I was on a plane on my way to the Telluride Film Festival when the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences released this year’s list of honorees for the Governors Awards. For various reasons the well-thought out selections did not really surprise me, with the exception of Jackie Chan. You could have put a gun to my head and given me 1000 guesses and I still probably wouldn’t have imagined his name and Oscar’s together, but I should have in retrospect. It is not that he hasn’t had a spectacular film career. He certainly has – and then some – starting with his first film credit at age 8 in 1962. It is just that the titles of the majority of his movies don’t exactly scream Honorary Oscar, but then again neither did so many of the films of Roger Corman, and he SO deservedly won one in the first year of these Governors Awards.
Now we are in the 8th year of Governors Awards. Definitely a lot of jaws dropped this morning when his name made the august list of Honorary Oscar winners. Out of Chan’s incredible 131 film credits listed on IMDB, you run across titles like Rumble In Hong Kong, Shanghai Noon, Dragon Forever, Legend Of The Drunken Master, An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn, Police Story 4: First Strike, and on and on. Of course there are the enormously successful Rush Hour movies, Cannonball Run, a re-imagined Around The World In 80 Days and so on, but among all those 131 credits only two movies in which he participated have even been whispered in the same breath with Oscar, and that would be Kung Fu Panda and Kung Fu Panda 2, in which he voiced the character of Monkey. (Those films both got an Animated Feature nomination.)
But the Academy is always capable of surprise, and after thinking about it, this one made some sense. At first I thought of all the actors who have been overlooked, from Donald Sutherland (never even nominated), Doris Day, Max Von Sydow, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and countless others, and I wondered what they might think about Jackie Chan karate kicking his way to the front of the line, but actually I don’t think this honor is for acting as much as it is for extraordinary stunt work as well as global cinematic influence and success. It’s a creative choice, and quite frankly, having written one of these Governors Awards evenings for the Academy, I can guarantee that the prospect of some entertaining Chan film clips will really liven up the show. This is certain to be a crowd-pleasing reel to end all reels. It also is another moment for diversity, particularly with the Asian community who met with the Academy last year after feeling slighted and ridiculed by some stereotyped moments on the Oscar show. Not many Asian artists have received Oscar glory so Chan also holds the flag for them.
Today after I landed in Telluride I spoke with one of the Governors who was in on the vote Tuesday night. “I think this choice was also a statement that we are an international organization and we take in the impact of film globally. I am very pleased with the overall list,” the Governor told me, adding that the award to legendary casting director Lynn Stalmaster (who will turn 89 less than a week after the Governors Awards) was the first ever given to someone in that profession. In fact the casting directors only recently got their own branch, if not their own category. This was a long time coming and so well deserved. You can just imagine the actors Stalmaster has helped discover since 1950, when he started amassing his nearly 400 Casting Director credits, lining up to present the Oscar to him.
Although 90 year old Film Editor Anne V. Coates already has an Oscar statuette, it was given 53 years ago for the immortal Lawrence Of Arabia. She’s the last key creative member of that legendary crew still standing, but her remarkable run as an editor started actually 64 years ago and she’s still working, with her most recent credit on Fifty Shades Of Grey just last year. From The Horse’s Mouth to Becket to Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines to The Elephant Man to Erin Brockovich and Out Of Sight, hers is an awe-inspiring career worthy of another statuette recognizing a lifetime in the cutting room. In fact I often see her around Oscar time at various events and I stare, just thinking she cut Lawrence Of Arabia! As for 86 year old Frederick Wiseman, his career is just as remarkable and it is about time the Academy recognized this master of cinema verite.
His 44 feature documentary credits as a director since 1967’s Titicut Follies averages out to basically one movie a year right up through 2015’s In Jackson Heights. Incredibly he has never even been nominated for an Oscar, and this honorary statuette was a long time coming in itself. A faithful group of Wiseman supporters have put his name before the board through a letter-writing campaign for years, and finally they have thankfully been heard.
What links all four of these honorees, who have had very different motion picture careers, is just the pure longevity of thriving and innovating in their chosen profession for well over half a century. There is more than 200 years of active work in the movie industry between them. I am not sure that was the intended criteria when the Academy’s Board Of Governors met Tuesday night, but that is what they achieved with this intriguing – and deserving – list of 2016 Honorary Oscar recipients.
The Governors Awards takes place at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood and Highland Center on Saturday November 12. In addition to being a great place to bow down to some film legends, it is also a good spot to be if you are campaigning for an Oscar nomination. It is in its short history a key stop in the awards season and a must-not-miss event.