Without the burden of a live worldwide broadcast, members of the film academy threw themselves a lively yet relaxed dinner party to honor the first Oscar winners of the season.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences broke with tradition and presented its honorary Oscars off-camera Saturday night, months ahead of the televised ceremony in March.
Actress Lauren Bacall, B-movie king Roger Corman and "Godfather" cinematographer Gordon Willis each received Oscar statuettes during the black-tie banquet at the Grand Ballroom above the Kodak Theatre, the same room where the annual post-Academy Awards Governors Ball is held.
In addition, producer John Calley was honored with the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award, recognizing career accomplishments that include "Catch-22," "The Remains of the Day" and "The Da Vinci Code."
Each of the recipients was chosen by the academy's Board of Governors.
Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Morgan Freeman and Steven Spielberg were among the 600 invited guests at the inaugural Governors Awards event.
"We're gathered here together, all artists, celebrating excellence without any television cameras — isn't it great?" said veteran producer Norman Jewison.
Warren Beatty agreed: "It's so much better ... that nobody's worrying whether 36.5 million people are watching us or 29.2," he said.
Guests drank Champagne and dined on filet mignon as each honoree was celebrated with tributes, toasts and a generous montage of film clips — leisurely elements not possible in previous years when special-Oscar presentations were built into the already-crowded Oscar broadcast.
Corman, 83, was the first to be honored Saturday night. The longtime producer-director was lauded for being a champion of independent and efficient filmmaking and for promoting women to positions of leadership long before it was popular.
Quentin Tarantino said the man behind films such as "Bloody Mama" and "X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes," inspired him to become a filmmaker. He praised Corman for his "undeniable impact on the industry, both as a business and as an art form."
"The movie lovers of planet earth thank you," Tarantino said.
Ron Howard credited Corman with giving him his start as a filmmaker, saying working for Corman was "a badge of honor."
Corman's advice to his peers? "Keep gambling. Keep taking chances."
Kirk Douglas honored Bacall, his friend for more than 60 years, and confessed that he once tried to seduce her — "without success."
Anjelica Huston presented the award to the legendary actress, saying she "defines what it means to be a great actress and also a huge movie star" and praising her "steadfastness, honesty and extraordinary beauty."
Ever feisty, the 85-year-old actress shooed away an escort who tried to help her to the podium to accept her Oscar.
She spoke of her late husband, "my great love" Humphrey Bogart, and her dashing leading men: Douglas, Gregory Peck and Henry Fonda.
Bacall said she did not expect to receive an Oscar but gratefully welcomed the honor.
"The thought when I get home that I'm going to have a two-legged man in my room is so exciting," she quipped.
Willis, whose cinematography credits include "The Godfather," "Annie Hall" and "All the President's Men," was honored for his decades of work. He was nominated for an Oscar twice: For "Zelig" in 1983 and "The Godfather: Part III" in 1990.
Presenter Jeff Bridges noted Willis' "unsurpassed mastery of light, shadow, color and motion."
Willis, 78, told his industry peers, "Do your best. Take care of your kids."
Health concerns kept Calley from accepting his award in person, so seven previous Thalberg Award winners did it for him, including Spielberg, Jewison, Beatty and George Lucas. They lauded Calley for his willingness to support creativity throughout his career.
"Please know how proud all of us are to welcome you to our ranks," Spielberg said.
Though not televised, the Governors Awards were taped and portions will be shown during the 82nd annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
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