For Hollywood’s Film Academy, Time To Let The Thalberg Award Shine

The solar eclipse has come and gone. Now, will Hollywood’s Thalberg Award come out of the shadows?

Named for producer-executive Irving G. Thalberg, the award is given periodically — very periodically, of late — by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” First bestowed on Darryl F. Zanuck in 1938, the award has been granted 39 times, an average of once every two years. But in the past 16 years, there have been only two winners, John Calley in 2009 and Francis Ford Coppola in 2010; both were recognized largely for work in past decades. Meanwhile, for the producers of several thousand contemporary films — whether as grand as Avatar or as intricate as the Coen brothers’ voluminous output — there was no career honor.


Hollywood being Hollywood, it is probably safe to assume that the Thalberg process has been clouded by internal politics. Kathleen Kennedy, with all those Star Wars credits, for instance, is so closely entwined with Academy leadership that any career award might look to cynics like an inside job. Scott Rudin, another credible candidate, by contrast, stays mostly on the East Coast and has perhaps been a bit too distant from the Academy’s inner circle.

But decision time is here again: The Academy’s board of governors will designate its next round of honorary Oscar recipients on Tuesday, September 5. And to skip the Thalberg for a seventh consecutive year, after earlier having declined to make an award for the years 2001 through 2008, might be seen as neglect of a craft that has only become more difficult as film production became bigger, faster and increasingly prone to span the entire globe.

Rudin, for his part, has closed the gap between screen and theater, art and commerce, and New York and Los Angeles with such creatively distinguished movies as Fences, Steve Jobs, The Grand Budapest Hotel,  The Social Network and Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men, to name just a few. To give him a prize for creative producing would be no embarrassment, whether or not he shows up at the Governors Awards banquet on November 11.

As for Kennedy, she has delivered class, as with Lincoln; mass, as with Star Wars: The Force Awakens; and consistent entertainment, as in the Indiana Jones series (with her frequent collaborators Frank Marshall and Steven Spielberg). Any quarrel about her insider status at the Academy would be as silly as complaining because Walter Mirisch was president of the group for four years before he received the 1977 Thalberg Award.

Although career honors might pain his industry rivals, Harvey Weinstein is as close to the Thalberg mode l —which blurred the lines between executive and producing functions — as any living filmmaker. And it’s hard to quarrel with a record that includes Lion, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained and Carol, all released since the last Thalberg Award was given.

If durability be the measure of a great producer, give the prize to Arthur Cohn. More than 55 years into a career that brought Oscars for The Garden of the Finzi-Continis and One Day in September, among others, he lately has been navigating the changing markets with a finely crafted film, The Etruscan Smile, of which he is the sole credited producer.

If, in the present day, creative producing requires more force than finesse, the award could go to Arnon Milchan. Without him, there might be no The Revenant, Birdman or 12 Years a Slave — all, again, released since the producing prize last was given. Or what of Ridley Scott, who, like previous winners Billy Wilder, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty, served as both producer and director on movies as ambitious as The Martian and Prometheus? John Lasseter could get the award for his role in the animation revolution, much as Walt Disney was honored for 1941. Or what of Brad Pitt and Dede Gardner? Or Peter Jackson? Or George Clooney and Grant Heslov? All are prolific, creative and perhaps as worthy as were Buddy Adler, Arthur Freed or Jerry Wald — all recipients of the Thalberg Award, before it slipped into its weird eclipse.

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