Like many other movie lovers and purists, I was upset when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that it would be removing all honorary awards from its Oscar broadcast in 2010. This was often the highlight of the show for me, though I realize that it must have been boring for viewers who don’t care about movie history. The Academy promised it would stage an elegant event in November that would bestow even more honorary awards than usual in a given year.
Last weekend the Academy lived up to its promise by mounting a classy and memorable evening to honor four movie notables: producer-director Roger Corman, actress Lauren Bacall, cinematographer Gordon Willis, and producer-executive John Calley, who was given the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award.
By any measure, it was a wonderful evening. Everyone I spoke to agreed that the ability to make full, often personal presentations without a giant clock ticking away made the event truly meaningful, for the recipients and for the audience.
My wife and I felt extremely lucky to be included. Most of the people who attended were industry honchos and veterans, the very people who make up the Academy membership. (Pundits often talk about “the Academy,” especially around Oscar time, as if it is some kind of monolith, when in fact it is made up of all kinds of people—with a wide range of taste and opinions.) We sat at an interesting table with former Academy president Arthur Hiller (director of The Americanization of Emily, Hospital, and so many more), 20th Century Fox distribution exec Bruce Snyder, Oscar-winning costume designer Albert Wolsky (All That Jazz, Bugsy) and his colleague and friend Susan Kowarsh, who was—
—married to the late cinematographer Conrad Hall. Finally, an elderly lady at the table was introduced to me as Mary Blakeley, but I knew her as Mary Carlisle, ingénue of so many 1930s films. As you can see, we were in great company.
There were Oscar wannabes in attendance as well: Gabourey Sidibe, the impressive young star of Precious, Tom Ford, the fashion designer who’s just directed his first film, A Single Man, actress Abbie Cornish, of Bright Star, and actor Christophe Waltz, who made such a strong impression in Inglourious Basterds.
I feel bad for fellow movie fans who will only see glimpses of the event on the Oscar show, but at a time when traditions are eroding, ratings are at stake, and patience is scarce, I think the Academy has found a perfect compromise. More than one speaker remarked how great it was not to have television cameras hovering in every corner—or, to quote Warren Beatty, “nobody’s worrying whether 36.5 million people are watching or 29.2.”
In fact, the most unusual aspect of the Governor’s Awards event was its anti-establishment tone. Following enthusiastic speeches by Ron Howard, Quentin Tarantino, and Jonathan Demme, Roger Corman graciously accepted his award and talked about the need to get away from tentpole movies and expensive sequels. He encouraged independent filmmakers to “keep gambling” and “take chances.” Amen to that. (I daresay Corman had the most colorful group of guests at his table, filled with former coworkers including directors Joe Dante, Allan Arkush, Peter Bogdanovich, Lewis Teague, Amy Jones, and Curtis Hanson, producer Jon Davison, and actors Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson.)
Gordon Willis’ award was a form of reparations, one might say, for the snubbing he suffered in the 1970s from the West Coast-dominated cinematographer’s branch of the Academy. How could they not nominate the man who photographed The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Annie Hall, and Manhattan? In his lengthy toast to the Master, cameraman Caleb Deschanel told of diehard New Yorker Willis’ loud and disparaging remarks about Hollywood over the years. They cost him dearly, in terms of official recognition, but the Academy finally made amends with this honorary Oscar.
Lauren Bacall is one of those rare actresses who became a star in her first movie role, opposite Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not. No one could have predicted the trajectory of her life, with a sudden detour from New York to Hollywood before she turned 20, and a lasting, loving relationship with her leading man. But Bacall proved to be a survivor, reinventing herself more than once and growing into a mature and commanding character actress. She was feted by her old friend (and costar) Kirk Douglas, with whom she attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York back in the 1940s, and by Anjelica Huston, whose father was on location with Bogart (and Bacall, who tagged along) making The African Queen when he learned of his daughter’s birth.
John Calley is one of those studio executives whose name is always spoken of with respect and near-reverence: a man who has thrived in a cutthroat business while never abandoning his instincts or his good taste. Poor health kept him from attending the awards evening, so seven prior recipients of the Thalberg Award took to the stage: Dino De Laurentiis, Walter Mirisch, Norman Jewison, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Warren Beatty. I’d call that a pretty impressive lineup. Tom Hanks then made the formal presentation, and Spielberg accepted the Oscar on Calley’s behalf.
Yes, this was an A-list event where Hollywood’s best and brightest came to celebrate great lives and careers. There was no tension, no talk of box-office, no crush of media. It served as a reminder of what the Academy stands for, and it was a glorious occasion.