AMPAS honors Pennebaker, Stevens, Needham, Katzenberg at fourth annual Governors Awards

HOLLYWOOD — The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored its own tonight in the fourth annual Governors Awards. A satellite ceremony dedicated to Honorary Oscar presentations (voted on by the AMPAS Board of Governors), the program was moved off the annual Academy Awards telecast in 2009 and given its own space in the middle of awards season.

This year’s Honorary Oscar recipients were documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, AFI and Kennedy Center Honors founder George Stevens Jr. and stunt coordinator Hal Needham, while Jeffrey Katzenberg received the Jean Hersholt Award for his fundraising and philanthropy.

The evening began with Pennebaker’s presentation, as Senator Al Franken took to the stage to assist in the introduction. “We have big issues to confront,” Franken said, noting many of the pressing matters of today — fiscal crisis, healthcare, etc. “And we can’t do it unless we’re willing to tell the truth…[Pennebaker’s] films succeed because of his commitment to telling the truth.”

Following a clip package of Pennebeker’s contributions to the medium — pioneering music documentary filmmaking, using cinema vérité techniques to tell real-life stories — the Academy’s documentary branch Governor Michael Moore then approached the podium to sing praises. He compared Pennebaker’s status as a pioneer in the industry to the Lumière brothers, Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin and Fritz Lang, offering that the director “invented nothing less than the modern documentary” and particularly praising the innovation of handheld photography in his work.

“Everybody here probably already has one of these,” Pennebaker said upon receiving his Oscar. “I’m kind of trying to deal with it. But it’s hard.” He then went on to give a long, meandering speech and at one point, perhaps sensing an air of impatience, asked, “Am I going on too long?” The production’s cameras caught his wife and colleague Chris Hegedus nodding and then Will Smith casually shaking his head, “No,” which drew plenty of laughs.

“I’ll be brief,” Annette Bening said as she took the stage to introduce a clip package for George Stevens Jr., continuing the joke. She said Stevens, son of a legendary filmmaker and indeed, a man with show business in his blood, has “elevated the art of honoring others” with his founding of the American Film Institute and the Kennedy Center Honors.

Sidney Poitier also participated in Stevens’s presentation. “When you work with George Stevens, art and activism are never far apart,” he said.

Stevens gave a touching speech about a life lived surrounded by the entertainment industry. The night made him think back to the first time he ever saw an Oscar, on the night of March 15, 1944. It was the Academy Awards and his father was nominated for directing “The More the Merrier.” But he was serving overseas in the war and so George Jr. was on hand to accept on his behalf, should he win. He was all set to do just that, but unfortunately, he had never heard of a film called “Casablanca.” He recalled that when Michael Curtiz’s name was called, he shouted, “We was robbed!” Tonight, though, “I can’t say I was robbed,” he said.

The liveliest segment of the night had to be Hal Needham’s presentation. Quentin Tarantino was one of the presenters, noting immediately the importance of stunt coordinators in the industry and that only one other member of that fraternity — Yakima Canutt — had been recognized by the Academy over the years. Indeed, stunt men and women have been angling for their own category at the Academy Awards to no avail for years, and Needham’s recognition has largely been seen as a bone thrown in their direction.

Still, the honor is deserved. Needham has broken 56 bones, his back twice, punctured a lung and innovated all sorts of stunt technology for the betterment of filmmakers the world over. And he was responsible for “one of the most enjoyable first-directed films ever made,” Tarantino said of “Smokey and the Bandit,” Needham’s directorial debut — “a real southern movie that understood the south.”

Producer Albert Ruddy came out to tell a few stories and brought the house down with one about an accidental missile launch on the Samuel Goldwyn Studio that burned an entire stage down that was playing host to Herbert Ross’s “Pennies From Heaven.”

“You’re looking at the luckiest man alive,” Needham said, “and lucky to be alive.” He fought back tears speaking of his mother, who he said was surely looking down on the evening with pride.

Finally, Will Smith and Tom Hanks took part in presenting Jeffrey Katzenberg with the Jean Hersholt honor. “Jeffery has no problem asking you for too much money,” Smith quipped about the studio magnate’s fundraising prowess. But, he said, “Jeffrey has proven it’s not how much you give but how you give. I want to be like you when I grow up.”

Hanks made mention of Katzenberg’s efforts to launch a telethon in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. “He said we need to try something new and different, we have to break the rules,” Hanks said. “And he set a standard for the way Americans help out America in times of need…Jeffrey Katzenberg doesn’t have to do all these things, but Jeffrey Katzenberg cannot help but do all these things.”

Katzenberg noted that it was Kirk Douglas who taught him “you haven’t learned to live if you haven’t learned to give.” But he also noted that he should really deflect much of the credit to the Hollywood community that has assisted his humanitarian efforts over the years. “It’s you who did it,” he said, “you who gave your time and money. That’s what Hollywood does.”

The evening brought out the industry’s A-list, including filmmakers Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann and Robert Zemeckis as well as stars like Warren Beatty, Kristen Stewart, Leslie Mann and more.