Governors Awards Mix Campaigning, Calls for Action and a Long-Awaited Oscar for Diane Warren

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The Governors Awards are back, delivering seriously mixed messages on Saturday night at the Fairmont Century Plaza Hotel.

On one hand, the three-plus-hour ceremony delivered Honorary Academy Awards to directors Peter Weir and Euzhan Palcy and songwriter Diane Warren, plus the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to actor and Parkinson’s disease activist Michael J. Fox. That part of the night was both a celebration and a history lesson, leading to multiple standing ovations and some tears to boot.

On the other hand, the awards come at a time when preliminary Oscar voting will begin in about three weeks, and the lure of putting their top contenders in a room full of Academy voters and press was enough to get studios to spend in the high five figures to fill the tables crammed tightly in a huge ballroom.

It was a campaign event that also happened to hand out Academy Awards, or an Oscar ceremony that doubled as a conveniently-timed schmoozefest. The guests of honor were Weir, Palcy, Warren and Fox, and the people honoring them were Jeff Bridges, Viola Davis, Cher and Woody Harrelson – but beyond that, the room couldn’t help but focus on Cate Blanchett, Jessica Chastain, Damien Chazelle, Jennifer Connelly, Paul Dano, Guillermo del Toro, Laura Dern, Colin Farrell, Greta Gerwig, Tom Hanks, Rian Johnson, Zoe Kazan, Jennifer Lawrence, Baz Luhrmann, Carey Mulligan, Gina Prince-Bythewood, Florence Pugh, Eddie Redmayne, Margot Robbie, Adam Sandler, Jeremy Strong, Michelle Williams, Michelle Yeoh and many, many more.

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The industry’s conflicted feelings toward the Governors Awards were made pretty clear in March of this year, when the pandemic caused the show to be moved to the Friday before the Oscars. At that point, all the Oscar votes had already been cast — and lacking any reason to show up and campaign, stars and studios mostly didn’t show up at all. You could have counted the number of Oscar nominees in the room on one hand, and the studio heads in attendance consisted of Sony Pictures Classics’ Michael Barker and … well, I’m sure all the others had important things they needed to do instead.

So when the ballroom at the Fairmont Century Plaza filled to capacity on Saturday with the cast and creators of pretty much every major movie with a shot at an Oscar nomination, it was hard to pretend the would-be nominees, or the executives that released them, were all there to celebrate the artistry of Warren, Palcy and Weir, or the humanitarianism of Fox.

Still, the Governors Awards have always had a way of wresting attention away from the wannabe nominees and putting it on the night’s recipients. And it’s not as if all those contenders were doing any overt campaigning. At one point, “Babylon” director Damien Chazelle and “Armageddon Time” director James Gray could be found discussing the merits of Polish auteur Krzysztof Kieślowski, while at another “Last Film Show” director Pan Nalin gave “The Fabelmans” star Gabriel LaBelle a rundown of the rather astounding list of similarities between his film, India’s Oscar entry, and LaBelle’s movie in which the young actor plays a version of the teenage Steven Spielberg.

Elsewhere, Eddie Redmayne and Greta Gerwig discussed the pleasures and drawbacks of life in London (he lives there, while she just spent nine months shooting “Barbie” there), while Michelle Williams talked about being in town with her new baby, less than two months old, while her co-star in “The Fabelmans,” Paul Dano, and his wife, Zoe Kazan, were there with their own three-week-old baby. “They’ve been each other’s first playdates,” she said.

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The ceremony itself was introduced by Academy President Janet Yang and hosted by Mindy Kaling, whose brief opening monologue probably peaked with her comment that “A Dry White Season,” a notable film from honoree Euzhan Palcy, was “until recently, how I referred to awards season.”

Kaling then handed the proceedings over to Woody Harrelson, who got more laughs with his length introduction of Michael J. Fox. The friendship between Harrelson and Fox dates back to the 1980s, when they were on popular sitcoms “Cheers” and “Family Ties,” respectively (they joked about being “’80s famous”), and it apparently involved a fair amount of carousing. But Harrelson also got serious when he talked about Fox’s life after his diagnosis with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 29, calling him “someone whose immeasurable talent is surpassed only by the depth of his courage and his commitment to a cause.”

