By Kyle Buchanan
On Friday night in Hollywood, a Marvel superhero accepted an honorary Oscar from one of the biggest movie stars in the world.
Too bad it wasn’t televised.
The scene was the Governors Awards, an intimate ceremony at the Loews Hollywood Hotel where Samuel L. Jackson was given that Academy Award by an absolutely delighted Denzel Washington, who threw his arms around Jackson as they rocked back and forth, laughing. The 73-year-old honoree reminisced about a career that has included an Oscar-nominated “Pulp Fiction” performance as well as multiple appearances as superspy Nick Fury in Marvel movies.
“I got out there to entertain audiences the way Hollywood entertained me: Make them forget their lives for a few hours and be thrilled, awed or excited in the big room where make-believe lives,” Jackson said.
He eyed his new piece of golden hardware. “When I got this call last year, it was unexpected,” Jackson said. “But I guarantee you, this thing is going to be cherished.”
Though the honorary Oscars were once a staple of the live telecast, they were stripped from the show in 2009 because of still-continuing concerns over the its length. That led the academy to create the Governors Awards, an untelevised ceremony devoted solely to the honorary Oscars that also became one of the schmooziest nights of the season, a party where dozens of would-be contenders vied for face time with voters.
That element of the show was dramatically curtailed this year, when the Governors Awards were delayed from their original Jan. 15 berth because of COVID fears. By the time Jackson and writer-director Elaine May, actress-director Liv Ulmann, and actor Danny Glover gathered to receive their honorary awards, voting for this year’s Oscars had already been closed for days, and many of the nominees instead opted for Friday-night parties thrown by their agencies and studios.
But while the ceremony was smaller, the speeches were allowed to go on at great length, as there was no frantic network executive demanding they be trimmed. Glover acknowledged as much after he spent several minutes speaking off the cuff about the political activism that led him to receive the academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He also made room to lavish praise on Ulmann as well as his presenter, Alfre Woodard.
“I haven’t referred to the teleprompter at all,” Glover said with an apologetic smile. “Sometimes we actors get a little lost without a script.”
Norwegian actress Ulmann told several stories about the winding path that led her to become a key collaborator with director Ingmar Bergman. For a long time, Ulmann said, she was made to feel bashful about her calling.
“In Norway, you have to live by a certain rule: Don’t brag,” she said, before slyly adding: “That’s why I brought 20 people tonight. They can tell Norway, ‘It is true, she got an Oscar.’”
One honoree was far more concise. Before the night began, many wondered if there would even be an appearance from May, a comedian who was Oscar-nominated for two of her screenplays (“Heaven Can Wait” with Warren Beatty and “Primary Colors”) but who is also known for performing with Mike Nichols, directing films like “A New Leaf” and “Ishtar,” and acting (she won a Tony in 2019 for her performance in the play “The Waverly Gallery”). Though the other award recipients had been holding court for a while, May was nowhere in sight.
Then, just before the show began, the 89-year-old May entered the Ray Dolby Ballroom on the arm of Bill Murray and accompanied by her daughter, actress Jeannie Berlin. May was up first, and Murray introduced her as “probably the most beautiful, intelligent woman I’ve ever worked with — and she saved my life on numerous occasions professionally.”
As she took the stage, May quipped, “They told me Zelenskyy would introduce me tonight, but thank God I got Bill instead.” Then, mere moments later: “I don’t know what else to say, except enjoy your food.”
With that, she left the stage and the ceremony.