OK, so my post’s title is a little unnecessary. It’s not that any of the four men awarded Honorary Oscars this morning by the Academy are undeserving – they’ve all contributed immensely to film history and appreciation (well, maybe not Jeffrey Katzenberg, but we’ll get to that). And they’re getting better on the racial issue – it was only last year that James Earl Jones received his Honorary Oscar, after all. But it’s disappointing to once again see a number of prominent female performers and filmmakers overlooked. Doris Day, Angela Lansbury, Liv Ullmann, Mia Farrow… even a cursory consideration of female candidates reveals some long overdue names. 9 women in 85 years of Honorary Oscars and none since Lauren Bacall in 2009 (and before that, Deborah Kerr in freaking 1993) is a miserable track record, especially now that there can be multiple winners in a single year. The voters for this award have shown themselves capable of thinking outside the box, at least when it comes to male filmmakers – so just how far outside of the box are women in their eyes??? This needs to be fixed. It’s embarrassing and frankly shameful.
But anyway. Let’s run down the list of four men who DID win Honorary Oscars and their achievements.
One of the premier stuntmen in film history, Needham worked on more than 300 films in his career, including “Chinatown,” “Little Big Man,” “Blazing Saddles” and “The Spirit of St. Louis.” He also co-founded Stunts Unlimited, an organization for Hollywood’s top stuntmen. In 1986 the Academy awarded him a Scientific & Engineering Award for his role in inventing the Shotmaker Elite car and crane system. We’ll assume that the Honorary Oscar is for those achievements, and not so much for his later career as a director of such films as “Cannonball Run,” “Smokey and the Bandit” and “Hooper.”
One of the most important documentarians of the 20th century and a founding member of the cinema verite movement. Pennebaker was part of the team (along with Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and Albert Maysles) that made “Primary,” the revolutionary documentary about the 1960 Wisconsin primary election between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphries. He was best known for his concert films like “Don’t Look Back” (Bob Dylan) and “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (David Bowie), and for “The War Room,” a 1993 film that focused on Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and George Stephanopoulos and James Carville in particular. He eschewed voice-over narration in favor of plain, hand-held footage, helping to popularize the technique in America. He was also an accomplished engineer who helped develop much of the lightweight, portable equipment that he and his colleagues used.
George Stevens, Jr.
Son of the famed studio era director, was the founding director of the American Film Institute (AFI) and has been a prominent arts/film advocate for decades. He oversaw the establishment of the Center for Advanced Film Studies and created the AFI Lifetime Achievement Award. For my own part, I love his books of interviews with filmmakers at the AFI (two volumes published so far), so I’m perfectly fine with this award even if he’s not the biggest name in Hollywood.
To be clear, Katzenberg has not truly received an Honorary Oscar but the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his generous charity donations. This is the same thing that Oprah Winfrey was awarded last year, and once again it’s important to separate the person from the filmmaker when it comes to this particular honor. As the former head of Walt Disney Studios and co-founder of Dreamworks (along with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg), Katzenberg has been a polarizing figure (it’s hard to argue with the manager who revitalized Disney’s animation studio in the early 90’s with “The Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” but then this is also the ruthless businessman who gave us endless “Shrek” and “Madagascar” sequels), but again, this isn’t really about his body of work as a producer. It’s about his humanitarian work, and so far as I know he’s deserving of that. So kudos to him, and to all the Honorary Oscar recipients. It’s too bad that once again they are sure to be shoved to the Governor’s Ball and denied some public recognition at the actual Oscar ceremony, but there it is.