Sunday, September 4, 2011

The old-timer Oscars

On the eve of all the film festival glitz, it seems timely to turn to a frothier topic than usual. I don’t want to talk about the festival itself though – what could I possibly add to the existing volume of chatter? – so I’ll take the next best route and talk about the Oscars. Except that I’ll talk about Oscars that aren’t really noticed – the ones they give out to old timers. Usually, of course, these are esteemed figures who somehow failed to win in the main event, like Peter O’Toole or Lauren Bacall. Sometimes they go to people who’ve already won, presumably on the basis that once wasn’t enough; when they picked out Elia Kazan a few years back, it must have been on the basis that twice wasn’t enough.

I really liked it when they used to present these “honorary awards” as part of the main show, but I can see why they switched a few years back to doing it at a separate dinner event (condensed into barely a minute of subsequent highlights during the big show itself) – it slowed things down, and must often have seemed mystifying to the younger demographic. By all accounts, the honorary dinner is a good event, freed from the demands of prime-time pacing (to the extent the Oscars adhere to that anyway) and full of happy reminiscence. And by decoupling this aspect of things from the main event, the Oscar people felt able to increase the number of awards, from one or two to three or four a year. Last year these included Jean-Luc Godard, a stunning choice, as if they were indulging in my old game of forging a Nobel Prize for cinema. Godard didn’t show up to receive it, but he didn’t reject it either, which seems like the right balance.


This year’s receipients, announced in advance a few weeks back, are substantially less exciting. The first goes to Dick Smith, a make-up artist who won in 1984 for Amadeus and is reportedly known as the “godfather of make-up” (he even worked on The Godfather!) I’m sure it’s deserved, but unless you have a passion for make-up (and if I did have, I likely wouldn’t admit it) it’s hard to get too excited about it.

The second is the “Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award,” handed out every few years for outstanding contributions to humanitarian efforts. It’s been given thirty-three times over the years, and the list of recipients mostly breaks down either between producers and other industry big-shots, or else megastars like Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra and Bob Hope (also Charlton Heston, perhaps not primarily remembered as a “humanitarian” exactly). That’s right, it’s easier to be a world-class philanthropist if you’re grossly overpaid and fawned over. This train of thought acquired greater momentum when Oprah Winfrey was announced as this year’s winner. No doubt she’s a humanitarian, but as many pointed out, the woman barely has anything to do with cinema (if they wanted to stretch the mandate, why not go all the way and award it to Nelson Mandela, given how he was played in a movie by Morgan Freeman and all?) The Academy president defended the decision in these terms: “We have a lot of people who are TV people who have made movies. It doesn't matter that they do other things. She is definitely one of us. What really counts is her contribution to humanity.”

James Earl Jones

I do wish Winfrey’s “contribution to humanity” more tangibly outdid her contribution to narcissism and terminal distraction. Still, that’s easier to take than this year’s third choice, James Earl Jones. It says a lot that even the Academy’s news release was reduced to citing his work in Conan the Barbarian, Field of Dreams and Coming to America, as well as his voice work in Star Wars and The Lion King; he did receive one Oscar nomination, for The Great White Hope in 1970, but hasn’t come close since then to doing anything award-worthy. In other words, Jones’ film career consists largely of embellishing the edges of things, seldom contributing a complex performance. This was also somewhat true of last year’s winner, Eli Wallach, but Wallach’s filmography overflows with colour and relish and quirkiness; Jones’ film career merely evokes the steady rhythm of easy pay cheques offered and received.

One online commentator mentioned Liv Ullmann, Donald Sutherland, Gena Rowlands, Alan Alda and Doris Day as more deserving recipients – I’m not sure about Alda, whose work in cinema is minor-league next to what he did in TV, but the other suggestions are unarguable; as would be Catherine Deneuve, Jeanne Moreau, Max von Sydow and Albert Finney. Perhaps Jones deserves a bit of extra consideration for fighting his way up during an unfriendly era for black actors. But a better way to spread the wealth in that direction would have been to recognize Melvin van Peebles, who directed the groundbreaking Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song in the early 70’s.

Maybe next year?

It’s also a shame the Academy didn’t follow-up on their Godard move by recognizing another of the great foreign directors, such as Alain Resnais, or Godard’s New Wave compatriot Jacques Rivette. If I’d been writing this article a couple of years ago, I would have referred to compatriots in the plural, and gone on to include Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, but they both died. The honorary awards are prone to that of course, reminding you of the joke about how the title of “World’s oldest person” must be jinxed because the recipients never seem to live for very long afterwards. Arthur Penn passed away recently before the Academy could get to him, and they only reached Robert Altman with a few years to spare. Following a morbid train of thought, 81-year-old Paul Mazursky (who made Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice and An Unmarried Woman) would be a worthy winner, and it might not be too early to reach out to David Lynch or Brian de Palma. Or our own David Cronenberg! But then, since Cronenberg remains more productively active than anyone else mentioned in this paragraph, there’s still hope he might win one by himself.

Well, it’s a silly thing to spend time on of course, but much as you might try to be a serious-minded film enthusiast – and I swear, I usually try pretty hard – it’s hard not to get pulled into the accompanying infrastructure of list-making and ratings and comparison: as I write, the Internet is already gearing up with predictions for next year’s Oscars (I mean, it’s barely more than six months away). That’s all fine to a point, but predicting whether people like Melissa Leo go home with an Oscar or not seems like the very essence of a lightweight pursuit. Musing on the possibility of an award for Agnes Varda – now that’s serious!

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