Shortly after he was elected as the new President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences this summer I asked Hawk Koch what he thought of the three-year-old Governors Awards – specifically, if the Academy should make it a TV event. He immediately responded that he liked it the way it was. He said that, without the pressure of having to do a “TV show” they could honor the people “we want to honor”. Tonight’s Honorary Oscars certainly fit that definition. They are industry insiders who have been in the business a very long time and obviously distinguished themselves in their fields.
But for those who hoped against hope that this might be the year for one of the egregiously overlooked veteran stars like Gena Rowlands, Doris Day, James Garner, Angela Lansbury, Debbie Reynolds, Max Von Sydow and other deserving Oscar-less giants to finally get their due, think again. Each year letters are written and subtle lobbying takes place but to no avail: they were passed over again for the pat on the back from their peers, just like the late greats Tony Curtis, Glenn Ford, and Richard Widmark. For the first time since the Governors Awards were specifically spun off as their own event, no actor made the cut. (Lauren Bacall, Eli Wallach and James Earl Jones were honored for their acting careers in the three previous years). That seems a shame, not just because thesps are long overdue and it would throw Oscar fans a bone. No, the Academy went its own way with a list of very different but also very deserving winners.
The documentary branch came up with a real winner in D.A. Pennebaker, a legendary documentarian whose versatile work included groundbreaking classics in cinema verite, music docs, and notably in politics. How appropriate that, on a night where former President Bill Clinton spoke at the Democratic National Convention, the filmmaker responsible for one of the most penetrating political docs ever, The War Room (which took an inside look at the 1992 Clinton campaign) should be recognized by the Academy. That film represents Pennebaker’s only Academy Award nomination – and he should have won. So this is sweet.
The tribute that Governors Awards producers Cheryl Boone Issacs and Don Mischer Productions team can put together for veteran stunt man and director Hal Needham should be nothing short of rousing. After all the man reportedly punctured a lung and broke his back a couple of times along with fracturing 56 bones in a career that included an incredible 4,500 TV episodes and 300 movies. As an innovator in the medium he already received a Scientific and Engineering Award in 1986. But this honor is long overdue recognition for the 81-year old master’s extraordinary stunt work. It is also the Academy’s most significant recognition for stunt performers, a group that has tried for years – and failed – to obtain peer group status and a regular Oscar category for their work.0 (The TV Academy includes them but not the Motion Picture Academy). Hopefully this Oscar for Needham will push that effort forward.
George Stevens Jr’s Oscar really isn’t much of a surprise in retrospect. He has worked for a lifetime, as the Academy’s press release says, “celebrating and preserving the heritage of motion pictures”. And as the son of one of the all time great directors, the Academy is also honoring its own. In fact Stevens Jr directed an extraordinary 1984 documentary about his father, George Stevens: A Filmmakers Journey that is a must-see for film lovers. It should have won the Documentary Oscar but wasn’t even nominated because the Academy traditionally shies away from their own industry. It is fitting this true gentleman and movie maven is getting his due away from the shadow of his famous dad.
It’s also no surprise that Jeffrey Katzenberg would be voted the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. He has been Chairman of the Board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund for two decades and is absolutely relentless in his efforts to raise hundreds of millions to keep it going strong, even in the face of adversity over the past few years. This award recognizes that and is especially well-deserved.
So even if this year’s crop of honorees don’t represent Hollywood’s most recognizable names and faces to movie fans, it’s a fine group of behind-the-scenes players who have made a true difference. It certainly will be a great night on December 1st inside the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland Center. Congratulations all.