Depending on which report you read, the star of Saturday evening’s Governors Awards banquet was either a glowing Angelina Jolie, a classy Steve Martin, or an ageless charmer, Angela Lansbury. They (along with costume designer Piero Tosi) were all being honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for lifetime achievement, with Jolie receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for helping refugees around the globe. The banquet is meant as a way for Hollywood to celebrate its own in relaxed fashion, away from the insanity of the Oscar broadcast. This year, however, the gathering morphed into something quite different: a chance for aspiring Oscar nominees to strut their stuff. Though the ceremony was not televised, it was preceded by a full-fledged red carpet for arrivals, and such awards hopefuls as Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Margo Martindale (August: Osage County), and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) made themselves highly available to the roving press corps. No question -- what was first conceived as a low-key party is now an early campaign stop.
Things were rather different in 2009 when director Norman Jewison kicked off the first Governors Awards festivities by exulting, “We’re gathered here together, all artists, celebrating excellence, without any television cameras. Isn’t it great!” That inaugural year, honorees included actress Lauren Bacall, cinematographer Gordon Willis, producer John Calley, and my former boss, Roger Corman. During the cocktail hour, I’m told former Cormanites stormed the hors d’oeuvres table, true to the tradition that Corman folk are always hungry, because they don’t earn enough to feed themselves properly.
Over dinner, the tributes to Roger came first, and (because no time restrictions were imposed) they dominated much of the evening. Everyone who sang his praises was an Oscar winner. First up was Ron Howard, who described himself as “a proud graduate of what I like to define as RCUPC—Roger Corman University of Profitable Cinema.” Next to speak was Quentin Tarantino, who confessed that he’d spent his growing-up years as the ultimate Corman fan. Tarantino screened clips from a range of Corman movies, including a memorable scene from X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes in which the mild-mannered scientist played by Ray Milland discovers he can now see through women’s clothing. After a spirited run-down of the Corman legacy, Tarantino brought his speech to a dramatic crescendo: “Roger, for everything that you have done for cinema, the Academy thanks you, Hollywood thanks you, independent filmmaking thanks you, but most importantly—for all the wild, weird, cool, crazy moments you’ve put on the drive-in screens—the movie-lovers of the planet Earth thank you!”
Jonathan Demme then stepped forward to praise “the power, the depth, the humanity, the social commentary, and the unbound imagination of Roger’s extraordinary body of work as an artist.” Calling the moment “the thrill of a lifetime,” he summoned Roger to the stage to accept his Oscar. Roger’s brief, elegant speech touched on film as a blend of art and commerce, then ended with a challenge: “I believe the finest films being done today are done by the original innovative filmmakers who have the courage to take a chance and to gamble. So I say to you . . . keep gambling, keep taking chances.”
The words were stirring, though some onlookers might have quietly remembered that Corman’s own years of true artistic risk-taking were far behind him. Meanwhile, attention finally turned to the evening’s other nominees. But even Warren Beatty, preparing to salute John Calley (The Remains of the Day), paused to quip, “I hadn’t realized that I really never worked with anyone who didn’t start with Roger.”
As a former Cormanite myself, I feel entitled to add a brief commercial message: you’ll find lots more about the Governors Awards banquet in the pages of my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires,Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers (new 3rd edition, available now).