A host of filmmaking’s finest turned out as four pioneering talents of world cinema and one visionary new achievement were honored at the 9th Annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Governors Awards on November 11, 2017, at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood. Academy President John Bailey welcomed the crowd for an evening of celebration with the Academy’s 17 branches and its Governors, noting that this is the Academy’s ninetieth year and calling for everyone in the room to help foster new talent inspired by the accomplishments of these honorees.
The first toast of the evening was given by three-time Oscar winner, Irving G. Thalberg Award recipient and Academy Governor Steven Spielberg, who felt that the evening’s recipients inspired us “to reach higher, to dream larger, to be greater.” Following a performance of Diane Warren’s “I Was Here” by Sheléa, the first honoree, Owen Roizman, was celebrated by Daryn Okada, a Governor from the Cinematographers Branch, as a force who “shattered the notion that a successful movie had to be shot in a traditional Hollywood style.” Roizman, Okada recalled, was behind the lensing of the first two R-rated movies he saw in theaters, The French Connection (1971) and The Exorcist (1973). Director Lawrence Kasdan took to the podium and noted that Roizman, who has five Oscar nominations to his credit, also including Network (1976), Tootsie (1982) and Wyatt Earp (1994), is a dear friend who changed movies forever with his uncanny knack for melding location and genre in revolutionary new combinations of imagery and story. Actor Dustin Hoffman, who collaborated with Roizman on Tootsie and Straight Time (1978), revealed that the cinematographer “knows how to cut across film genres” and is a resourceful talent who conquered a challenging Tootsie makeup problem. A visibly moved Roizman himself fondly recalled getting his start in Hollywood with director William Friedkin and said, “I’m grateful for all of these wonderful collaborators I’ve had over the years who have contributed to the composition, focus, lighting and movement of my work.”
A legend of French cinema often referred to as the “grandmother of the French New Wave,” Agnès Varda was given a double salute by Directors Branch Governor Kimberly Peirce and Documentary Branch Governor Kate Amend, who called her films “an eye-opening revelation” and a shining example for many filmmakers over the years – including a raunchy anecdote about how the X rating initially awarded to Peirce’s Boys Don’t Cry (1999) was indebted to Varda’s cinema. Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain found that Varda “has somehow managed to remain on the cutting edge” for over sixty years of filmmaking with a voice rooted in female rebelliousness. Oscar winner and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipient Angelina Jolie presented the Honorary Award to Varda after summarizing some of her many beautiful career successes in both fictional narrative and documentary films,which she achieved “with a touch as deft and original as when she first picked up a camera.” Varda herself, self-deprecating as always, thanked her fellow French industry luminaries in attendance as well as her family—and cheerfully shared memories of waking up before dawn in France to watch the Oscars, and now finding herself as vibrant and dynamic as ever in “Oscarland.”
Though it’s a rare occasion, a Special Award was presented to a unique achievement that helped to push the language of cinema forward: Carne y Arena, an immersive virtual reality installation about the harrowing immigration experience into the United States. The brainchild of director Alejandro González Iñárritu, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, producer Mary Parent and visual effects house ILM, the work was hailed by Gregory Nava, a Governor-at-large from the Writers Branch, as “a compelling plea not to build walls of hatred and fear but to build bridges of compassion and understanding.” Iñárritu accepted the Oscar, looking thrilled about sharing the evening with “four great masters” and dedicating the recognition to the army of artists and technicians who made this new kind of cinematic experience possible as a statement against the damage abstract ideologies can inflict on real people in need of connection beyond borders.
A Governor of the Directors Branch and an Oscar nominee, Reginald Hudlin was the first to toast honoree Charles Burnett, whose revelatory independent film, Killer of Sheep (1978), has taken its place as a major work of American cinema. Actors Tessa Thompson and Chadwick Boseman further explained how Burnett’s microscopic budgets resulted in films that are a “tutorial in natural, realistic performance” as well as a guiding light for African-American filmmakers at a time with far too few examples in sight. Independent filmmaker Sean Baker remarked how he was impacted by Burnett’s work as an NYU student himself, and finally, Oscar-nominated director Ava DuVernay presented the Oscar by noting her first encounter with Burnett at a film festival where he gave her advice that was like “fuel” to her as an artist. Accepting his award, Burnett recalled being at UCLA when people of color were far less visible, a place that gave him access to excellent teachers and open dialogue about how to tell stories on film as a means for social change outside the Hollywood system. He also shared a major incident in his life as a boy when a junior high teacher told him, “You are not going to be anything” – Burnett hopes he’s reading the trades now!
The final presentation of the evening to actor Donald Sutherland began with Actors Branch Governor and Oscar winner Whoopi Goldberg, who lauded his singular ability to “take you to a place you don’t want to go” and make you “pay attention” to everything they do as “one of the greatest magicians ever.” Actor Colin Farrell amusingly noted his first encounter with the actor preparing for a role in Capetown and singled out Sutherland as the screen’s first hippie with his role in Kelly’s Heroes (1970), while Ron Meyer, from the Board of Trustees of the Academy Museum, lovingly recalled his time as Sutherland’s agent for nearly twenty years and told a story about the actor’s uncanny real-life intuition. Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, who starred with Sutherland in the series of The Hunger Games films, related how “he did all kinds of parts and made them all different and very much his own” throughout the course of a stellar career including M*A*S*H (1970), Klute (1971), Don’t Look Now (1973), and Ordinary People (1980). Sutherland himself shared a cherished overseas culinary memory about how John Bailey, his Ordinary People cinematographer, notified him of his selection as a recipient at the Governors Awards, which prompted a hilarious reaction from his wife. “This is very important to me,” he said of his Oscar, “and to my family. It’s like a door has opened and a cool breath of fresh air has come in.” It’s a refreshing feeling that will linger long beyond this magical evening with a host of movie pioneers who will continue to influence generations to come.