Academy Awards Acceptance Speeches | Margaret Herrick Library | Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

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Year: 2012 (85th) Academy Awards

Category: Honorary Award

Winner: To D.A. Pennebaker, who redefined the language of film and taught a generation of filmmakers to look to reality for inspiration.

Presenter: Al Franken, Michael Moore

Date & Venue: December 1, 2012; The Governors Awards (Ray Dolby Ballroom, Hollywood & Highland Center)

D.A. PENNEBAKER:
I'm gonna put some notes out here, but hopefully I won't get lost in them. [Looking at the Oscar:] Kind of amazing. I mean I... Everybody here probably has one of these already, right? I'm the last one to get it. Alright, well, I want to thank Hawk Koch who called me up – I thought it was early in the morning but Chris says it was late at night – and told me he was from the Academy and that they were gonna give me one of these. And I did say, are you kidding? It seems, you know, New York is a long way from here. And people in New York who make films never expect to even go to Oscarland, much less get one. So it's kind of a... I mean, and there's also the distance between the 16mm film and the 35mm, and the 40mm, and the 70mm, and whatever. So it's a long stretch, and being here now, I'm kinda trying to deal with it. It's hard.

Anyway, I have to thank the Board of Governors who made this possible. And I want to thank – well I want to congratulate Jeffrey Katzenberg, whom I just met. Actually we almost met in New York at a screening, but not quite. He was a few rows ahead of me and we were all getting out. Hal Needham, whom I don't know. And George Stevens whom I know from long ago when I was on an NEA panel. And I think he was getting some funding from that panel, so we got to go for two or three days out here, and he arranged a really nice thing with starlets and... It was interesting. It was great. I liked him for that. And then I... And Michael Moore, who probably is responsible for everything that's happening here tonight, as far as I can see, but whom, you know... I mean I, Michael's amazing. He's like Chaplin. He's created a kind of... The minute you see the hat and his head you know exactly what's gonna happen. That's fantastic. You know, very few people can do that. I think that's called branding. Anyway he, just knowing that Michael's on the case I sleep better, that's all I can tell you. And I love him. He's just, well, he's a man who is passionate about seeing fairness take place, and that's a hard thing in our time.

Anyway. And Bobby Neuwirth, who's somewhere here. He was Dylan's road manager. And I met him with Bobby down at this bar in the Village. That was when Dylan'd say I have an idea for doing a film whereby I'll take some pieces of cardboard and we'll write things on, I'll write words from a song on 'em, and I'll throw them down. Is that a good idea? And I said, it's a fantastic idea. So we brought about a thousand shirt cardboards with us to England when we made the film there. And the thing Neuwirth was, from the very beginning, and this is always amazing. It's like meeting your, the woman you're gonna marry or the child that you want to raise. He knew somehow instinctively exactly what I was gonna do. And he often made it happen; he made it possible. He didn't arrange anything or direct anything, but he was willing whatever we needed to happen. And that was the first time I'd ever run across that. Actually, it was the first time I'd made a movie about a person with dialog, so there were a lot of new things going on there for me.

Anyway, the person that I have to thank the hardest is the love of my life, Chris, whom when I first met her, she was looking for a job. She said – but later I think, I decided she was really looking to get her hands on my camera, which I thought was reasonable. And I right away could see that she could be the partner that I really always was looking for. The person who had the same, was driven by the same passion for a certain kind of film that I was. And that's thirty-six years ago, and we haven't changed... Although when we make a film – yeah, give her a hand. She's so beautiful; she spent two hours getting made up tonight and she looks fantastic. Anyway, she and I have made a lot of films together. We made, of course, "The War Room" with Nick Doob, who I think is here. And when we make films, when you, shooting them you're great friends. Because there's nothing but problems to be solved, so you're pals. And then you sit down at either the Steenbeck, or whatever editing machine there is, and it all begins. You get divorced about four times a week. But you know, it's a process. Even though you're practically choking each other to death over each editing decision, there's nothing in the world I love better than doing that with her. It's just my favorite thing. So even if I had nothing else to do, that would be the thing I would choose that would be the best fun. So anyway, that's, she knows all about this because I tell her all the time.

And we also... Al and Chris together made the film with Al Franken, with Nick Doob and Al Franken. And that was the – well I tell ya, I was really surprised when Al came up and introduced me there. That was... he's such a... Well that's an interesting film. I mean, I don't know if any of you've seen it. I mean, I've seen it a lot of times, but... I was, for that film I was the producer. And any of you who make documentary film know the role of the producer. I might as well have stayed home; I don't do very much. But they made a fantastic film. And I think that when, you know, the thing about it was that here was a guy who was invited to parties because he'd make everybody laugh. He was kind of a party clown and he had been an originator of SNL, so he was really very good at it. You know, he, but he was also a person who could see when things were going wrong, and he could see who the problems were and who was doing it. And so in the course of that film – and boy, it's very seldom you make a film about somebody and see them change, really change their lives. That's like magic happening. And he decided he was gonna run for the Senate. And it's, and there was this story he told which was, it wasn't really a dirty story but it had kind of dirty implications you would say. I mean you wouldn't want your five-year-old to tell it in school. And he used to tell it at big gatherings like this and everybody would laugh and laugh. And somebody said to him, "You're running for Senate now, you can't tell that story." And he said "What! I can't tell that story? What's wrong with that story?" "Can't do it." "Okay," he said. "I won't tell that story." And that was the end of the film. But you know it was such an amazing thing – I hear him laughing out there. It was such an amazing thing because he would do anything. He saw that being a Senator was so much more important than anything he'd ever done before that he was ready to even not tell that story. And I thought that was a show of character that I really loved.

