Oscar hopefuls work the room at Academy’s Governors Awards

HOLLYWOOD – The 6th annual Governors Awards were held in the Ray Dolby Ballroom in the middle of Hollywood Saturday night. Previously announced honorees Maureen O'Hara, Hayao Miyazaki, Jean-Claude Carrière and Harry Belafonte were of course on hand as the room teemed with familiar faces from this year's Oscar race. Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch, Richard Linklater, Logan Lerman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Aniston, Patricia Arquette, Jean-Marc Vallée, Tilda Swinton, Oscar Isaac and Eddie Redmayne were just a few of the circuit's fixtures working the room, as the show has become a perennial stop on the Oscar campaign trail.

“A Most Violent Year” director J.C. Chandor could be spotted talking over his upcoming Deepwater Horizon project with “The Gambler” star Mark Wahlberg. Clint Eastwood made his first appearance of the season with “American Sniper” around the corner (and was of course besieged upon arrival, ever the popular one). “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and star David Oyelowo excitedly posed for a photo with Harry Belafonte. Even fringe awards hopefuls like Kevin Costner (“Black or White”) and Michelle Monaghan (“Fort Bliss”) were on hand. It was, to steal a phrase, all happening.

The night's first honoree was the legendary actress Maureen O'Hara, who was introduced by Eastwood and actor Liam Neeson. She paid specific tribute to three men who she deemed responsible for her career: Charles Laughton, John Wayne and “that old devil himself,” director John Ford. “I'm honored beyond words,” O'Hara said. “Thank you with all my heart, and I'll leave you with this old Irish saying: May the road rise to meet you, the wind be always at your back and may the sun shine warmly upon your face.”

Earlier in the evening, “A Most Violent Year” and “Interstellar” star Jessica Chastain made a beeline for O'Hara, who she counts as a major inspiration. “I like female characters who are strong but still vulnerable, and she did that all the time,” she told me after the event.

Miyazaki made the rare appearance at an event such as this. He didn't even make it out to accept his own Oscar for “Spirited Away” in 2003, so it was pretty special to see him take the stage. Indeed, earlier in the night “How to Train Your Dragon 2” producer Bonnie Arnold and director Dean Deblois commented to me how excited they were to be in the same room with the legendary animator. Miyazaki's friend and fellow animator John Lasseter introduced him, calling the director “the most original filmmaker to ever work in our medium.”

“My wife tells me that I'm a very lucky man,” Miyzaki said through an interpreter. “I think I've been lucky because I've been able to participate in the last era when you can make films with paper, pencil and film. Another fact of luck is that my country has not been at war for the 50 years that I have been making films. Of course, we profited from wars, but we are very fortunate that we have not had to go to war ourselves. But my greatest luck is that I've been able to meet Ms. Maureen O'Hara today. So I'm so happy and feel so blessed with luck in my life. Thank you.”

Screenwriter Carrière, presented by director Philip Kaufman captured the hearts of fellow writers throughout the room, surely, with a touching ode to his fellow sufferers. “I would like to say something about the fact that this Oscar goes to a screenwriter,” he began. “I'm very happy of this, because very often screenwriters are forgotten, or ignored. They are like shadows passing through the history of cinema. Their names do not appear in the reviews. Very sad. But still, they are filmmakers. That's why tonight I'd like to share this priceless little statue with all my colleagues, the ones I know, the ones I don't know, from all over the world. So we all thank you.”

But it was Belafonte who ended things on a sobering and powerful note. But first, Chris Rock was there to co-introduce the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award winner with Susan Sarandon and he had material ready to go. “It's nice to have a black president America still likes,” the comedian and “Top Five” director quipped regarding Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. And then, boom went the dynamite: “Clint Eastwood had a GREAT Tuesday!”

But Belafonte was pure class as he took to the stage. He was there, of course, for his work in human and social rights activism, and so he recalled a bit of Hollywood's dodgy history, from the racism and national acceptance of D.W. Griffith's “Birth of a Nation” to the racial subtext of “Tarzan of the Apes.”

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“I really wish I could be around to see what Hollywood does with the rest of the century,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe, it could be civilization's game changer. After all, Paul Robeson said artists are the radical voice of civilization. Each and every one of you in this room with your gift and your power and your skills could perhaps change the way in which our global humanity mistrusts itself. Perhaps we as artists and as visionaries can influence citizens everywhere in the world to see the better side of who and what we are as a species.”

This year's honorary Oscar recipients will again be acknowledged at the 87th annual Academy Awards on Feb. 22, 2015.