Pete Hammond

Flight director Robert Zemeckis was sitting next to me at Saturday’s fourth annual Governors Awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences saluting Hal Needham, George Stevens Jr., D.A. Pennebaker, and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian winner Jeffrey Katzenberg. He asked what I thought the news coming out of tonight would be. I quickly replied, “It’s become a very big place, perhaps the biggest in the season, for Oscar campaigning.” No question since this very important event is taking place closer than ever to official Academy voting (which begins December 17th and runs through January 3rd – 10 days earlier than usual). So contenders were out in force. What better place to be seen than in a room full of Academy voters? “Now it begins. This is the first really big one of the season,”  one studio marketing executive said about the very impressive turnout.

Related: Honorary Oscars Ignore Veteran Actors For Industry Insiders

Zemeckis noted the heavy studio presence making a big difference in star turnout. Studios this year have more Oscar hopefuls than usual, and many potential nominees eager to talk were at those tables: Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal and co-star Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty); director Juan Antonio Bayona, stars Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland (The Impossible); Bradley Cooper, Jacki Weaver, director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook); director Nicholas Jarecki, star Richard Gere (Arbitrage); John Krasinski, Rosemarie DeWitt (Promised Land); John Hawkes, Helen Hunt, director Ben Lewin (The Sessions); writer Tony Kushner, director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln); director Tom Hooper, Producer Eric Fellner (Les Misérables); Omar Sy (The Intouchables);  Judd Apatow and Leslie Mann (This Is 40); director Joe Wright (Anna Karenina); Kristen Stewart (On The Road); Amy Adams (The Master); Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas (The Dark Knight Rises); Writer Chris Terrio (Argo); Quentin Tarantino (Django Unchained). And this is just a partial list.

Tarantino had come directly to the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood And Highland Center from his DGA screening  of awards-buzzed Django Unchained. The violent spaghetti western homage had not screened in its finished form to an audience anywhere until Saturday afternoon – and it reportedly received two standing ovations, immediately erasing fears that it wouldn’t be ready in time for its Christmas Day release or that it was over-hyped as a serious contender. Twitter reaction is pretty ecstatic, too. Tarantino was clearly in a good mood, saying it was the first time he was able to screen the film to anyone other than the same “8 people” who’ve seen it over and over. “It was really great. They seemed to get all the jokes, and it played very well,” he told me. “You have to see this film,” Sony Chairman Amy Pascal told me as I came over to talk to Tarantino. (Sony has international on the film while The Weinstein Company retains domestic rights.) Film nerd that he blissfully is, Tarantino seemed just as excited when Governors awardee Needham came up to say hello. “I think Smokey And The Bandit is one of the best first-directed features to this day. And it is a real Southern film,” he said to the honoree he would later be toasting. Bradley Cooper, attending his first Governors Awards, noted how great it is that events like these allow people in the industry to talk to others they really admire and respect. Of course the real reason for this event was so the industry could take a good deal of time to honor their own with the highest awards they can bestow.

It made for quite an emotional night. Academy President Hawk Koch began the evening describing the congratulatory phone calls he made telling the four recipients that they had just been voted an Oscar. “I can still hear D.A. Pennebaker asking in disbelief, ‘Are you kidding?’ And George Stevens Jr saying, ‘Oh my God!’ True to form, Hal Needham gave a giant ‘Woo hoo!’ And Jeffrey Katzenberg, believe it or not, was speechless,” Koch said before describing what the evening (flawlessly produced by Don Mischer, Cheryl Boone Issacs, Charlie Haykel, Juliane Hare) was really all about. “The definition of who deserves an Honorary Oscar is simple. Each one of these people we are honoring tonight has made a difference to every single person in the film community, here in Hollywood, and all over the world. They have redefined our art form. They have changed how our movies are made and the impact on our lives.”

Next came a one-hour dinner break which became the Super Bowl of table-hopping as overworked awards consultants made sure their contenders were moving around the room for meets and greets with the Academy crowd.

After dinner U.S. Senator Al Franken came on to extoll the virtues of 87-year old documentary filmmaking legend D.A. Pennebaker, whose career spans music docs for the likes of Bob Dylan and David Bowie to penetrating political docs like 1960′s Primary and The War Room. One of his films even profiled Franken himself (2007′s Al Franken: God Spoke). “He was a pioneer in the use of cinéma vérité and the use of moving, even jerky, camera moves  that has changed the way filmmakers shoot their movies. And his body of work has influenced us all, not just because he’s a great filmmaker but because his films feel so honest and true,” said Franken. Academy Documentary Governor Michael Moore echoed those sentiments in introducing Pennebaker by saying, ”Tonight we are honoring a man who invented the modern documentary.” The night’s first honoree,Pennebaker said referring to the Oscar, “Everyone here probably has one of these already… New York is a long way from here and people who make films in New York never even expect to go to Oscarland, much less even get one. And there’s also the distance between the 16MM and 35MM and the 70 film, so it’s a long stretch – and being here now I am trying to kind of deal with it. It’s hard.”  His speech ran very long but was sincere so the audience went with it. But even he asked if he was overstaying his welcome.