Anyhow. Beyond that I think, we made a film with Roger Friedman. It was called the, "Only the Strong Survive." It was sort of an interesting thing, because Roger is a New York Jew. And to all the musicians in Memphis, he was the enemy, right? The New York Jew came out and stole their music and never gave them any money back. And when Roger arrived in Memphis, we thought, well, we'll have a little problem. They loved Roger! Because he's seen, he knew every song they ever sang and he'd been at every concert they'd ever seen. They, the people were not very interested in us because they didn't know who we were. We were just two filmmakers from New York. But seeing Roger in that atmosphere and to follow him from the kind of talent that Stax and all those various music originators came up with was, well it was very exciting for me. It was the kind of music I didn't know much about. And at the end of that film I really felt like I'd been through some kind of a college course in something or other. And Roger did it. We just followed Roger. We didn't know what to look at or who to listen to, and he took us to those places. So I'm very grateful to what he was able to do. And still, you know, for my birthday party he said, "I got a surprise for you. Aretha Franklin is coming to your party." And she did. We sat down; I talked for a half an hour to Aretha Franklin. And I'll never get over that; that was my birthday present from Roger.

Well anyway. And then I have to thank my family. A horde of people sitting at a table over there. And I think at least one grandchild and one on the way. Chelsea, she's about to whelp. And you know, that my family all, we, I tell you it's grown so, I think I have eight children and then I think I have thirteen or fourteen – I'm not sure which – grandchildren. So Thanksgivings are impossible. And this is the first time we've all been sitting together. It's kind of wonderful. It's a family reunion, and that's kind of nice. And then there's Frazer, my son [applause] – yeah, right. Who by some magic of DNN, DNA – whatever it is – has managed to be older than I am. So he's our boss and runs our company, and has, which he's done successfully for thirty-five years or so. For us success is, you know, not cashing huge amounts of money at the bank but being able to make the next film. Because it takes us a little longer to make a film than maybe we should. You know, we have to argue and fight over it, and that, you know, it's always difficult. And he's made that so that happens. You know, even if he wasn't my son I would have to be very grateful and loving to him because that's an amazing thing to do. That's an act of love.

And then there's people that I've worked with. Jim Desmond who, with Nick Proferes, two people who had kind of, were neophytes in our organization. They'd just come to work with us to find out how these films were made. And when we were at Monterey, I thought, Ravi Shankar? Who's Ravi Shankar? You know, nobody here is gonna be interested in this music. So I said, you guys can go film Ravi Shankar music and all the rest of us heavy filmmakers will film the people in the audience. The L.A. factions and the San Francisco factions were sort of making peace but also heavily at war. And halfway through that thing that they did, which was a fantastic piece of music, I began... Everybody was really intent on listening and I could hear that it was kinda more than I thought it was gonna be, so I said, I'd better go down and see how those guys are doing. And I went down in the front and there the two of them were just gunning it. They were so, I was thrilled just watching them film. And I didn't even know what they were getting, but I could see that they were really into it. So I was able to film the audience. I didn't even bother to do anything. And that's, when I looked at the rushes I saw that that film that they had shot was the, was gonna be the ending of the film. It was the most exciting thing that we'd done there. And the thing that was amazing, and I tell students to watch that sequence and you'll see two people learning how to be filmmakers in less than an hour. And it's an amazing thing to watch because they, in the beginning they weren't sure what to shoot. And by the end they were just so right on it that it's hair-raising. And that was those, that was Nick and Jim Desmond.

And then I think the one person that was very instrumental in my education as a filmmaker was Bobby Neuwirth. And he sort of knew how to function in a group of people without disturbing them, and yet watching what they really did, not what they pretended to do. And that was something that I needed to learn because I had never really filmed a number – most of my films were like "Daybreak Express." I just got Duke Ellington music, and you can't, you know, what can you do worse than that?

And then I think later that we worked with Joan Churchill and Alan Barker, and we did a film "Searching for Jimi Hendrix." And it was so marvelous to have somebody that I knew on the other coast so we didn't have to – we had no budget for it so we couldn't come flying out here to do something. And Joan and Alan, what they did was just as good as anything we could have done. So it taught me that people were learning and getting as good as they needed to and that was a very exciting possibility. And then one day R.J. Cutler and Wendy Ettinger came to visit us, and neither of them had ever made a film – am I going too long, do you think? I don't want to overwhelm this thing here. But, alright, well anyway. They had never made a film and they said why aren't you making a film about this election. And we said, what election? You know. And so they really knew – well, I'm getting mixed signals from my family here. And they said... we said, well we don't have any money and we don't know anybody there. And at this point I think Clinton was in fourth place in New York. So even though my enthusiasm was for Clinton I didn't see how I could make that into a film. And they said, we'll get you a little money, which they did. And we'll find out, we'll call up and get you some people to let you in. And they did that and we made "The War Room" with them. And that was sort of a marvelous thing. You're saying... Oh, alright.

So anyway, I want to say I'm really grateful for this amazing award. And what it tells me, or what I get from it is that, as kind of a foreigner from New York who all my life, you know, everything I learned about films was in watching the movies that you people out here made. I mean, that's my education in film. And that watching those films and thinking about this award has made me feel that finally, between here and New York, there's finally some kind of a bridge. And that you guys all somehow now consider us fellow filmmakers. And that's wonderful. Thank you.

© Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
[Note: All winners are present except where noted; NOT all winners may have spoken.]