HOLLYWOOD – The Academy kicked off awards season in its own way Saturday night with the presentation of this year’s Honorary Oscars at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood. Or, as Martin Short considers them, “The highest honor an actor can receive…in mid-November.” But more on that in a moment.
This year’s class had a glitzier flare than usual with Angelina Jolie receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award and Steve Martin being one of the Honorary Oscar recipients. Angela Lansbury also finally got her hands on that elusive golden boy while legendary costumer Piero Tosi was toasted in absentia.
Jolie’s honor was the first of the evening as cast members from her 2011 directorial debut “In the Land of Blood and Honey” took to the podium in appreciation. It was an apt choice given that film’s place in the actress’ passion on behalf of helping refugees around the world. “I didn’t intend to make a movie,” Jolie said in the introductory film package, which was narrated by Morgan Freeman. “But I was frustrated by the lack of intervention.”
Actress Gena Rowlands raised a glass on stage and filmmaker George Lucas was on hand to present the honor to Jolie, who gave a solemn but heartfelt speech largely about the sense of social duty her mother instilled in her from a normal age. “Nothing would mean anything if I didn’t live a life of use to others,” Jolie recalled her mother saying to her. And being recognized in this manner was, to Jolie, evidence of that promise kept.
Next on the docket was costume designer Piero Tosi, the evening’s below-the-line honoree following such names as makeup artist Dick Cook and stunt coordinator Hal Needham in recent years. This is a particularly appropriate year to recognize someone in the field as in January the costume designers broke away from the Academy’s Designers Branch and formed their own.
A five-time Oscar nominee famed for his collaborations with Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, Tosi could not be on hand to accept the award. He has never traveled to the US, in fact. But equal legends of the form including Oscar winners Milena Canonero (Tosi’s protege) and Ann Roth, as well as branch governor Jeffrey Kurland, were on hand to sing his praises.
“For my money Piero Tosi is the greatest costume designer in the world,” Roth said in no uncertain terms. “The rest of us will chase the bar, wherever he sets it.”
On hand to accept the honor on Tosi’s behalf was none other than actress Claudia Cardinale, who Tosi has outfitted in such films as “La viaccia” and “The Leopard.” It was a true surprise that drew a standing ovation from the crowd.
There was no better seat in the house for the Steve Martin segment of the evening the one next to director Judd Apatow and “Saturday Night Live” alum Bill Hader, who laughed uncontrollably throughout the clip package and much of the tributes from such celebs as Martin Short and Tom Hanks. Indeed, Short basically turned the thing into a roast: “Steve is so pale he once got a sunburn from his Kindle Reader.” “Tonight is one of those magical nights when the one percenters come together to honor our own.” Etc. But jokes turned to sincerity as Short closed by saying to his friend, “You are a breathtakingly brilliant, staggering original. Congratulations, amigo.
Hanks presented the award, and Martin had plenty of his own jokes. “I can’t possibly express how excited I am tonight because the Botox is fresh,” he began. Or, in response to the ever-lovable Hanks, “I saw ‘Captain Phillips.’ I didn’t think it was so funny.”
Martin became caught up in the emotion when thanking his wife, for coming into his life and for bringing a child into it as well. “I knew I wasn’t going to make it through this speech when I read it to my dog this morning and wept,” he quipped. He also talked about how there had been a considerable lull in his film career, indicating that he had lost the heart for it in some way until director Nancy Meyers called him to star in her 2009 comedy “It’s Complicated” opposite Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin.
“I went out to the set, across the Queensboro Bridge on a cold winter morning on the first day of shooting,” he recalled. “I opened the door to the dark sound stage, I stepped over all those black, snaking, electric cables and walked past the craft service table that overflowed with boxes of raisins and bagels and muffins and the slowest toaster in the world, jars of M&M’s and Twizzlers for breakfast and every variety of mustard.”
[Hader was dying at this, FYI.]
“I made this little journey I had made a thousand times at every studio in the city,” Martin continued. “I walked through the corridors of these flimsy plywood flats and the light changing from black to blinding white, and I thought, ‘home.'”
The biggest hit of the night, however, had to be Angela Lansbury. After decades as a film actress who landed three Oscar nominations (the first for her on-screen debut in “Gaslight”) and an even more storied career on the stage, she finally held aloft an Oscar of her own.
Emma Thompson introduced the clip package (which brought with it the revelation that Lansbury nailed the recording of the Oscar-winning song “Beauty and the Beast” in one take) with a handful of humorous anecdotes, while Geoffrey Rush gave a wonderful toast calling the actress “the living definition of range.”
It was Turner Classic Movies’ Robert Osborne, though, who presented Lansbury the trophy. And it was an apt choice. Lansbury took to the stage and immediately thanked Osborne and TCM for “keeping her alive” all those years through the channel’s classic film programming.
The actress seemed genuinely relieved to finally have this kind of recognition from the Academy. It sure beats those years of fretting and hoping at Grauman’s Chinese Theater Oscar ceremonies all those years ago as a three-time nominee, always a bridesmaid. “What an incredible moment,” she said.
And you would be hard pressed to find anyone in the room to disagree. Indeed, most would likely echo Osborne’s introductory remarks: “I’d like to thank the Board of Governors for one of the best decisions they’ve ever made.”
Meanwhile, it’s worth pointing out that the entire room was packed to the gills with Oscar hopefuls, from Jake Gyllenhaal (“Prisoners”) to Bruce Dern (“Nebraska”), Oscar Isaac (“Inside Llewyn Davis”) to Jonah Hill (“The Wolf of Wall Street”), Michael B. Jordan (“Fruitvale Station”) to Harrison Ford (“42”). It’s the first big opportunity of the season to get talent in a room full of this many Academy members and, more and more, studios are seizing it.