The Academy’s Governors Awards Serve Up Honorary Oscars and a Whole Lot of Emotion

“I’ve waited 34 years to say this: I’d like to thank the Academy,” Diane Warren began her acceptance speech, capturing what the annual Governors Awards are all about: honoring those in Hollywood whose recognition by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has been a long time coming.

This year’s honorees — Warren, directors Euzhan Palcy and Peter Weir, and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipient Michael J. Fox— were celebrated on Nov. 19 at the Fairmont Century City, where they were surrounded by collaborators, veterans of the screen, and others who they helped along the way. 

But the event has traditionally served another purpose, doubling as the first major awards event for actors, filmmakers and other artists hoping to hold their very Oscar onstage in March. Due to COVID concerns, last year’s event was pushed to late March, two days before the Oscars and outside of the voting window, making for a scaled-down invite list that didn’t include anyone out on the campaign trail. This year it was back to form, packed with talent as soon as you walked into the lobby for pre-dinner cocktails. There were unexpected and interesting interactions everywhere: Eddie Redmayne hugging Jeremy PopeJoe Alwyn chatting with Taron EgertonJonathan Majors jokingly massaging Ke Huy Quan’s shoulders; Michelle Yeoh warmly hugging her former The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor co-star Brendan Fraser; and Colin Farrell, Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott deep in discussion together. 

The Governors Awards is a highlight of the long campaign season, as an untelevised event that allows for a relaxed atmosphere and often draws film legends in support of the honorees. Among them this year were Cher, who introduced Warren; Ed Harris, who was at Weir’s table; and Christopher Lloyd, who dined with his Back to the Future co-star Fox.

Fox was the first to be awarded his Oscar, introduced by Woody Harrelson. He recalled his feelings when he was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease at the age of 29 in 1991, after he’d become a global star thanks to Back to the Future and Teen Wolf. “I entered into seven years of denial, trying to make sense of it all,” Fox said onstage. “The hardest part of my diagnosis was battling with the uncertainty.”

He publicly disclosed his diagnosis in 1998, while he was starring on the sitcom Spin City; Fox said he was met with an “outpouring of support” from both the public and his peers. He began meeting with people and medical experts in the Parkinson’s field, and established the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which has raised $1.5 billion in research so far. “I’m grateful to all these people, and the thousands more who will make a cure for Parkinson’s a reality,” he said. “My optimism is fueled by my gratitude. And with gratitude, optimism is sustainable.”

Fox’s speech, like so many that evening, was at times comedic, other times pensive and sometimes deeply emotional. Each of the honorees — some making it very clear they’d waited a long time for a moment like this — found a different message to share with the crowd.

For Warren, the prolific songwriter who has created original songs for more than 100 films and worked with Beyonce, Celine Dion, Whitney Houston and Lady Gaga, she had 13 Oscar nominations worth of practice. She’d had “a lot of speeches that got crumpled up in my pocket,” she said, seemingly in awe to finally have her Oscar moment. “This is what I was born to do, this is what I love to do. I can’t believe I’m standing here right now and this is really happening.”

For Weir, it was quite the comeback evening— the Australian director behind Witness, Dead Poets Society, The Truman Show and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World has been retired from filmmaking since 2010’s The Way Back. Many of his past collaborators were in the room (Jeff Bridges, who starred in his 1992 film Fearless, did the opening remarks for him), and in his video reel, several of them expressed their desire for the director to return to work. But Weir seemed satisfied with appearing in front of this Hollywood crowd for just this moment, sharing stories from his time on set, and mostly praising many of his collaborators, including Harrison Ford, Norman Lloyd and Robin Williams. “I love craft. I think that’s what it’s really all about…I had a wonderful 20 years making studio pictures. I’m delighted to be here,” the six-time Oscar nominee said as he wrapped up his speech.