Legendary actress Lauren Bacall, producer-director Roger Corman and cinematographer Gordon Willis were among this year's first Oscar recipients.
Breaking with tradition, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences presented its honorary Oscars separate from the annual Oscar ceremony, at a private, black-tie dinner in Hollywood.
The winner of this year's Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award is producer John Calley. He and the other recipients were chosen by the academy's Board of Governors.
Annette Bening, Tom Hanks, Kirk Douglas, Anjelica Huston and Quentin Tarantino were among the presenters for the evening, which included 600 invited guests celebrating at the Grand Ballroom above the Kodak Theatre, the same room where the annual post-Academy Awards Governors Ball is held - but with no worldwide TV audience.
"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.
Morgan Freeman, Alec Baldwin, Steven Spielberg and other guests were serenaded by a violin quartet before the ceremony began in a room decked out in bronze and silver curtains with a giant Oscar statue at the center.
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 director of more than 50 films and producer of more than 300 during a five-decade career, he was lauded for being a champion of independent and efficient filmmaking and for promoting women to positions of leadership long before it was popular.
His production company not only garnered renown for his steady stream of genre films (from science fiction flicks like including "It Conquered the World" and "The Little Shop of Horrors" to biker romp "The Wild Angels"), but also was a launching pad for such acclaimed filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and James Cameron.
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."
Bacall made her screen debut with Humphrey Bogart in "To Have and Have Not" in 1944. She went on to star in more than 30 films, including classics such as "The Big Sleep," "Key Largo," "How to Marry a Millionaire" and "Murder on the Orient Express." She received a single Academy Award nomination (for Best Supporting Actress for "The Mirror Has Two Faces") but had never won.
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, one of the masters of cinematography whose credits include "The Godfather" films, "All the President's Men" and "Manhattan," is a two-time Academy Award nominee, for "Zelig" and "The Godfather, Part III."
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."
A longtime studio executive and independent producer, Calley's credits include "Catch-22," "Postcards from the Edge," "The Remains of the Day" (for which he earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination), "Closer" and "The Da Vinci Code."
Heath 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.
The event was taped but not televised. Excerpts will be shown during the 82nd annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
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