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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Oscar organizers began giving out film industry gold on Saturday when they bestowed honors on four movie veterans, including groundbreaking directors Jean-Luc Godard and Francis Ford Coppola.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science gathered a who's who of Hollywood A-listers -- including Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Oliver Stone and Robert De Niro -- for their annual Governors Awards to give honorary Oscars to Godard, actor Eli Wallach and film historian Kevin Brownlow, for their work in the industry.
"Godfather" director Coppola was given the night's biggest honor, the Irving G. Thalberg Award, for visionary producing.
"Star Wars" creator George Lucas recounted how Coppola, the writer of "Patton" and director of "Apocalypse Now," had been his filmmaking mentor and said Coppola had blazed trails for many of his contemporaries in the late 1960s and '70s.
"He was our leader. He was our inspiration," Lucas said before giving Coppola the Thalberg trophy, which is considered the highest honor the Academy can give.
Coppola, seated with family members including his wife of 48 years, Eleanor, his son Roman and daughter Sofia, took the stage and hugged Lucas, likening him to a younger brother.
"I have a great love of the original Hollywood tradition," Coppola said.
This marked only the second year the Academy has given away the honorary Oscars and a Thalberg statuette at the Governors Awards at the dinner. Until last year, the group had always handed out the honors on the same night as the Academy Awards.
But in an effort to speed the annual ceremony for the world's top film honors, which will take place on February 27, the Academy moved it to November to launch Oscar season.
This year, the Academy's decision to give French-Swiss director Godard an honorary Oscar caused some fuss among Jewish groups who believe he is an anti-Semite, as well as with some Hollywood groups because the director has long shown a distaste for the glitz and glamour of Tinseltown.
Godard, 79, who was among the seminal directors of the French New Wave with movies such as 1960's "Breathless" that pushed cinematic boundaries, declined to attend the event.
But Academy President Tom Sherak sought from the outset to play down any controversy about the choice of Godard. Sherak told audience members that "the award is meaningful to him" and said Godard "has expressed his sincere thanks to the Academy."
Wallach, who is 94 years old and still working, received an honorary award for a wide range of movies from 1956's "Baby Doll" to "The Misfits," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and this year's "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."
"Wall Street" director Stone told Reuters Wallach was a "great crossover actor" who could take many parts and handle each deftly. Eastwood, who starred in "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," called him "a great performer and great friend."
Film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow, whose 1968 book "The Parade's Gone By" documents the silent movie era, also was given an honorary Oscar.
Editing by Bill Trott