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Angela Bassett Gets Her Academy Award—And Gives Hollywood an Urgent Call to Action

Typically, the Governors Awards serve as a starry kickoff to Oscar season, a party thrown by the Academy in the fall. It’s ostensibly an event to honor lifetime achievements in the cinematic arts, but for campaigns big and small it provides a key early venue to throw all of their contenders in a room together and see what sticks.

This year’s (as always, non-televised) edition couldn’t quite play the same role—due to the actors strike it was moved from its traditional November date to January 9. The result on Tuesday night was a Governors Awards smack in the middle of the final push for Oscar nods—voting begins Thursday—with virtually everyone jockeying for a slot in the room, mingling and sipping and posing.

You had A-listers in the Hollywood ballroom right alongside indie contenders fighting for a space in the conversation, like Origin’s Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor. I caught up with the Oscar nominee, who told me of her critically acclaimed movie, as she continues to promote it, “I just want people to see it.” The sheer amount of talent and great movies represented also spoke to how unusually good of a year this is—there certainly won’t be room for all of this year’s worthy contenders. Scott Stuber, chairman of Netflix Films, told me as much: “You wonder what would’ve happened if some of these movies came out last season, or if some held for next year.”

But while the opening cocktail reception provided the chance for exactly these kinds of sightings—the moment I walked into the Ray Dolby Ballroom, I saw Ayo Edebiri giddily meet Natalie Portman, while Glenn Close hung with Jon Batiste—the honorees and ceremony itself offered a potent reminder of why the event exists in the first place. It started with surprise host John Mulaney, whose opening monologue so thoroughly outdid Jo Koy’s at the Golden Globes you could sense the overlapping crowd—from Edebiri and Portman to Emma Stone, Andrew Scott, Danielle Brooks, and just about every other Globe nominee and Oscar hopeful you can think of—laughing with palpable relief. Mulaney began by ribbing Bradley Cooper, who’s been a controversial figure on social media of late after his movie met a polarized reception on Netflix. He couldn’t catch a break here, either: “Maestro, or as it was originally titled, Bye Felicia!” went the first of a few punch lines.

Speaking of punch lines, Mel Brooks received the first of three honorary Oscars, and his presentation was hilariously performed—yes, you read that correctly—by Producers alums Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. After a short comedy routine, the pair eased into a musical homage to Brooks’s most iconic works. The crowd joyously sang along to “Springtime for Hitler” and broke into ecstatic applause at the well-chosen closing lyric, “There could never ever be another one like him.”

Brooks, 97, took the stage for a short but sharp speech, in which he cracked about selling the Oscar he won for writing The Producers before adding, in a perfectly salty-sweet mix of tones, “I won’t sell this one.” He was followed by Oscar-nominated editor Carol Littleton, introduced by her old Big Chill collaborator Glenn Close and whose tribute reel included moving words by Steven Spielberg, for whom she served as editor on E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

The undeniable highlight arrived when Angela Bassett’s moment came. Anticipation was already high given the timing: Only a year ago, she very nearly won what many considered an overdue first Oscar, before losing the best-supporting-actress race to a fellow beloved veteran, Jamie Lee Curtis. In a rare public appearance, Regina King presented for her former Boyz n the Hood costar, describing Bassett as “Hollywood royalty.” In the tribute package that ran before Bassett’s speech, the Academy didn’t shy away from her complex legacy with the awards, with nominations for 1993’s What’s Love Got to Do With It and 2022’s Black Panther: Wakanda Forever shown on the screen, followed by a clip of Bassett saying, “I appreciate those who fight for me.”

Bassett then took the stage to a thunderous standing ovation. She spoke of her own journey to becoming an actor. She highlighted her breakout role as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. “I have had to let it sink in that I am the second Black actress to receive an honorary Academy Award,” she said, citing the late Cicely Tyson’s recognition from 2018. “I hope that she is smiling from the heavens, that [she knows] I’m able to join her in that circle of recognition.”

Bassett then named each of the 10 Black actresses who have won competitive acting Oscars, from Hattie McDaniel to Regina King, who was still standing right beside her. “They fought for everyone,” she said. “When we stand together, we win together”—a sentiment that no doubt landed powerfully for contenders in the room including The Color Purple’s Danielle Brooks and Taraji P. Henson, who’ve spoken candidly on the campaign trail about the struggles of navigating this industry as Black women. Some might still prefer Bassett have a competitive Oscar in addition to an honorary one, but she used the honor on Tuesday night to send out a call to action for Hollywood—speaking directly to the necessity of paving a better future for actresses of color.

The night ended with the presentation of the annual Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to Michelle Satter, founding director of the Sundance Institute's Feature Film Program whose labs have been instrumental in launching the careers of several groundbreaking filmmakers. Two such directors, Ryan Coogler and Chloé Zhao, presented by outlining exactly what kind of impact Satter had on their debut films, and ensuing careers. Yet their introduction inevitably took on a more somber tone as they acknowledged the tragedy of Satter’s son Michael Latt’s recent death. Coogler held back tears as he spoke of Latt’s own impact on Fruitvale Station in social media, and building a campaign that allowed the movie to succeed.

Satter’s closing remarks were by turns inspiring and heartbreaking, acknowledging her immense loss while also expressing gratitude for her decades in film. She struck a note that, in its way, echoed Bassett’s, a powerful statement for some of Hollywood’s biggest names right now as they set out for their final sprint of campaigning—the need to maintain an infrastructure for “groundbreaking independent film,” and to “support artists who can change the world.” Several of them were honored on Tuesday night. It’s fair to hope their words and their stories resonate through the rest of this dizzying awards season.

The original article can be found on Vanity Fair.

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