Elaine May Brings the Laughs, Samuel L. Jackson and Danny Glover Bring the Tears at Governors Awards

The Governors Awards, an annual event that presents Hollywood luminaries with honorary Oscar statuettes, is a reprieve, of sorts, from the awards season grind.

Sure, there’s plenty of small talk and crudités to go around. But unlike most shows, which announce the winners in real time, this stop on the Oscar trail is void of a certain kind of anxiety. Recipients — this year’s batch consisted of Samuel L. Jackson, Elaine May and Liv Ullmann, as well as Danny Glover, who was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award — are revealed far in advance, taking away any jitters about leaving the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland empty handed. Attendees, a mix that included Quentin Tarantino, Magic Johnson, director Ava DuVernay, “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter and Rita Wilson, were able to mix and mingle with honorees in a comparatively low-stakes atmosphere. No campaigning necessary.

Most Oscar nominees were notably missing from the small-scale event, which isn’t televised. This year’s Academy Awards ceremony has strict COVID-19 guidelines, such as proof of vaccination and two negative PCR tests. That means potential winners are attempting to lay low before Hollywood’s biggest night. Also absent: any conversation regarding the Academy’s controversial decision to cut several categories from the Oscars broadcast.

In opening remarks, Academy president David Rubin enthusiastically highlighted the award recipients — Jackson (“hell yeah”), May (“genius, yes please”), Ullmann (“a goddess of acting and directing”) and Glover (“humanitarian”) — noting that Academy board members were quicker than usual to reach a consensus on this year’s guests of honor.

In the past, Rubin says, the selection process entails a meeting full of “lengthy speeches, presentations, analysis and debate — and multiple rounds of voting, which go on for hours, ending with a picked over food platter.”

This go-around? “Lightning quick.” (Though perhaps voters were trying to limit their time in close quarters with other people. There’s still a pandemic, after all.)

Bill Murray was first to the stage to introduce May, calling her “probably the most beautiful, intelligent woman I’ve ever worked with,” adding “she saved my life on numerous occasions, professionally.” (May notably punched up the script for “Tootsie,” the 1980s romantic comedy starring Dustin Hoffman, Jessica Lange and Murray, without credit.)

May, who began her career in improv comedy alongside Mike Nichols and later broke ground as the rare woman hired to direct studio movies in the 1970s, immediately had the crowd giggling. Her presence was particularly thrilling to those inside the room because many assumed she’d be a no-show at the pre-Oscars event. Apparently, the filmmaker behind “A New Leaf” and “The Heartbreak Kid” never RSVP’d.

“They told me [Ukrainian president Volodymyr] Zelenskyy would introduce me tonight, but thank god I got Bill instead,” joked May, who spent a good portion of her concise speech taking jabs at Murray.

She scanned the audience, questioning who, exactly, were the bodies in attendance. “Are they all ex-award winners? Did you just come as guests?” Either way, May asserted with enthusiasm, “I’m so thrilled.”

“I don’t know what else to say except enjoy your food,” said May, who had one more inquiry before leaving the podium. “I don’t know what it is… what is it?”

To answer May’s question: the menu boasted smoked salmon Oscar matzah with dill cream; spring pea hummus with baby carrots, endive and pita; individual chicken pot pies with farmers market spring vegetables; and dark chocolate, sea salt and caramel tart. Mad props to the chef tasked with carefully crafting lox in the shape of a little gold man.

After Murray escorted May out of the room, Denzel Washington appeared to recognize Jackson’s prolific screen and philanthropic work. At one point, he started to list Jackson-affiliated charities with such speed, Washington even stumbled over a few of the organization’s names. “That what he’s been doing. I don’t know what y’all been doing,” said Washington, a current best actor nominee (for “The Tragedy of Macbeth”) at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.

A delighted Jackson dutifully thanked the Academy and Washington, whom he embraced with a warm hug. In one of the more emotional moments of the night, the 73-year-old actor reflected on his lengthy career in Hollywood, which began with roles that were listed as “gang member No. 2” and “Black guy.” That’s no longer the case for Jackson, who has at least 150 movie credits to his name and whose blockbusters have collectively grossed more than $27 billion at the box office.

“I guarantee you, this this is going to be cherished,” Jackson promised.

John Lithgow then took the mic to laud Ullman, someone “who makes the rest of us proud to be actors.” Ullman, who is best known for Ingmar Bergman collaborations like “Persona,” “Shame” and “Scenes From a Marriage,” passionately reminisced on her childhood and family, noting her grandmother instilled in her a deep love of movies. She also took a jab at her home country of Norway, a place she described as being homogenous and modest.

There, she explains, individuals have to “live by a certain rule. Don’t brag,” she said. “That’s why I brought 20 people. So they can tell Norway, “It is true, she got an Oscar!”

To close out the efficiently run night, Alfre Woodard saluted Glover, a mainstay from “Lethal Weapon” and “Angels in the Outfield.” Woodard waxed poetic about Glover’s very existence, saying, “Danny Glover shows up. He always has. He shows up to work, to play, to build, to assist.”

Glover, a labor advocate and UN ambassador, spoke movingly about his appreciation for Ullman and Woodard, as well as his background in organized labor. After a decades-long stint in Hollywood, the Academy’s recognition wasn’t lost on him. “I am amazingly grateful for this moment,” Glover said.

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