Film Academy Touches The Bases With Governors Awards, But Stops Short Of A Home Run

John Bailey Film Academy
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

While it touched all the bases—celebrity, diversity, independence, global reach—the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seemed not quite to hit a home run with its latest round of Governors Awards, announced early Wednesday afternoon.

This year, honorary Oscars, to be presented at a dinner on November 11, will go to independent filmmaker Charles Burnett (Killer Of Sheep), cinematographer Owen Roizman (The French Connection), actor Donald Sutherland (Klute) and writer-director Agnes Varda (Cleo From 5 To 7). Few would deny any his or her claim to a statuette. Burnett, raised in Watts, has been a pioneer among African-American filmmakers. Roizman, a past member of the Academy’s board of governors, shot real-world films that could make you wish green screen had never happened. Sutherland, mysteriously, has never had an Oscar nomination, notwithstanding his work in Ordinary People and MASH. As for Belgium-born Varda, she stands for the Academy’s new determination to honor female directors, and to revive an internationalism that flourished in the 1960s.

Donald Sutherland Agnes Varda Charles Burnett Owen Roizman
REX/Shutterstock/Douglas Kirkland/IMDb

That’s all to the good—very good, in fact. But where in that list is a Hollywood game-changer? Someone who, like Robert Redford in The Natural, slammed the ball over the fence in a bolt of lightning and left no one in doubt: Things could never be the same?

Such players aren’t universally loved; but, believe it or not, they still exist. Names like James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Harvey Weinstein come to mind. Still, those filmmakers and others in their league would almost certainly have to be recognized with an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, which is given periodically for contributions as a creative producer. And, in a snub almost as mysterious as that of the magically talented Sutherland, the Academy has virtually stopped granting what some insiders regard as its highest honor.

This is now the seventh consecutive year in which the Academy has given no Thalberg award. That follows an eight-year dry run that began in 2001, and ended with back-to-back awards for John Calley in 2009 and Francis Ford Coppola in 2010. (Since being instituted in 1937, the award had generally been given about every two years.)

Speaking by telephone Wednesday, John Bailey, newly elected as the Academy’s president, said he saw nothing amiss in the Thalberg drought. “I don’t think anything has changed,” said Bailey, who attributed the award’s eclipse to the simple failure of any producer-nominee to garner the votes necessary for a win. “It’s not like they’re not put into nomination,” Bailey said of the potential candidates.

But the lack of a Thalberg winner—and, this year, of a winner for the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award—leaves the Academy without a power hitter.

Of accomplished players, there is a fine array. “As the voting unfolded during the evening, I felt more and more gratified and pleased,” Bailey said of the lineup.

“It’s a very diverse group,” Bailey added: “I’m very pleased with the diversity in their craft, in terms of the kind of filmmakers they are, and in terms of the kind of work they do.”

Varda helped usher in the French New Wave. Burnett flourished without widespread recognition. Sutherland brought counter-cultural sensibilities to screens that had been mired in the mainstream. And Roizman was the eye behind Tootsie, The Exorcist and Network, among others. Brilliant fielders, pitchers, clutch hitters and base-stealers. But not a Thalberg-type slugger among them.

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