (“Youth”) as rising star Walton Goggins engaged with Virginia Madsen and Kurt Russell buttonholed the party’s other Russell, David. I introduced controversial “Project Greenlight” producer Effie Brown to Spike Lee and star-struck “Tangerine” discovery Mya Taylor to “Concussion” star Will Smith, who had no idea who she was. One partygoer confessed that he was thrilled to have stood at a urinal next to James Bond; “Spectre” star Daniel Craig was at the event accompanying his wife, Rachel Weisz, who posed with her “Youth” costar Jane Fonda and chum Lily Tomlin, who was sitting with “Grandma”‘s Sam Elliott. Among the senior set, Michael Caine sat with his wife at the Searchlight table, while “45 Years” stars Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling threaded their way through the crowd hand in hand. “Mr. Holmes” veteran Ian McKellen is excited to be bringing his show about all the actresses he’s worked with to Hollywood, but is worried that many in the audience actually knew them and might be offended.
David O. Russell told me that during the filming of “Silver Linings Playbook,” Jennifer Lawrence was nearing the end of “Anna Karenina” when he unwittingly spoiled it for her. She started crying and explaining what should have happened to these characters. “That’s who she is,” he said, delighted to be devoting an entire movie to her.
Gena Rowlands (“Opening Night,” “Woman Under the Influence,” ‘Gloria”) glowed as she performed her charming acceptance speech (video below), thanking her late husband and collaborator John Cassavetes, son Nick (who remembered her locking herself in a room for weeks when she studied for a role) and presenters Cate Blanchett and Laura Linney. Rowlands had a “profound influence on my work,” said Blanchett, citing her “intense authenticity. The immediacy of her acting is the closest anyone has come to capturing on film the special quality of a live stage performance.” Added Laura Linney, “She destroyed the female stereotype of her time.”
Not on site was ailing humanitarian award-winner Debbie Reynolds, an unsinkable go-getter who would have been there if she could and sounded weak in her audio acceptance speech; her gold statuette was presented by Meryl Streep and Jane Fonda and accepted by her granddaughter Billie Lourd (Carrie Fisher’s daughter with CAA partner Bryan Lourd), who promised to take it to her. (The clip reel, accompanied by “Make ‘Em Laugh” from “Singin’ in the Rain,” misrepresented the relationship between Reynolds’ collection of 3500 costumes, which she was finally forced to sell at auction a few years ago, and the Academy Museum, which could have helped her at the time more than it did.)
The Governors Awards was the weekend’s dominant event, but with so much talent in town, A24, Searchlight and Universal threw Friday soirees; after “Carol” screened to applause at the Academy Theatre for members on Saturday afternoon, I grilled the cast and crew who then changed into their black tie finery before heading East to Hollywood & Highland. Paramount hosted a Saturday Governors Awards after-party, while Open Road, Roadside Attractions, Netflix (Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation”) and Broad Green (Isabel Coixet’s “Learning to Drive”) mounted Sunday fetes.
‘Tis the season to be frenetic, at least until things calm down over the Thanksgiving holiday.