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Oscar’s Honor System

Oscar’s Honor System

One of the more enjoyable traditions of the Academy Awards each year—at least for film buffs—is the presentation of the Honorary Oscar, the award that has long been viewed (somewhat incorrectly) as the Academy’s “consolation prize.” Although we will whine about the intolerable length of the ceremonies, be outraged over the lack of nominations for personal favorites and have passionate, film-geek debates over whether Crash deserved to beat Brokeback Mountain in 2006, there is almost unanimous excitement to see long neglected masters like Robert Altman and Ennio Morricone (see pg. 66), the two most recent recipients, finally get their golden statuettes. With that in mind, we thought it would be a fun exercise to try to predict which of filmdom’s legends might have the best shot at an Honorary Oscar of their own in the coming years.
First, some basic facts: The Honorary Oscar is one of a handful of special awards the Academy doles out. Among the others are the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, a career achievement award generally reserved for producers, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Both are only periodically presented, and the Thalberg is not even an Oscar; rather, it’s a bronze head of its namesake. But the Honorary Oscar is the top prize, and though it is not exclusively a career achievement award, that is its primary function. One of the few rules governing the award is that it cannot be given posthumously, although it was presented to Edward G. Robinson, who died after he was selected for the award and just weeks before the ceremony. The Academy also memorably got to the director Satyajit Ray just in time, literally giving him his Oscar on his deathbed in his hospital room less than a month before his passing.
Of course, the Academy has had an irritating habit of letting some artists die without giving them their due. The most obvious example is Alfred Hitchcock (though he did receive the Thalberg Award), but likewise Fritz Lang, Robert Mitchum, Glenn Ford, Raoul Walsh, Gloria Swanson and Marcello Mastroianni all died without their much-deserved Oscars. Most recently—and shamefully—the Academy missed its opportunity to celebrate Ousmane Sembene, the Senegalese director and patriarch of African cinema, who died earlier this year at 84. The Academy has a long tradition of using the Honorary Oscar to recognize international directors like Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini and Andrzej Wajda, and Sembene was undeniably one of their most important peers. But the list of those who have received the award over the decades is even more impressive, from early pioneers like Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett to stars such as Cary Grant, Greta Garbo and Kirk Douglas to directors such as Howard Hawks, Jean Renoir and Sidney Lumet. The award has also occasionally gone to less high-profile figures, such as stuntman Yakima Canutt, film editor Margaret Booth and screenwriter Ernest Lehman.
Listed below are the artists who are arguably the most likely—or most deserving—to be considered for the Honorary Oscar in the next few years. It is a subjective list, to be sure, and there are a number of other moviemakers who have fan support as well, including Maureen O’Hara, Tony Curtis, Lauren Bacall and directors like Arthur Penn, Jules Dassin and Roger Corman, but here are a few names we’d like to throw in the ring.

