Many of the movie industry's biggest names came out to pay tribute to an eclectic group of honorees at the Academy's fourth annual Governors Awards held on December 1 at the Hollywood & Highland Center's Ray Dolby Ballroom. Famous friends and colleagues gathered for an unforgettable evening of laughter, fun, and affection to celebrate the indelible contributions of honorees D.A. Pennebaker, George Stevens Jr., Hal Needham, and Jeffrey Katzenberg to filmmaking and the world.
Attendees were greeted with a gala cocktail reception including performances by a jazz quartet, followed by an official welcome from Academy President Hawk Koch. A video clip saluted the history of the Academy's Honorary Award, which was begun in 1948 to honor achievements outside the categories of the existing Oscars. This year, three honorees received Honorary Awards for their work, which ranged from Needham's death-defying stunts to Pennebaker's groundbreaking documentaries and Stevens' landmark film preservation, while Katzenberg was recognized for his trailblazing philanthropic efforts.
Seated near Koch were Seth MacFarlane, host of the 85th Academy Awards ceremony, as well as the show's producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. Also present were a number of notable faces including Richard Gere, Amy Adams, Helen Hunt, Bradley Cooper, Ewan McGregor, John Krasinski, David O. Russell, Kathryn Bigelow, John Lasseter, Robert Zemeckis, Judd Apatow, Leslie Mann, Sean Hayes, Kristen Stewart, and many more. A toast from Koch signaled the beginning of the evening's dinner, a creation from the famous Wolfgang Puck featuring roasted filet mignon. Then the official presentations began as Senator Al Franken, subject of the documentary "Al Franken: God Spoke" (2006), took to the stage to share his thoughts on the evening's first recipient, D.A Pennebaker, "who redefined the language of film and taught a generation of filmmakers to look to reality for inspiration."
A pioneering force in cinéma vérité thanks to his innovative portable synchronized camera and sound recording system, Pennebaker made waves with music-oriented documentaries like Don't Look Back (1967), an intimate portrait of Bob Dylan, and the epic concert film that defined a generation, Monterey Pop (1969). His 1973 David Bowie film Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars continued his zeitgeist-capturing streak which continued with a longstanding collaboration with his wife, Chris Hegedus. Among their achievements are the Oscar-nominated The War Room (1993), which took a bold look inside Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign, and other documentaries like Depeche Mode 101 (1989), Moon over Broadway (1998), and Kings of Pastry (2010). Following Franken's introduction, Michael Moore, the Oscar-winning director such films as Roger & Me (1989) and Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Governor of the Academy's Documentary Branch took the stage to present Pennebaker with his award. Moore noted Pennebaker revolutionized documentaries by taking the camera off the tripod, and choosing to "write the movie after it was shot." To the accompaniment of Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," Pennebaker took to the stage and thanked many including his wife - "the love of my life" and "the partner I was always looking for" - recalling a life spent capturing reality on film in a way no one had ever achieved before.
Annette Bening, a Governor for the Academy's Actors Branch, introduced a newly-created short film by Davis Guggenheim covering the life and careers of the next recipient, George Stevens, Jr., who was commended as "a tireless champion of the arts in America and especially that most American of arts: the Hollywood film." The son of the famed director of A Place in the Sun and Giant (about whom he made the acclaimed 1984 documentary, George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey), Stevens grew up around Hollywood sets and, after considering a career as a sportswriter, oversaw the production of hundreds of documentaries as part of the United States Information Agency including the Oscar-winning 1963 short, "The Five Cities of June." As a founding director of the American Film Institute and co-creator of the Kennedy Center Honors, he helped launch watershed preservation efforts, film programs, and recognition for performing artists in many disciplines. Complete with the familiar fanfare from the Kennedy Center Honors, Stevens's award was presented by Oscar-winning actor Sidney Poitier, who had the privilege of working for both Stevens and his father on separate film productions and praised Stevens for proving that, "Art and activism are never very far apart."
Stevens's acceptance speech included a memorable recollection of his childhood experience going to Grauman's Chinese Theatre for the 16th Academy Awards, where his father lost Best Director to Michael Curtiz for Casablanca. "We was robbed!" exclaimed the young boy, but as noted on this special night, he was far from robbed now and was happy to look to a current moviemaking community with new films that will stand the test of time thanks to "filmmakers among us who will swim into the currents.
The evening then shifted gears for the third recipient, stuntman and director Hal Needham, whose moment in the spotlight began with a tribute from writer/director Quentin Tarantino. A lifelong admirer whose spectacular car chase in Death Proof (2007) was inspired by Needham's go-for-broke attitude, Tarantino praised the director's work with Burt Reynolds as well as his distinctive contributions to the 1975 western Take a Hard Ride from one of Tarantino's favorite directors, Antonio Margheriti. Also on hand to salute Needham were 23-year-old Logan Holladay, the newest member of the Needham-founded Stunts Unlimited, and Albert S. Ruddy, Oscar-winning producer of The Godfather (1972), who shared a hilarious story about a spectacular mishap with a missile during production of the Needham-directed Megaforce (1982).
To the rambunctious rhythms of "East Bound & Down" from Needham's hit directorial debut, Smokey and the Bandit, Needham accepted his award as "an innovator, mentor, and master technician who elevated his craft to an art and made the impossible look easy." He said he always regarded his career as great fun whether it involved falling off of horses, dodging explosions, or tearing along dirt roads at high speed, and his spectacular vehicular work can be seen in such films as White Lightning (1973) and Gator (1976) as well as his other directorial projects like Hooper (1978) and The Cannonball Run (1981). Teary-eyed, Needham recalled a memorable inauguration into the business thanks to his first production working with Billy Wilder on The Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and touchingly exclaimed, "My mama's looking down with a big smile on her face."
The final award of the evening was the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award given to Jeffrey Katzenberg, "who has led our community in enlightened philanthropy by his extraordinary example." Involved in philanthropy since his adolescence, Katzenberg has continued to give back throughout his career including his roles as vice president of feature production at Paramount, chairman of film production at Walt Disney Studios, and co-founder of DreamWorks SKG and current CEO of DreamWorks Animation. Katzenberg's generosity has never flagged through the years, whether as Founding Chairman of the Motion Picture & Television Fund or co-founder of the Marilyn & Jeffrey Katzenberg Foundation with his wife.
Two famous actors who have worked on Katzenberg's live-action and animated productions over the years were on hand to welcome him to the microphone. First was Will Smith, star of such DreamWorks productions as Shark Tale (2004) and The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), who humorously demonstrated the difference between Katzenberg phone calls to talk about business or ask for a sizable charitable contribution. Then, Oscar winner Tom Hanks, a Governor for the Academy's Actors Branch, explained how Katzenberg's fundraising prowess had served him well in the "raucous jungle" of both New York City and Los Angeles while his landmark charity event in the wake of 9/11 "set a standard for how America helps out Americans in times of need." As Smashmouth's "I'm a Believer" from Shrek greeted him, Katzenberg rose from the table he shared with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to accept the award, then delivered a moving speech in which he thanked mentors throughout his life ranging from his parents to one of the evening's guests at his table, Kirk Douglas. He mentioned that Douglas had inspired him with the advice, "You haven't learned to live until you've learned to give."
As the night's four honorees reunited for a group photo on the stage at the close of the evening, each man's words continued to resound and providing an inspiring example to future generations of filmmakers and benefactors to come.
The Governors Awards ceremony was produced by Don Mischer, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Charlie Haykel, and Julianne Hare, and highlights from the evening were presented when the recipients appeared as part of the 85th Academy Awards on February 24, 2013.