For Your Consideration: Honorary Oscar 2020

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Earlier this month, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced their roster of honorees for this year’s Governors Awards – a.k.a. the Academy’s trio of lifetime achievement trophies: the Honorary Oscar, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, or the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award – and they’ve chosen another group of deserving recipients. Over the course of the past decade, the Academy’s Board of Governors has been especially sharp in their selections for these awards, which are given for “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” Some of my favorite honorees from recent years include Lauren Bacall, Gordon Willis, Eli Wallach, James Earl Jones, Hal Needham, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Hayao Miyazaki, Spike Lee, Gena Rowlands, Jackie Chan, Lynn Stalmaster, and Donald Sutherland. It’s as if the Academy has finally started paying closer attention to those creatives who have carved out a truly distinctive career for themselves, as well as those whom audiences actually care about.

The history of the Academy Awards is littered with deserving artists who never won a competitive Oscar. The Academy has done its best over the years to correct such oversights by handing out their Honorary Awards. That’s how countless past masters finally got their due: I’m thinking of Alfred Hitchcock, Sidney Lumet, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, and Peter O’Toole, off the top of my head, but the list goes on and on.

But, there have also been the non-winners who never even even got an Honorary Oscar (i.e. Richard Burton), and the legends who were kept out of the mix for both an Honorary Oscar and a competitive one (i.e. Marilyn Monroe). One could literally write a book about the Academy’s blind spots on both fronts.

With that said, I humbly submit the following candidates for Honorary Oscar consideration in 2020. All five have established themselves firmly in the field over the years, and have built up substantial goodwill with filmgoing audiences around the world.

Kevin Bacon

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Kevin Bacon in Tremors (1990)

Bacon has reinvented himself countless times, shown remarkable career longevity, and he never phones it in. And, what does he have to show for it? Nary a single Oscar nomination. Dear Academy: are you kidding me? Did you see Murder in the First? Let me put it this way: even my wife – who thinks the Oscars are self-congratulatory show biz nonsense, and truly could not care less about them – even she was outraged when I told her Bacon had never been nominated. That’s how ridiculous his career-long omission is. Plus, he’s been around so long, and is so popular with audiences, there’s a game named after him. Who else can say that?

Annette Bening

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Annette Bening in American Beauty (1999)

Always a bridesmaid at the Oscars, but never the bride – yet. It never quite seems to be Bening’s year. She’s been nominated four times over the past two decades, and been thwarted by her Oscar kryptonite, Hilary Swank, on two of those occasions. She’s built an impressive resume that has established her as one of the strongest actors of the modern era, and she’s well-connected: Bening previously served as one of the Actors Branch representatives on the Academy’s Board of Governors, so they quite literally know her. How stupid will they feel twenty years from now when they realize it took them so long to give her the Honorary Oscar?

Glenn Close

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Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Talk about someone who has reinvented themselves countless times, shown remarkable career longevity, and, like Kevin Bacon, also never phones it in. In an alternate universe, Close would be as critically lauded as Meryl Streep, and she’d have the hardware to show for it. The buzz around Close when she first hit in the early 1980s made it seem like such an outcome was inevitable. Nearly 40 years and seven Oscar nominations later, however, she remains winless. That makes her the current record-holder among living actors for most nods without a win. (Was I the only person who thought she would finally win for The Wife?) It seems inconceivable that someone as respected, versatile, and ballsy as Close would still be empty-handed, but here we are. Dear Academy, I ask you: what else does she have to do?

Harrison Ford

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Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Come on, now. He is both Han Solo and Indiana Jones, for Christ’s sake. He has made a bundle of money for the studios. And, he’s only been nominated for an Oscar once, for his splendid performance in Witness. The $64,000 question is: how was he not nominated for playing two of the most iconic characters in film history?! In hindsight, those omissions seem absurd, especially considering how often he’s imitated (after all, he did help create the template for the modern action movie hero). Best of all: he doesn’t actually give a damn – about accolades, or much else to do with show biz. Still, Ford is that rare movie star who remains both influential and bankable after five decades in the industry. He is long overdue for some recognition.

