Oprah shines, Ratner controversy fades at honorary Oscars gala
James Earl Jones was one of three honorees at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Governors Awards ceremony Saturday night, but it was the actor's famous alter ego -- Darth Vader -- who unexpectedly made an appearance.
Dressed in full "Star Wars" regalia, academy president Tom Sherak took to the stage, pausing to remove his shiny black helmet before asking the audience, "How was your week?"
The costume almost certainly was meant in part as a tribute to Jones, who received an honorary Academy Award for his six decades in film. But the getup also helped bolster the generally convivial mood at the third annual black-tie gala, where academy members and Oscar aspirants gathered to salute Jones, makeup artist Dick Smith ("The Exorcist") and entertainment power broker Oprah Winfrey, who accepted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award with an emotional off-the-cuff speech.
A tumultuous run-up to the event saw 2012 Oscar show producer Brett Ratner and his hand-selected host, Eddie Murphy, abruptly resign after a scandal erupted over Ratner's use of an anti-gay slur -- and producer Brian Grazer and comedian Billy Crystal stepped in to replace them. But the guests at the grand ballroom of the Hollywood & Highland Center seemed ready to put the incidents behind them and proceed with the business of awards season campaigning.
"It was an amazing week," said academy governor Marvin Levy. "I'm very happy with the outcome, and I think the majority of the academy is too. I'm also happy with how they handled it. We have a problem. Let's fix it. Done. Moving on."
Telecast co-producer Don Mischer said he's looking forward to working with Crystal, who has hosted the Oscars ceremony eight times previously. "I think it will be a great moment when Billy walks on stage ... something of a homecoming," he said.
Of Ratner, Mischer said, "He felt really bad. He's his own worst enemy."
That left the tables filled with Hollywood studio heads, actors including Ellen Barkin, Michael Fassbender, Glenn Close, Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster and directors Bennett Miller ("Moneyball") and Steve McQueen ("Shame"), among others, plenty of time to focus on the night's honorees in between chatting up their own projects.
At the outset of the ceremony, Mary J. Blige performed "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" from Disney's "The Lion King," which featured Jones' voice work. Alec Baldwin and Close each praised Jones, with Baldwin calling the 80-year-old "one of the greatest actors in American history."
Currently starring in "Driving Miss Daisy" opposite Vanessa Redgrave at London's Wyndhams Theatre, Jones was unable to attend the gala. Attendees watched footage of Sir Ben Kingsley presenting the Oscar to him after a matinee performance of the production; Jones said he was left "flabbergasted" by the experience.
Smith, 89, seemed overcome by emotion as he received a standing ovation from the audience after Linda Blair, J.J. Abrams and Rick Baker saluted his innovative achievements in such films as "The Exorcist," "The Godfather" and "Amadeus." "I am so grateful," said Smith, tears welling as he clutched his Oscar.
It was Winfrey, though, who closed the show on a resoundingly emotional high note. A host of luminaries including Sidney Poitier and Maria Shriver praised her for her professional accomplishments and her philanthropic work both in the U.S. and in South Africa, where she established her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for girls. A student from the Leadership Academy, Ayanna Hall, presented Winfrey with the statuette.
Dressed in red, Winfrey received three separate standing ovations and broke down on stage, confessing that she hadn't prepared a speech and had never expected to win an Oscar. She thanked the audience, saying that she had grown up wanting to be an actress and that her supporting turn in 1985's "The Color Purple" remains one of "the greatest experiences in my life."
But Winfrey told the crowd that ultimately receiving the Hersholt honor -- given periodically to an "individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry," according to the academy -- meant more to her than a prize for acting.
"We can all make a difference for how we live a life," Winfrey said.
This is the third consecutive year the academy has made the Governors Awards a separate event; previously, these awards were handed out during the Oscar telecast.
--Nicole Sperling and Susan King
Photo: Oprah Winfrey greets Dick Smith at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences 2011 Governors Awards in Hollywood. Credit: Reuters