Riding to the Governors Awards on Saturday night, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon — the husband and wife who created the semi-autobiographical hit comedy “The Big Sick” — were talking about random encounters they’ve had in the early stages of this awards season.
Nanjiani, the gifted comic who plays a fictionalized version of himself in the movie, recounted meeting Harrison Ford backstage at the Hollywood Film Awards last week. What do you say when you meet a screen icon you’ve loved all your life?
“You know what I said?” Nanjiani recalls with a little shame in his voice. “‘I’m a big fan. I love your movies.’ And he said,” and Nanjiani turns to his wife of 10 years and asks, “Can I say what he said? It sounds like I’m showing off.” Gordon freely gives permission. “He said, ‘You’re a very funny guy, but you already know that.’ And I’m like, ‘Harrison Ford! Thank you!’ ”
“It’s surreal,” Gordon added. “The other night, we met Allison Janney, this woman who’s a powerhouse force of nature. You never think you’ll be in the same room with someone like her.”
At that moment, the couple’s chauffered SUV pulls up to Dolby Theatre at the Hollywood & Highland Center, and there on the curb, having just arrived, is none other than Janney, an awards contender this year for playing ice skater Tonya Harding’s mother in “I, Tonya.”
She greets Nanjiani and Gordon like an old friend.
And by the time the Oscars are held in March, she may well be.
The Governors Awards, an untelevised event that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established in 2009 as an evening to bestow its honorary Oscars, is a significant stop for contenders trying to capture academy members’ attention.
Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks were there. Both are among the academy’s 54-member board of governors. They also have a high-profile Oscar contender arriving in December, “The Post.” And they spent much of the evening in the center of the ballroom, chatting with the people — Jordan Peele, Dee Rees, Mary J. Blige, Sofia Coppola — behind some of the year’s best movies.
That “The Big Sick” holds a strong place in the awards season conversation staggers its creators, who spent years writing the unconventional romantic-comedy that details the hurdles — including a serious illness and the specter of familial betrayal — that their relationship had to overcome.
“When you’re thinking about something huge that could happen,” Gordon said of the possibility of Oscar recognition, “you look up and can only see the legs of it.”
Nanjiani summed up the couple’s feelings in four words.
“We are freaked out,” he said.
They were joined at the Governors Awards by others who have made movies in genres not typically favored at the Oscars, though that might change this year. Surely, if Brooklynn Prince, the 7-year-old star of “The Florida Project,” had a vote (and she might soon), she’d be casting it for Wonder Woman herself, Gal Gadot, who embraced her before the show. (“‘Wonder Woman’ rocks!” Prince enthused.)
“That moment summed up what I loved about the reaction to the movie,” “Wonder Woman” director Patty Jenkins said. “Women, young and old, were so affected by seeing a woman out front in a big-budget superhero movie. That does rock!”
Peele, who wrote and directed “Get Out,” a horror movie that confronts race with humor and fury, made the case that any film that casts aside conventions and tropes should be worthy of awards consideration.
“I feel like the comedy genre has been dead, and then along comes ‘The Big Sick,’ a movie that’s funny but also cuts straight to the truth of its characters and its story,” Peele said.
The honorees of this year’s Governors Awards offer the possibility that the academy is capable of thinking outside the box. Among the recipients, actor Donald Sutherland was the most recognizable name, but as the 82-year-old actor reminded The Times in an interview, he never thought he’d work in film because of his offbeat appearance.
After “Hunger Games” co-star Jennifer Lawrence presented Sutherland his Oscar, he gave a beautiful speech, incorporating his wife, Francine’s, initial reaction to the award (“We’re going to have to lose some weight”) and ending with a line from Jack Benny.
"I don't deserve this,” Sutherland said, “but I have arthritis, and I don't deserve that either."
Innovative filmmaker Agnès Varda danced on stage with presenter Angelina Jolie, the audience delighting in her expressive reactions and duo-tone pageboy haircut. (“I told Kumail, ‘I’m definitely going to steal that hair in just a few years,’ ” Gordon said.)
Ava DuVernay gave trailblazing indie filmmaker Charles Burnett his Oscar, praising the UCLA alum as an artist who has made the “black community visible and he's been visible to the black community."
Oscar-winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu received a special award for his virtual-reality art installation “Carne y Arena,” which captures the harrowing desert journey of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. And cinematographer Owen Roizman, a five-time Oscar nominee for works as varied as “The Exorcist,” “The French Connection” and “Tootsie,” received an Academy Award from Dustin Hoffman.
The 750 or so people filling the Dolby ballroom greeted Hoffman’s appearance with generous applause, notable as the actor is among many men in Hollywood who have been caught up in allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct in the past few weeks. (Two women have accused Hoffman of inappropriate behavior in recent days.)
But the spate of allegations — which have capsized the careers of Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Brett Ratner, Roy Price and James Toback — weren’t far from attendees’ minds. Guests privately huddled during the evening’s reception, some asking journalists covering the event about pending investigations.
“Everyone wants to know who’s going to be the next one to fall,” said one major studio executive, who, because of the subject’s sensitive nature, asked not to be identified.
“That subject is always one step away,” Gordon said of the scandals.
Added Nanjiani: “It’s sort of like when [Donald] Trump won the election. Every conversation was like, ‘How long can we go without talking about this?’ I think the record was 90 seconds. It’s a little bit like that right now.”
Waiting for their car shortly after midnight, the couple’s thoughts returned to the evening, which passed by in a blur of chance meetings with people they’ve long admired. For Gordon, it was Hanks. Nanjiani, Gordon said, let out a “weird shout” when he met filmmaker Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”).
“The most inspiring thing about all this is you get to meet and talk to people who are these sort of demigods to you and you realize they’re just normal people,” Nanjiani said. “And that’s really inspiring.”
“I’ve had famous women talk to me about how they navigate going to the bathroom in a new relationship,” Gordon added, referencing a key scene in “The Big Sick.”
“Once you’ve talked about that, you can talk about anything.”