When I talked to Cheryl Boone Isaacs today, she was excited about the list of the latest Oscar winners of the seventh annual Governors Awards that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this morning. The Academy president was particularly pleased to note that there was a real “independent spirit” running through the two choices for Honorary Oscars: Spike Lee and Gena Rowlands. And as for Debbie Reynolds, named this year’s recipient of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, Boone Isaacs noted that the actress has devoted much of her life — as a founding member and President over six decades of the Thalians, a charitable organization which promotes awareness and treatment of mental health issues — to a cause that has been much in the news of late. “The topic of mental health is really at the forefront,” she told me. “If this recognition of her work helps to keep that discussion open, it is a really good thing.”
Although Boone Isaacs didn’t disclose what other names might have come up for consideration, she noted that you never know which way the Board of Governors is going to vote. She explained that the Academy sends an email to members asking for suggestions, and then each Board member sees all of those letters that come back promoting someone for the honors. “You don’t know how it is all going to end up each year, but that is part of the fun of it,” she said. “I think it is a really good group that will make for a very interesting evening.”
I know for a fact that the names of both Reynolds and Rowlands have come up often. I mentioned both in my piece last week speculating on whose turn it might be this year and was excited to see both come through. Just as in past years, I have looked at this Honorary Oscar as a clear attempt to make up for oversights at the Academy Awards — i.e. Lauren Bacall shockingly losing in 1996 for her great work in The Mirror Has Two Faces, Angela Lansbury being passed over for The Manchurian Candidate in 1962 and last year’s honoree Maureen O’Hara for never being even nominated — this year I am especially jazzed to see the great Gena Rowlands finally get her due. In 1974 there should have been no question that she deserved the Best Actress Oscar for A Woman Under The Influence. It was one of the great performances by an actress of all time, yet she surprisingly lost to Ellen Burstyn’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, a very fine performance in its own right, but even Burstyn was stunned to win over Rowlands and her career-defining role. Last year I was even hoping enough actors branch members saw the independently released Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks to consider Rowlands’ luminous work there, but it wasn’t to be. I feel this award also might be in part for the collaboration of Rowlands and her late husband John Cassavetes, who delivered groundbreaking and pioneering films that helped define the independent film movement since the 1960s.
Reynolds, with only a single previous Oscar nomination in 1964 for her signature role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, easily could have been honored for her movie career as well. She often has been underrated as a “true film icon,” as Boone Isaacs called her.
Lee was a bit of a surprise to me, but in retrospect I am not sure why he should be. He becomes the first winner of a student Oscar (1983’s Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads) to go on and win one of these awards — a big deal. It makes the Academy look prescient. Previously he was only nominated twice, for his Do The Right Thing script as well as his feature documentary 4 Little Girls. The choice of the sometimes controversial filmmaker also continues the Academy’s march into being a truly diverse organization, something Boone Isaacs (the first African-American AMPAS president as well as currently the only African-American on the Board) and CEO Dawn Hudson have been working toward. It makes a statement by the BoG in its own way.
“Spike is a prolific filmmaker, winner of our student Oscar and has always been an independent filmmaker and a champion in that area for many a decade,” Boone Isaacs said. “When you say the name of one of his movies, it usually encompasses the words, ‘Spike Lee’s’. He is still a youngish guy, and his influence is still out there. As is Gena. She is a leading actress, but her roots are so character-driven. As a spectacular actress she also represents a certain quality of artistry for her colleagues.”
So what were the reactions of the latest Oscar winners? Boone Isaacs loves this aspect of being AMPAS President and getting to make this call. “Always there is a surprise. People don’t know we are having this meeting,” she said. “You know, but they don’t. And one good thing is they always take my call. They aren’t sure why I am calling and there is a moment, then you can feel it being processed a bit. Gena Rowlands said I made her day. She was very thrilled and taken by it, very much honored and looking forward to the night. Debbie Reynolds just kept saying: ‘Thank you, thank you. I am just a little girl from Burbank’. Yes, right, but also an icon the world over. She was thrilled too. Spike said, ‘Get outta here!’ I have known Spike for a while, so that was a bit more personal. But he’s very, very happy.”
Next task for Boone Issacs is to choose a producer for the Governors Awards, which take place on November 14, and of course to choose producers for the 88th Annual Academy Awards. She didn’t offer any hints but said: “We are in the process and nearing a choice. Absolutely. This is a big show, as you well know, but we are fine, absolutely fine.”