Hosted by actress Tracee Ellis Ross, the gala event raised funds for WIF’s educational and philanthropic programs and honored Cate Blanchett with the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film and Kerry Washington with the prestigious Lucy Award for Excellence in Television.
They shared the spotlight with some of the industry’s other exceptional women: director/writer Jennifer Lee (“Frozen”), who received the Dorothy Arzner Directors Award, Rose Byrne, recognized with the Max Mara Face of the Future Award and Eva Longoria, who was honored with the Norma Zarky Humanitarian Award.
The proceedings got started with someone who was perhaps a little unexpected under the circumstances: actor Fred Willard. In a taped piece, later revealed to be a Funny or Die production, he uttered platitudes like, “100% of all blockbusters are directed by men.”
“Thanks for the sad plight,” said Ross, who appeared on stage before a sold out crowd just after she entered the video with Willard at its conclusion. “But what really brings us together is our passion for gift bags. Last year, WIF turned 40, but it’s 34 on IMDb.”
Actress Laura Dern referred to her daughter as she presented two-time Oscar winner Blanchett with the Crystal Award.
“I think often how I would want a woman to inspire my daughter, like Shelley Winters, a dame, did for me,” Dern said. “Cate Blanchett is the dame of my generation. She’s sassy, sexy, a goddess, a lover of fashion, gifted, graceful and versatile.”
“I’m old, blind and unprepared,” Blanchett retorted, after hugging Dern and putting on a pair of reading glasses. “I hate to write something, but I shan’t subject you to interpretive dance. This is a big deal. Female achievement is still discussed as being niche. I don’t accept this without acknowledging women like Lucille Ball, Thelma Schoonmaker, Ida Lupino, Megan Ellison and my agent, Hylda Queally, who’s been a mentor. When risks are taken, rewards are reaped. If a misstep is made by women, it’s feared as a career killer–but it shouldn’t lessen our desire to take risks.”
Washington has been thrilling audiences and racking up awards and nominations (BET, Image, Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG amongst them) for her role as Olivia Pope on ABC’s “Scandal.”
“In her three years as Olivia Pope, she’s been brilliant and her chameleon-like quality had taken off on a new level,” said showrunner Shonda Rhimes, who presented Washington with her latest honor.
The Lucy Award for Excellence in Television was first handed out in 1994– joining its sister, the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film, which was instituted in 1977. It is named after Lucille Ball and is presented in conjunction with her estate to those whose creative works follow in the footsteps of Ball’s extraordinary accomplishments, particularly in enhancing the perception of women through the medium of television.
Washington has achieved an additional accomplishment – she is the first African-American woman around whom a television show revolves in 40 years.
“A lot has been made of that, and that is something,” Rhimes said. “The business has started to catch up with reality, but there are a lot of requirements placed on her as Olivia and as Kerry. Being a trailblazer has challenged her but she’s courageously leaned into playing not an idol, not an icon, but a human. All the scrutiny and pressure – she blew the box wide open. She’s smart, funny, goofy, a thinker.”
Cue clip of Washington from when she hosted “Saturday Night Live” last November, playing roles of multiple black women (just before the show added one to its cast), rushing to change costumes from being Michelle Obama to portraying Oprah Winfrey.
“The writer you are has changed me as an artist,” Washington said to Rhimes as she accepted the Lucy Award. “It’s thrilling to be in this group.”
It was Washington’s first public outing as a new mom to daughter Isabelle, born in April. Her husband, Nnamdi Asomugha, proudly watched from the audience with other guests that included Diahann Carroll, Florence Henderson, Gabrielle Carteris, Joely Fisher, John Lasseter, Jon Tenney, Kate Flannery, Sharon Lawrence and Shohreh Aghdashloo.
“Good things come in small packages,” said actress Lake Bell in honoring Longoria’s philanthropic work, which includes an eponymous foundation and Eva’s Heroes, which assists special needs young people to integrate and flourish in society.
“I wish I had an accent,” Longoria began, referring to Blanchett and Byrne, both Australians. “Norma Zarky was an amazing advocate, but I hate being honored for philanthropy–which is hard to believe in this room full of egotistical actors. It started at the age of 10 because of my special needs sister Lisa and seeing what she went through. I learned compassion. To quote Maya Angelou, people may not remember what you say but they will never forget how you make them feel.”
Lee’s path to becoming the first woman to direct a film for Walt Disney Animation began when she was an executive at a publishing house and left to enter film school, Kristen Bell, the voice of Anna from “Frozen,” told the crowd.
“Frozen,” directed by Lee and Chris Buck with a screenplay written by Lee based upon a Hans Christian Andersen story, has grossed $1.25 billion worldwide since its release last year, becoming the highest-grossing animated film ever.
“I feel very blessed,” Lee said, and praised Lasseter for his faith in her and believing she could direct “Frozen” as her first feature. “Animation reaches the new generation first, and we’re seeing, authentic, inspiring female characters.”