In recent years, my favourite part of the Oscars has become the special awards voted by the governors of the Academy “to honor extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” I tend to think of them as the old-timer Oscars, although this year’s choices show they’re not always that. This year I knew what day they were being decided, and amused my wife while we were on vacation by constantly checking out the Hollywood Reporter website for news; it ended up being announced a day later than expected, apparently due to difficulties in notifying some of the recipients, which only prolonged the idiocy.
When it finally came out, it wasn’t a bad list, even if I wouldn’t personally have chosen any of the names on there. The traditional old-timer award went to Angela Lansbury, who of course everyone knows and loves. She’s been unsuccessfully nominated for Oscars three times, as far back as 1944, so the lifetime achievement case is evident. My reservation would be that her contribution to cinema is pretty thin: she got off to a fast start, but soon moved primarily to television and theatre for two decades, with The Manchurian Candidate (another of her nominations) as her only movie highpoint. She had another flourish in the 70s, but only in easygoing or prematurely aged stuff like Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Agatha Christie mysteries, before returning to TV (eighteen Emmy nominations without a win, mostly for Murder she Wrote) and the stage again (five Tony awards). To sum up, the movies probably don’t have that much to do with why people know and love her.
For that reason, I’d have been more likely to give the award to more purely cinematic icons. My own favourite choice would be Catherine Deneuve, although she’s worked almost exclusively outside Hollywood. Doris Day is often mentioned – she was the top box-office star for several years, and was nominated once for best actress – but perhaps her long retirement somehow removes her from consideration, not that it should. Good arguments, of different kinds, could be made for Albert Finney (five losing nominations, going back to 1963), Burt Reynolds (not so much artistic respect, but a healthy rein as a top star, and one losing nomination, although probably sullied in the Academy’s eyes by his long stagnation) and dozens of others. George Segal’s body of peak-career work, to cite a personal favourite, is much stronger than Lansbury’s, but I doubt if anyone with a vote remembered that.
The next recipient, Steve Martin, came as a bit of a surprise, if only because he doesn’t seem like enough of an old-timer – he’s 68, but it’s all relative. Martin is a comic icon and a class act, but similar to Lansbury, it’s questionable whether his work in movies is the largest part of that. Too often, he’s seemed to be coasting through second-rate material while saving his main creative energies for his books, screenplays, music projects and even talk show appearances, where he’s almost always funnier than in most of his pictures (it no doubt helps the case that he’s hosted the Oscars three times). In terms of close contemporaries, Bill Murray’s body of film work is much stronger than Martin’s is. Still, it’s hard to feel too bad about Steve Martin getting an Oscar, if only for his “anecdote” about how he made Jack Lemmon’s career by persuading Billy Wilder to cast Some Like it Hot with two men rather than two women.
By choosing 86-year-old Piero Tosi, the Academy cleverly ticked off three boxes at once. First, they awarded another chronic near-misser – Tosi has five unsuccessful nominations. Second, they showed it’s not just about Hollywood – all five nominations were in foreign films (Tosi has never worked in an American movie – in fact, he’s reportedly never been to the US at all!). Third, they shone the rotating spotlight on one of the technical categories (last year, for instance, they recognized a stuntman; before that, make-up) – this year, costume design. Taking all that in the aggregate, it’s hard to see anyone objecting. Now, it’s also hard to see many people having strong pro-Tosi feelings: the costumes from Death in Venice are hardly the branch of world cinema most crying out for recognition. I already mentioned Deneuve, but how about still-living giants like Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais? But given the presumed strategic underpinnings of the choice, I guess this was never going to be a Tosi vs. Rivette showdown.
Finally, Angelina Jolie was chosen for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given “to an individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.” The citation refers to her as, among other things, an “impassioned advocate for humanitarian causes, traveling widely to promote organizations and social justice efforts such as the Prevent Sexual Violence Initiative.” Of course, Jolie is dramatically far from any old-timer status – she’s only 38. It’s remarkable, given her wild-child not-so-distant past, that she so rapidly remade herself as to be chosen for what is, in effect, the ultimate mark of class; held up as the most glittering embodiment of the industry’s grace and benevolence. For a point of comparison, Jerry Lewis spent decades as a passionate advocate for his chosen cause, but had to wait until he had one foot in the grave to receive the Hersholt award, probably because of the crass, if not creepy, aspects of his particular style of advocacy. The Academy’s vision for the award is best illustrated by its recent choice of Oprah Winfrey, even though she barely qualifies as “an individual in the motion picture industry.” It wouldn’t be such a surprise if, say, Kate Middleton received the award in the near future. Anyway, judged by that standard, Jolie appears to be a deserving winner, and it wouldn’t be a great surprise if her partner Brad Pitt (and for that matter, Clooney and Damon and the whole gang) picked up the same award in coming years.
The Governors’ awards were presented at a banquet the other week, but sadly, that event is never televised, and reportedly is all the better for it: we just get brief extracts during the main ceremony in February, as a respite from the eye-rolling choices in regular categories and the time-filling contrivances. Writing on this same topic a couple of years ago, I evoked 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. Maybe a couple of this year’s choices indicate a reluctance to get stuck in that morbid territory, which is fair enough. Still, if you think of “people with Oscars” as the world’s most exclusive movie club, it’s one in which veterans like Paul Mazursky, David Lynch, Gena Rowlands, Max von Sydow, Liv Ullmann, Jeanne Moreau, Harvey Keitel, Nick Nolte, Harry Dean Stanton (yeah!) and our own Donald Sutherland deserve to spend a few of their golden years, so that’s what I’ll be rooting for. Once they’re all in the club, I’ll start rooting for Kate Middleton.