Fox, who arrived at the ceremony in a wheelchair, walked to the stage to receive his Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, and immediately poked fun at himself and the audience that gave him the first of the night’s many standing ovations. “Stop it,” he said as his right hand twitched on the podium. “You’re making me shake.”

Fox called the Hersholt “a wholly unexpected honor” and then talked about a history teacher who discouraged his ambition to be an actor. “He said, ‘Fox, you’re not gonna be cute forever,’” he said. “I said, ‘Maybe just long enough.’ Turns out we were both right.”

Cher came out in a miniskirt and hot pink jacket to present an honorary Oscar to Diane Warren, the first songwriter ever to receive that honor. Warren’s futility at the Academy Awards has been the stuff of legend: She’s been nominated 13 times, including seven times in the last eight years, but has never won, although few people have enjoyed being in the race as much as she has.

“Every song she writes, she calls me and says, ‘This is the greatest song I’ve ever written,’” Cher said in a video about Warren’s career – and when the video ended, the singer shared one last memory of Warren “following me into an Al-Anon meeting to play me a song.” She laughed, and held up the Honorary Oscar. “I am so thrilled to present this to you. You’ve waited so f—ing long.”

Warren took the stage to another lengthy standing ovation, looked at the Oscar and addressed her late mother. “Mom?” she said. “I finally found a man. I know you wanted him to be a nice Jewish boy, but it’s hard to tell.” Then she grinned. “I’ve waited 34 years to say this: I’d like to thank the Academy.”

The prolific songwriter teared up during her speech when talking about her parents – her father encouraged her songwriting but her mother did not – and then ended by going back to “the words I never thought I’d get to say but always hoped I would: I’d like to thank the Academy.”

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Jeff Bridges followed with a typically laconic and rambling introduction of Australian director Peter Weir, with whom he worked on “Fearless” in 2006. And Weir was just as rambling in his own speech, which included an anecdote about Robin Williams improvising a “missing chapter” of the Bible and also found the director explaining that he became known for cutting lines from his films because he didn’t like the over-emoting of Australia’s stage-trailed actors.

Then he noted the fact that his Oscar had been voted by the Academy’s Board of Governors. “Board of Governors – it’s a sound I like very much,” he said. “It has a short of medieval tinge to it.”

By choice, Weir hasn’t made a movie for the past 12 years – but the final honoree, Martinique-born director Euzhan Palcy, hasn’t done so for 30 years, since the 1992 musical “Siméon.” She was the first Black woman ever to direct a major-studio feature, with the apartheid drama “A Dry White Season” in 1989.

“As a Black woman artist, I feel I am always defending my womanhood and my Blackness,” said Viola Davis in introducing Palcy. “You said, ‘I ain’t gonna do that. I am going to wait for the work that is worthy of me.’”

Palcy, whose other films include her 1983 breakthrough “Sugar Cane Alley,” told a similar story in her own remarks. “I stepped back so I could truly stand up and stand tall,” she said. “I was so tired of being told that I was a foreigner. I was tired of being told I was the first of too many firsts, but being denied the chance to do my work.”

Later, she returned to the point more forcefully. “Why did I keep my silence? I was tired of hearing those words, ‘Black is not bankable. Female is not bankable. Black and female is not bankable.”

She paused and pointed to Davis. “C’mon, guys, look at my sister!” Davis raised her first. “Black is bankable. Female is bankable. Black and female is bankable.” And she ended with a cry for change: “Camera. Sound. And…action.”

Afterwards, crowds gathered around the four honorees, while at the back of the room “Glass Onion” director Rian Johnson talked about how great the event had been. And up front, Diane Warren posed for photos with a long string of admirers that included composers Justin Hurwitz and Carter Burwell.

Looking at the Oscar in her hand – which, unlike the competitive Oscars handed out during the Academy Awards show, was already engraved with her name – she shook her head. “Is this real?” she asked. “It’s already got my f—ing name on it!”