Academy Governor Annette Bening introduced Honorary Oscar winner George Stevens Jr, saying there’s no single word that describes this man of many talents and strong Hollywood heritage who founded AFI and later the Kennedy Center Honors. “He has elevated the act of honoring others and made it a sublime art. He is a true enthusiast for the art of film in all its forms and we have all benefitted from his dogged determination to preserve, promote, and elevate filmmaking,” she said. Sidney Poitier then appeared to a standing ovation and spoke of his long friendship and association with Stevens Jr. who directed him in the TV movie Separate But Equal. Stevens spoke a terrific thank you, telling of going to the Oscars several times including once when his father won for directing A Place In The Sun in 1951. “On the way home I sat next to him in the car with the Oscar between us on the seat. He said, ‘We will have a better idea what kind of film this is in the next 25 years.’ He was talking about the test of time… I thank Dad for that and opening the door for me to a creative life that that has been so rich, and gifted me with so many wonderful friends in our profession,” he said as he clutched his brand new Academy Award.

Perhaps the liveliest presentation was to stunt man/director Hal Needham whom presenter Tarantino noted was only the second stunt person to receive an Oscar. (The first going to legendary Yakima Canutt.) Producer Albert S. Ruddy followed Tarantino with an absolutely hilarious tale about the making of a Needham film called Megaforce which caused major destruction on the Goldwyn lot where it was shooting. A very large missile built for the film inadvertently misfired sending a giant hole into an adjacent stage that then burned down. That didn’t stop Needham, who continued making the film despite personal injury and calamity. (“It was a very interesting movie. When you say ‘interesting’ as a producer it means it didn’t make any money,” Ruddy joked.) “You’re looking at the luckiest man alive and lucky to be alive,” said Needham in an emotional acceptance in which he also remembered his late mother. He told of early jobs including a fortuitous budget meeting with director Billy Wilder on his first gig as a stuntman, The Spirit Of St. Louis. “I want to thank the entire Hollywood community for allowing me to be a part of it.”

Last up was Katzenberg whose presentation also was responsible for the biggest starpower of the night (Spielberg, George Lucas and Kirk Douglas were among those sitting at his table) with both Will Smith and Tom Hanks offering their assessments of why Katzenberg is so successful as a philanthropist. “It’s not just a phone call, it’s the invitation to breakfast,” said a deadpan Hanks. “It’s the lunch that lasts exactly 47 minutes. It’s the follow-up phone call. It’s the visit to the office. It’s the tour of the facility. It’s the follow-up phone call. It’s a letter to remind you you had a phone call and a tour of the facility. And finally it is a thank you for the contribution you made.”

Related: Katzenberg Interviewed On Humanitarian Award

Then Hanks became serious about the humanity of Katzenberg who followed him to the stage to accept the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award primarily for his two decades of work heading the Motion Picture And Television Fund through harmony and controversy. One of the MPTF home’s Calabasas residents, 102-year-old Ruthie Thompson, a 40-year veteran of Disney animation and 10-year resident, also tributed Katzenberg last night.

The Dreamworks Animation head who was sitting with partner Steven Spielberg said it was a “truly great honor. My story is of mentors. People who give of their time and talents, of their words and wisdom. People who encourage all of us to reach for more and in doing so inspire us to strive for excellence not only in ourselves but in each other. He noted this was an appropiate moment for him since it was 75 years ago that Jean Hersholt himself became a founding member of the Motion Picture Relief Fund. “I am tempted to say it is the circle of life. But a circle implies something complete, and we at the Fund have a greater horizon.”

With that, the dinner was over. But there were plenty of reminders in the room that The Really Big Show was just gearing up: the 85th Oscars. Show producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron along with host Seth MacFarlane were introduced  during the evening by Koch, who told me afterwards he was very pleased with the way things went at this Governors Awards gala. “It’s not for people in Poughkeepsie. This is for us and a way to honor the people we want to honor without time constraints.” It’s also a new and very important stop on the Oscar campaign express. But also a reminder that what really matters is taking notice of some very great careers in the movie business and giving a very deserving quartet their long overdue honors.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.