The Academy’s 7th Annual Governors Awards turned the spotlight on a trio of remarkable honorees on November 14, 2015 at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood. A groundbreaking directorial voice, an acting powerhouse of American independent film, and a show business performing legend were all given their moment with a stunning roster of presenters, performers and attendees.
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs opened the evening with a touching tribute to the lives of French citizens lost the night before, an event whose shock waves were still lingering in the air and which was referenced several times throughout the night. Isaacs also discussed plans for the Academy’s new initiative, A2020, a five-year move to increase film industry diversity in front of and behind the camera, before she toasted the nominees who also represented the diversity of the filmmaking community. “These three remarkable artists, and their exceptional contributions to our profession, are an inspiration to all of us,” she remarked. “To the three of you, thank you, for your outstanding bodies of work and the legacies you have given us.”
A host of notables attended the event including Joan Allen, Danny Boyle, Michael Caine, Steve Carell, Patricia Clarkson, Common, Bill Condon, Bryan Cranston, John Cusack, Paul Dano, Benicio Del Toro, Ava DuVernay, Joel Edgerton, Ice Cube, Roger Deakins, Idris Elba, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Michael Keaton, Brie Larson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Melissa Leo, Rooney Mara, Helen Mirren, Michael Moore, Carey Mulligan, Charlotte Rampling, Saoirse Ronan, Mark Ruffalo, Amy Schumer, Jason Segel, Michael Sheen, Will Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Marisa Tomei, Lily Tomlin, Rachel Weisz and many more.
The first presentation, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award given to Debbie Reynolds, began with Zooey Deschanel’s heartfelt performance of the Oscar-nominated song “Tammy” from the film Tammy and the Bachelor. Two-time Oscar winner Jane Fonda offered the first toast to Reynolds, who was unable to attend the ceremony. Fonda saluted “the outstanding work she has done outside her ‘day job’ to improve our city, our country, and our world.” Among Reynolds’ accomplishments are decades of advocacy about the issue of mental illness as a founding member of The Thalians, which has contributed millions to helping military veterans recover from combat – with one veteran, Joey Paulk, in attendance as an honored guest. The second toast to Reynolds came from three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, who shared her admiration for the honoree’s decades-long dedication to preserving the iconic work of film artists in Hollywood including costumes, photographs and props from beloved films, making her “a preserver of Hollywood’s treasures.” Reynolds’ family was in attendance including Carrie and Todd Fisher, while the award was accepted by her granddaughter, Billie Lourd.
Two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett toasted the next honoree, Honorary Award recipient Gena Rowlands, by explaining that “she makes me forget entirely that she’s not actually inside my brain. Until seeing her on film, I had never experienced this style of acting.” Likewise, three-time Oscar nominee Laura Linney applauded the room for finally “waving the Gena Rowlands flag high.” “Here is a modern woman,” she remarked, with “ferocity and grace combined” she experienced when they worked together on the 2001 made-for-television film, Wild Iris.
The Oscar itself was presented by her son, Nick Cassavetes, who directed her in The Notebook (2004) and offered a string of adjectives to describe her combination of femininity and indomitable strength. He also recalled growing up in a household with her and John Cassavetes, which at times turned his bedroom into an editing room. “First Oscar in the family,” he exclaimed, “and I say it’s about damn time!”
“You know what’s wonderful about being an actress?” Rowlands asked the audience. “You don’t just live one life - yours - you live many lives. And, for that, we have to thank the writers.” After sharing a memorable working experience with Bette Davis early in her career, Rowlands revealed plans for her Oscar: “I’ll find a wonderful place for him to sit. Maybe on the piano. And then everyone who comes to my house will have a chance to see him, and admire him, and love him, the way I do.”
The evening’s second musical performance was a rendition of “A Change Is Gonna Come,” prominently featured in the film Malcolm X, performed here by Aloe Blacc for Honorary Award recipient Spike Lee. Blaac was forever changed by the song, which played a powerful role in the film and was performed by him for his first demo that earned him a record deal.
Lee’s Oscar was presented in high style by a trio of actors he helped bring to prominence. Wesley Snipes offered a comical recounting of attending the Oscars and trying to go with Lee to the Governors Ball after the ceremony, while two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington applauded Lee affectionately as “our partner, poet, phenomenon and pain.” The high spirits continued as Samuel L. Jackson recalled starting off with Washington in A Soldier’s Play on stage and nabbing successive supporting roles in Lee’s films including Do the Right Thing (1989) and opposite Washington again in Mo’ Better Blues (1990).
Walking to the stage in Oscar-appropriate gold Air Jordans, Lee explained how he became a filmmaker thanks to a fateful summer in 1977, the Summer of Sam he later turned into a 1999 film, when the acquisition of a Super 8 camera and film put him on the path that would determine the course of his life including studying at NYU and winning a Student Academy Award. He also acknowledged Washington’s observation that he has brought a record amount of black artists to prominence both as actors and technicians over the course of his career, a mission he had always intended to accomplish. He also offered some advice to anyone who wants to become a filmmaker that he learned the hard way after assuming offers would come pouring in after his Student Academy Award. “There’s no such thing as an overnight success,” he said. “Attack, attack, attack!”