Los Angeles (Reuters, Agence France-Presse) - Actor and singer Harry Belafonte, accepting a top Hollywood human rights award, asked fellow artists and the entertainment industry to use their powerful platform to show the better side of humanity.
Before a star-studded audience and next to a long-time friend, actor Sidney Poitier, Belafonte, 87, received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an honorary Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his lifelong fight for civil rights and humanitarian causes.
Lifetime achievement Oscars were also bestowed upon three prolific artists and creators who deeply influenced Hollywood: Irish actress Maureen O'Hara, who appeared on stage at 94, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, 73, and French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, 83.
The Academy's Governors Awards gala has become the kick-off to the film awards season, bringing some of the most powerful people in Hollywood under the same roof, gathering stars from a dozen films with potential to win Oscars in February - including Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch.
"To be rewarded by my peers for my work, human rights, civil rights, peace, let me put it this way: It powerfully mutes the enemy's thunder," said Belafonte. He called artists "the relevant voice of civilisation" and hoped they would help the world "see the better side of who and what we are as a species".
The Harlem-born Belafonte started out his speech remembering how Hollywood films like Tarzan and Song Of The South fostered the racial divide in America and gave him an "early stimulus to the beginning of my rebellion".
"Today's cultural harvest yields a sweeter fruit," he noted, pointing to films like the 2006 gay love story Brokeback Mountain and this year's Oscar Best Picture 12 Years A Slave.
"All of this is happening at the dawning of technological creations that will give artists boundless regions of possibilities to give us deeper insights into the human existence," he added.
He was perhaps best known as a calypso singer, but as an actor he starred in ground-breaking films like Carmen Jones (1954) and pushed to make movies from the black perspective. He also worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement, fought against Aids in Africa, volunteered as a United Nations goodwill ambassador for decades and now works on gang violence in American cities. "He has been a warrior on the good side of the battlefield of social justice," said actress and fellow activist Susan Sarandon, who presented him with the Oscar.
O'Hara, who still boasts her famous flaming red hair, received a standing ovation after actors Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson presented her with her first Oscar.
Eastwood recalled his excitement at appearing in a scene with O'Hara in which she was naked on a horse. "My fantasies were going really wild," he said, before recalling how an assistant director summarily ordered him off the set.
O'Hara sang the final words of the Irish ballad Danny Boy and thanked three men who helped make her career: actors Charles Laughton and John Wayne and director John Ford, with whom she made the classic 1952 film The Quiet Man opposite Wayne.
Miyazaki was heralded by Walt Disney-Pixar director John Lasseter for making 11 feature films, like My Neighbour Totoro (1988), and drawing the storyboards for every single one. Miyazaki told the audience he felt lucky "because I have been able to participate in the last era where we make films with paper, pencil and film".
Carriere has 139 writing credits to his name, including those for Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) and The Unbearable Lightness Of Being (1988).
He thanked directors with whom he has worked, including the late Luis Bunuel and Louis Malle. "In a way, they are all here tonight," said Carriere.