The Favorite:
Jerry Lewis
The Honorary Oscar is a comic’s best shot at an Academy Award. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Stan Laurel and Groucho Marx all received their Oscars in this manner. Whether you love him or hate him, Jerry Lewis is an iconic figure in American comedy, with elements of his style detected in most of today’s comic performers, from Steve Martin and Woody Allen to Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell. His most famous film, The Nutty Professor (1963), is surely one of the funniest, darkest and most complex comedies ever released by a major studio. But he’s never gained a single Oscar nomination, not even for his knockout dramatic performance in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy (1983). It’s possible, of course, that the Academy will instead give him the Hersholt Award for his decades of work on behalf of muscular dystrophy, but only an Honorary Oscar could do both—recognize his charity work and his unique contribution to comedy. Legend has it that when Chaplin received his Oscar at the 1972 ceremony, he told Groucho Marx after the ceremony, “Stay warm, Groucho, you’re next,” and indeed Groucho got his Oscar just two years later. Stay warm, Jerry.
Leading Candidates:
Doris Day
In Considering Doris Day, Tom Santopietro declares, “Doris Day is the biggest female box office star in Hollywood history. That’s right. In history.” Including her four years in the number one spot, a record for any actress, Day spent a full decade ranked among Hollywood’s top entertainers. She was also, in his words, “the top female box office draw of the 1960s,” as ranked by exhibitors, and second overall only to John Wayne. Like Jerry Lewis, she has both defenders and detractors, but is there any actress more emblematic of Hollywood in the 1950s and early ’60s? When the studios panicked over the dropping theater attendance due to television, Day’s virginal screen persona brought audiences back and then some. Today, she is perhaps best known for her comedies with Rock Hudson, especially Pillow Talk (1959) and Lover Come Back (1961), and a string of more than three dozen films that includes Love Me or Leave Me, The Pajama Game and That Touch of Mink. She even starred in a Hitchcock film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, for which she sang the Oscar-winning song, “Que Sera, Sera.” Considering that she has not appeared in a movie in almost 40 years (her last film was Howard Morris’ With Six You Get Eggroll in 1968) and has largely kept herself out of the public eye in recent years, it is extraordinary how popular many of her films remain, even with new and younger audiences. Her sole Oscar nomination came for Pillow Talk, and the fact that she largely worked in the genre of light romantic comedy explains her inability to win an Oscar during the height of her fame. But it is long past due for the Academy to recognize this box office and pop culture powerhouse.
Albert Maysles
Albert Maysles and his brother, David, did not invent direct cinema, the American cousin to the European movement called “cinéma vérité,” but they were arguably its most influential and cinematic practitioners. By employing a variety of techniques then considered revolutionary—including portable cameras and a lack of narration—the Maysles brothers made documentaries like Salesman, Gimme Shelter and Grey Gardens more intimate filmgoing experiences. These movies changed what audiences came to expect from nonfiction cinema. “In great films like Salesman, Albert and his brother forged a new style of cinematic storytelling, decades before access to inexpensive, lightweight video cameras made everybody a budding auteur,” says critic Leonard Maltin.
Even after David’s death in 1987, Albert has continued to work with other collaborators, making films on a variety of subjects, from profiles of artists and performers to examinations of social issues. Maysles’ sole Oscar nomination came for Christo’s Valley Curtain in 1974; another of his films, 2001’s LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton, was up for Best Documentary, but the nomination officially went to his producers.
Richard Widmark
That icy stare alone should have won Richard Widmark three Oscars by now. His debut as the hyena-like, sadistic mobster Tommy Udo in the film noir Kiss of Death (1947) is best remembered today for the moment he gleefully thrusts a wheelchair-bound Mildred Dunnock down a flight of stairs. The part earned him his only Oscar nomination. In his heyday, Widmark was most associated with two genres normally ignored by Academy voters—the Western and the crime thriller—which explains why his best roles failed to gain nominations. But it doesn’t account for why, in the decades since, the Academy has yet to correct that oversight. Like his contemporaries Jack Palance and Robert Mitchum, even when he played the hero, there was an air of menace about Widmark, a sense that he could change sides at any moment. Widmark’s problem, perhaps, was that he rarely gave the emotive performances that won Oscars. Thus his natural style made it easy to take his performances for granted.
Gordon Willis
Labeled the “Prince of Darkness” (a nickname he reportedly dislikes) by fellow cinematographer Conrad Hall, Gordon Willis dominated his profession for much of the 1970s and early ’80s. Yet Willis has only received two Oscar nominations in his career and has never won. This omission has often been attributed to the fact that Willis employed a style too dramatically different from the classic Hollywood studio approach, utilizing techniques such as low-key lighting and underexposed film that were one part Hollywood, one part New York and one part Europe. Thus, no nomination for his work on The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall or Manhattan, to name just a few. His first nomination finally came for Zelig (1983), when even the Academy could no longer deny the artistry of his work. “It seems to me that the honorary awards the Academy bestows should go to individuals who have made a lasting impact on the medium of motion pictures,” says Maltin. “Gordon Willis certainly fits that description.”
The 800-Pound Gorilla:
Jean-Luc Godard
Frankly, Jean-Luc Godard has little to no chance of getting it, but this co-founder of the French New Wave, who is probably the most revered and reviled moviemaker of his generation, should at least get a mention. Godard is so defiantly anti-Hollywood that even if the Academy did give him the award, he would probably turn it down. He is the quintessential arthouse director: worshipped by a few, admired by many and ignored by many more. His impact on moviemaking is greater than any other potential candidate, and an honorary award to Godard would probably stir a debate on a variety of fronts, including over whether his influence has been positive or negative. It is conceivable that the Academy, wishing to recognize the extraordinary innovations of French cinema in the 1960s and ’70s, will instead choose to honor Alain Resnais, Eric Rohmer or actress Jeanne Moreau. Each of these artists is certainly deserving, but there is also no denying that the central surviving figure of the period is Godard. If Nobels were given to moviemakers (and, really, why not?), then Godard would have received one long ago. For better or worse, he is the embodiment of what the Academy should honor: An artist who doesn’t always succeed, but is always experimenting—and always following his own, fiercely independent path.
On the Horizon:
Dede Allen
Dede Allen edited some of the essential American films of the 1960s and ’70s, including The Hustler, Bonnie and Clyde, Little Big Man, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, then took on the monumental task of assembling Warren Beatty’s Reds. Perhaps more than any other living editor, Allen is responsible for the break in the 1960s from the classic style of Hollywood editing—an approach often characterized by establishing shots, smooth scene transitions and the conventional use of the shot/reverse shot method, among other techniques. Her style, seemingly instinctive, and as much influenced by European traditions as it was by Hollywood, frequently challenged—and at times even defiantly abandoned—these traditional techniques in ways that had rarely been witnessed before in mainstream American cinema. Yet, at its height, her work—like Gordon Willis’—was often too innovative for the Academy, and she has only received three nominations over the years with no wins: Dog Day Afternoon, Reds and Wonder Boys. For at least the immediate future, Allen is not in contention; she is currently a member of the Academy’s Board of Governors, and sitting members are not eligible for special awards. But once Allen’s term on the Board ends, look for her to finally get the Oscar she should have won for Bonnie and Clyde 40 years ago. mm

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