The real VIPs in the room, though, were the four honorees: documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, stuntman Hal Needham and producer George Stevens Jr., all of whom received Honorary Oscars, and Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.
The event has become a de facto stop on the Oscar campaign trail, a prime opportunity for contenders to show their faces in front of a room full of voters. But it is also a lower-key evening with previously announced winners and without the screaming fans, live television coverage and tension-inducing hysteria that accompanies Oscar night.
"This must be what the Oscars were like in the early days," Academy CEO Dawn Hudson told TheWrap at the end of the show. And AMPAS governor and past Oscar winner Michael Moore, who helped present the award to Pennebaker, was succinct: "This is more fun than the Oscars," he said.
The Governors Awards have been held annually since 2009, when the Academy opted to take the honorary awards off the main Academy Awards show.
On Saturday, neither winners nor presenters used TelePrompTers, and all were free to speak far longer than the Oscar producers would ever allow on a live TV show. And for the first time, the AMPAS Board of Governors, who chose the four recipients, did not include an actor in the mix, lessening the star power but not diminishing the contributions to the movie industry made by the honorees – men "who have redefined our art form," said Academy president Hawk Koch.
"This event really symbolizes what the Academy is all about," said Koch in his introductory remarks to the evening, which included an hour-long reception and then a three-hour dinner and awards presentation.
Senator Al Franken, the former comic whose decision to run for Congress was the subject of the Pennebaker-produced documentary "Al Franken: God Spoke," kicked off the presentation to Pennebaker – who, Franken said, is known as Penny "not for his name but for his budgets."
The award to the pioneeing documentary director, whose films range from the seminal rock 'n' roll docs "Don't Look Back" and "Monterey Pop" to political films like the Oscar-nominated "The War Room," was spearheaded by Academy governor Michael Moore, whose own speech made reference to the time Moore won an Oscar for "Bowling for Columbine" and then drew boos (plus some cheers) for his remarks about the Iraq war. "The last time I was on an Oscar stage, I was escorted off by Homeland Security," Moore said, before turning his attention to Pennebaker and crediting him with profoundly changing the documentary form.
"This is a man who, with a group of his friends, invented nothing less than the modern documentary," Moore said.
Pennebaker came to the stage to the sound of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues," certainly a first in Oscar annals, and then delivered the kind of speech that would never fly on the Oscar telecast: long, rambling, digressive and anecdotal, and filled with surprise that the Academy would recognize a New York-based documentary filmmaker.
"People in New York who make films never expect to even go to Oscar land," he said, "much less get one."
If Pennebaker's speech focused on how he felt like an outsider in Hollywood, George Stevens, Jr. was exactly the opposite: a second-generation filmmaker whose father was nominated for nine Oscars and won for directing "A Place in the Sun" and "Giant."
Stevens, Jr. was also well-acquainted with awards shows, as one of the creators of the Kennedy Center Honors. "He has elevated the act of honoring others and made it a subtle art," said presenter Annette Bening, who introduced a tribute film put together by another second-generation filmmaker, Davis Guggenheim, whose father Charles had worked with Stevens on the United States Information Agency.
After Guggenheim's film, Sidney Poitier lauded Stevens for creating the American Film Institute and added, "When you work with George Stevens, art and activism are never very far apart."
Stevens opened his speech by remembering the Oscars in 1944, when his father had been nominated for directing "The More the Merrier" but couldn't attend the ceremony because he was in Europe shooting footage of the D-Day invasion. The 12-year old Stevens, Jr. attended the ceremony on his father's behalf, and blurted out "We wuz robbed!" when Michael Curtiz won the Oscar for "Casablanca."
"Here's to the great films of the future," said Stevens at the end of his speech. "And I should add, tonight I wasn't robbed."
If the first two presentations stuck to the ballroom stage and to a speaker/clip/speaker/honoree format, the award to stuntman Hal Needham went back to the free-form presentation used on earlier Governors Awards. It began with Jon Bloom's film summing up Needham's career as a stuntman and director ("Smokey and the Bandit"), then cut to Quentin Tarantino, who was standing at a table looking unkempt as he raved about Needham's contributions to movies ranging from "Little Big Man" to the Jim Brown action flick "Take a Hard Ride."
"I have never worked with you," said Tarantino, but I have worked with a lot of people you know and I have ripped off a lot of shots from you."
Producer Al Ruddy presented the award to Needham after a long, rambling and hysterical speech of his own, one that culminated in an anecdote about the time Needham set soundstage 10 at the Samuel Goldwyn studio lot on fire testing a rocket.
"Hal Needham is the real deal," Ruddy said. "And number two, he's one of the good guys."
Needham immediately choked up as he talked about growing up a sharecropper's son in the hills of Arkansas, and heading to Hollywood as a stuntman with only an eighth-grade education. "I broke 56 bones, had a shoulder replaced, knocked out a few teeth," he remembered. " … I want to thank the entire Hollywood community for allowing me to be part of it."
The final honor was the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg – an award not for his body of work as a producer and studio chief, but for his ability to hit up everybody in Hollywood for money for a variety of causes.
Will Smith told a very funny story of how he knows what Katzenberg wants by the way the exec comes on the phone: "If he says, 'Hey Will, it's Jeffrey,' he's offering me a movie. But if I get on the phone and he says, 'Big Willie!' I know he's going to ask for, like, way too much money."
The way Katzenberg does that, he added, was simple: "He'll say, 'George is in for 750 and Spielberg's in for a billion – but you do what you're comfortable with.'"
Tom Hanks went even further in his speech. "It's not just the phone call," he said. "It's the invitation to breakfast. It's the lunch that lasts exactly 47 minutes. It's the follow-up phone call. It's the tour of the facilities. It's the letter to remind you that you got a follow-up phone call and a tour of the facilities … "
Katzenberg, who won particular plaudits for his work with the Motion Picture and Television Fund and its home in Calabasas for aging industry figures, shook Kirk Douglas' hand on his way to the stage, where stage manager Gary Natoli had quietly slipped his speech onto the podium. (No pulling folded papers out of his pocket or relying on notecards.)
Katzenberg's speech, as focused as others had been rambling, paid tribute to his mentors, beginning with his parents and including New York mayor John Lindsay, Douglas ("who taught me you haven't learned to live until you've learned to give") and Lew and Edie Wasserman, who enlisted his help with the MPTF.
"It doesn't feel right for me to be up here alone," he said. "All I did was pick up the phone and ask you."