Do you know what the Governors Awards are? If you’re a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences you do. The Governors Awards dinner, which this year takes place March 25, is the happiest night of the year in the movie industry.
Happier than the Oscars ceremony (which this year is March 27)? Yes, for several reasons.
It takes place over a meal and it’s not televised, making for a notably more convivial event. Also, on Oscar night there are four losers for every winner. The Governors Awards just has winners, usually four of them, each honored for lifetime achievement.
Also, let’s face it, the Oscars don’t necessarily go to deserving recipients (”And the winner for best picture is . . . ‘Green Book’”?). At the Governors Awards, the winners are invariably worthy. Lifetime achievement awards do tend to have a much higher batting average than the annual competitive kind.
This year’s group is a strong one: the actress Liv Ullmann, the writer-director (and occasional actress) Elaine May, and the actors Samuel L. Jackson and Danny Glover. Glover is the winner of this year’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. We’ll get to what that is a little later.
There have been honorary Oscars almost as long as there have been Oscars, period. Two were handed out at the very first ceremony. The winners were Warner Bros., for “The Jazz Singer,” and Charlie Chaplin, for “The Circus.”
The academy decided to give the honorary winners their own celebration in 2009. That’s when the first Governors Awards dinner took place. It was a way to free up time during the broadcast and to give the winners the attention they deserved. It was a great success. Usually the dinner is held in November. Because of the pandemic, it was canceled in 2020; and the 2021 event pushed back to right before the Oscars.
The recipients in 2009 were a famous movie star, Lauren Bacall; an influential cinematographer, Gordon Willis; an even more influential filmmaker, Roger Corman; and a longtime studio executive and producer, John Calley. Calley won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, named for the legendary MGM executive. It goes to producers. The Hersholt is the other named lifetime achievement award that the academy periodically gives. It’s named for a much-loved character actor of the Studio Era.
Subsequent Governors Awards honorees have included Hayao Miyazaki, David Lynch, Agnès Varda, Frederick Wiseman, and Jean-Luc Godard. (Godard being Godard, he of course refused the award.) And that’s just directors. So this year’s group is in excellent company.
LIV ULLMANN has had a remarkably varied career: director, screenwriter, best-selling memoirist, cofounder of the Women’s Refugee Commission. Ullmann, 83, whose partner is the Boston real estate developer Donald Saunders, has long been a local resident. She’s a two-time Oscar nominee for best actress: “The Emigrants,” 1971; and ”Face to Face,” 1976.
“Face to Face” is one of 10 films Ullmann made with Ingmar Bergman. Others include “Persona” (1966), “Hour of the Wolf,” “Shame” (both 1968), “The Passion of Anna” (1969), “Cries & Whispers” (1972), “Scenes from a Marriage” (1973), and “Autumn Sonata” (1978). To list those titles is to conjure up an era in film history.
Ullmann would later direct a Bergman script, “Faithless” (2000). She last acted for Bergman in “Saraband” (2003), his final feature-length film. Quite simply, their work together remains one of the medium’s defining director-actor collaborations.
ELAINE MAY turns 90 next month. Teamed with Mike Nichols, she changed the face — and style — and IQ level — of American comedy. She’s a two-time Oscar nominee for adapted screenplay: “Heaven Can Wait” (1978) and “Primary Colors” (1998). What may be her most celebrated bit of screenwriting is uncredited. She helped doctor “Tootsie” (1982), supposedly announcing that Dustin Hoffman’s character needed a roommate. Thus, most happily, was Bill Murray’s character born.
May’s directorial career has been . . . uneven. “A New Leaf” (1970) and “The Heartbreak Kid” (1972) are touchstone comedies of ‘70s Hollywood. May wrote the former, costarring with Walter Matthau. “Mikey and Nicky” (1976), which she also wrote, is a crime drama starring John Cassavetes and Peter Falk. It’s notorious for Paramount having denied May final cut. The Criterion Collection, bless it, has a May-approved version available. Her one other directorial effort, “Ishtar” (1987) remains notorious for a different reason: how badly it bombed at the box office. May wrote that script, too.
May has a unique status among Governors Award winners for a personal reason. She’s the only one who can claim to have had a longtime partner who himself received a lifetime achievement Oscar. The late director Stanley Donen did so in 1998.
SAMUEL L. JACKSON At 73, the man is approaching 200 screen credits: movies, TV, video games (and that’s not counting commercials). Don’t be surprised if he makes it to 300.
Never a leading man, Jackson long ago attained a status rarely achieved by even the biggest movie stars: freestanding figure in the pop firmament. He’s Samuel L., which is to say: Nick Fury! Mace Windu! Shaft! Quentin Tarantino’s go-to guy! And, of course, with all due respect to the memory of Richard Pryor, supreme master of the Oedipal obscenity!
Jackson’s sheer Samuel L. Jackson-ness tends to obscure how phenomenal an actor he is. It’s not just playing Samuel L. Jackson that he’s so good at. The best proof of that comes in his sole Oscar-nominated performance, as Jules, John Travolta’s Jheri-curled sidekick, in Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1994). All honor to Martin Landau, whose performance as Bela Lugosi, in “Ed Wood,” won best supporting actor that year. But the Book of Ezekiel speech Jackson delivers at the end of the movie, as he holds Tim Roth at gunpoint, is one of the great declamatory scenes in Hollywood history.
Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)? Marlon Brando’s lamentation in the back of that taxi in “On the Waterfront” (1954)? George C. Scott’s haranguing the troops at the start of “Patton” (1970)? This is in that league. Jackson is getting his Governors Award honor for the remarkable career he’s amassed and no less remarkable persona he’s fashioned. He’d deserve it simply on the basis of those 4½ minutes.
DANNY GLOVER It’s a life long dedicated to social justice that’s being honored with his Hersholt award. But that in no way means the acting career should be overlooked. Glover, 75, has even more screen credits than Jackson does. He already has broken the 200 barrier, currently clocking in at 202 titles.
The best known are the four “Lethal Weapon” movies. IMDb lists a fifth, in pre-production. They tend to be thought of as Mel Gibson pictures. Gibson’s Martin Riggs is the crazy one, the funny one, the flashy part. He’s the loosest of loose cannons. Glover’s Roger Murtaugh is the serious one: solid, stolid, staunch, a family man. He’s the necessary ballast to Gibson’s wildly flapping sail. Without Gibson, those movies wouldn’t have been hits. Without Glover, they wouldn’t have been movies.
Highlights make a reputation. Steadiness, reliability make a career. In that sense, Glover epitomizes the Governors Awards: He’s lifetime achievement as style as well as substance.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.