Samuel L. Jackson

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Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction (1994)

Like Harrison Ford, Jackson has only been nominated once, for his legendary, career-defining performance in Pulp Fiction. Also, like Ford, this is such a no-brainer, I feel as if it doesn’t have to be explained or justified, so I’ll just say this: he’s been both a Jedi and Senor Love Daddy, he has battled snakes on a plane, he assembled the most popular team of superheroes on Earth, and he’s also Mr. Glass. He is extraordinarily popular with audiences and knows which projects to hitch his wagon to: as of this writing, the total box office gross of his collective filmography make Jackson the highest-grossing film actor of all time. In other words, he can – and will – do anything. Show the man some respect.

Stanley Donen: Full of Joy

When Stanley Donen died late last month, the world lost one of the last remaining film directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He was almost never mentioned in the same sentence with his peers from that hallowed era – Hitchcock, Hawks, Huston, Welles, Chaplin, Wilder, Kazan, to name a few – probably because he specialized in a genre that has seldom been taken seriously: the big-budget movie musical. I dare say, however, that he was, in his own way, just as talented, accomplished, and influential as his more revered colleagues. After all, he did co-direct one of the universally acknowledged greatest films of all time, a rare distinction for a musical.

One look at Donen’s filmography reveals his strengths and interests, best summarized by Tad Friend of The New Yorker in a 2003 profile of the director: “He made the world of champagne fountains and pillbox hats look enchanting, which is much harder than it sounds.” The signature stars of Donen’s most well-known films – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, and Audrey Hepburn – exemplify that ethos of charming, witty refinement perfectly.

But, a closer look at Donen’s films also reveals another overarching theme: joy, of all stripes, as evidenced by some of my favorite moments from his films:

“You’re All the World to Me,” Royal Wedding (1951)

The musical number that personifies the phrase “movie magic.” It’s got everything, starting with Fred Astaire’s Tom Bowen being so in love that he momentarily turns into Spider-Man. Donen and Astaire do such an incredible job on this number that the audience never thinks twice about it being completely stylistically different from the rest of the movie. Instead, it is simply proof positive that once the singing and dancing start, anything can happen in a musical. It’s genre that is built for this kind of whimsy, and Donen clearly loves that.

“Good Morning,” Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Here is Donen the craftsman showing off in his own subtle way: with terrific framing and composition, great camera movement, and a minimum of cuts. Donen uses maximum shot lengths in order to let the performers fully do their thing, and the choreography complements both them and the plot. Every move that Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor make here is appropriate for this particular point in the story. This is the joy of watching three top-notch triple threats in peak form.

“Make ‘Em Laugh,” Singin’ in the Rain

A musical number that perfectly introduces and defines a character. We know exactly who Donald O’Connor’s Cosmo is after this, and we carry that knowledge with us for the rest of the movie: anytime he shows up, we know he could potentially be this funny, nimble, and charming at any moment. It’s no coincidence that this number is both inventive and hilarious and also tailored to O’Connor’s strengths. This is another moment from the Donen filmography where we revel in the joy of watching a expert performer operating at the highest level.

“Sunday Jumps,” Royal Wedding

My mom’s first question after I told her I’d recently watched this movie again: “Is that the one where he dances with the hat rack?” Please note that she did not ask “Is that the one where he dances on the ceiling?” That’s how good this number is. Donen and Fred Astaire take a potentially lame idea – dancing solo with a room full of inanimate objects – and activate it the fullest. This is a prime example of Donen’s and Astaire’s inventiveness, and another great illustration of character development through dance: Astaire’s Tom Bowen is both resourceful and a workaholic.

Jo Stockton’s Bohemian Dance, Funny Face (1957)

There are so many reasons why Funny Face is one of Donen’s best musicals, and most of them can be found in this number. Yet again, we have a dance that is tailored to a performer’s strengths, and also defines character. Audrey Hepburn’s Jo Stockton is thrilled to be out in Paris meeting the bohemian intelligentsia, and this dance is how she expresses that. It’s a great showcase for both Hepburn’s latent dance skills and her goofy sense of humor. Plus, the mise-en-scene is off the charts.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention another highlight from Funny Face: two of the greatest shots of Audrey Hepburn ever put on film. Donen clearly loved working with A-list movie stars, and often did everything he could to make sure they looked their glamorous best. I would bet that no one ever looked as fabulous in any of his movies as Hepburn does here. Case in point: skip forward to the 3:29 point in this number and the 5:53 point in this sequence, and you will see Hepburn being even more photogenic and iconic than usual. (She must have liked working with Donen, as well: they went on to make two more movies together.)