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113 days 'til Oscar. The Existential Question of the Honorary Oscars.

by Nathaniel R

Audrey Hepburn giving King Vidor his HonoraryThe Honorary Oscars, which will be given out again tonight to a very deserving quartet (Donald Sutherland, Owen Roizman, Agnes Varda, and Charles Burnett), have always been a curious and quite arbitary distinction. Like competitive Oscars the timing has to be just right. You have to be on people's minds. You have to have a cheerleading section in the right places within the Academy. You mostly have to be of a certain age (so if you die before you're 75 or so, forget about it!). Curiously, though, you don't have to be overdue having lost a bunch of previous Oscars. This year's recipients fit into the tradition of "overdue because they've been under-honored" but this is not always the case. The Honorary Oscars, even since the beginning have often gone to people who've won competitive statues. That's a strange thing, if you ask us, since shouldn't the point be to cover your bases? Quite a few great stars who have never been the single best in any particular year so the Honorary is a perfect way to honor them. At the very least it's a better way to honor them than a competitive statue in a year where they don't really deserve one (and that's happened so often!)

At the 1978 Oscars the 111th through 114th Honorary Oscars were handed out and they illustrate this confusion as to the award's purpose...

The director King Vidor (a five time nominee) and the animator Walter Lantz (a ten time nominee) were the overdue and deserving type having never won. Another recipient, the Museum of Modern Art's Department of Film, represented the Academy's now discontinued habit of honoring institutions as well as people with this prize. But the fourth recipient that year could hardly be called "undervalued" or "overdue" though he was an institution if you will. The final honoree was Lord Laurence Olivier "for the full body of his work, for the unique achievements of his entire career and his lifetime of contribution to the art of film." 

But why?

Not only was Sir Larry also a nominee for Best Actor that very year (The Boys from Brazil which was his 11th and final nomination) but he had already won a competitive Oscar (Best Actor, Hamlet). What's more he'd even already won a previous Honorary Oscar at the 1946 Oscars for starring in, producing, and directing The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fifth with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France.

In short this was his third Oscar. And he wasn't even that old, having just turned 70 (he would continue acting for another decade, finally leaving this mortal coil in 1989).

So what is an Honorary for? Should it only be for people who've never won or is it okay to keep handing someone who has been abundantly honored with multiple Oscars and plentiful nominations, yet more trophies? Can we safely expect the likes of Daniel Day Lewis, Tom Hanks, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, and Meryl Streep to pick up honoraries in another 10 years despite winning multiple times already?

Have you pondered this same 'what is it for?' question in the past?

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Reader Comments (16)

I don't think they do it anymore. What was the last time a winner got an honorary? Jolie? (And that was humanitarian)

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Cal-Anne V. Coates is an Oscar winner and she won an Honorary last year.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

If u won a competitive Oscar and your work still relevant for your peers, why not give you a Honorary Oscar?

I think Julie Andrews deserves a Honorary Oscar.
I think Daniel Day-Lewis, John Williams, Scorsese, and many more deserves too on the future.

The Competitive Oscar celebrates your work in that year.
The Honorary Oscar celebrates your work on every single year of your career. Celebrates the embody of your career. The sucess and failure.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJon

I've no problem with the UK's greatest actor Sir Olivier picking up as many trophies as he likes.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I'm pretty sure the Academy have changed their rules, so that a person can receive only one Governors Award in their lifetime, making past Thalberg-awardees Spielberg and Eastwood ineligible.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Oh my god. They WOULD give one to Clint Eastwood.

I would most like to see...
Liv Ullmann
Lily Tomlin
Pam Grier
Mike Leigh

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

Honoraries should be to those who contribute significantly to the art of film without making the kind of movies Hollywood leaning award bodies gravitate to. Sometimes failed multiple nominees are deserving (Glenn Close). Sometimes major names who were never nominated (Danny Glover).

Anyone with multiple competitive wins with three or more statuettes should be disqualified for honorary recognition. It is redundant. A two-timer like Lange and Wiest are fine. Heck that means under my guidelines Gene Hackman should get one since he was ignored for Royal in 01.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

It's regrettable that Doris Day has never been honored. She shone in musicals, dramas and comedies—a rare feat. It seems that she may have turned down an honorary Oscar.

Max von Sydow, nominated twice, is highly deserving of recognition. He defined Ingmar Bergman films of the classic era and has transitioned to Hollywood. Perhaps he is too modest to come to the attention of the Board of Governors.

I concur with the mention of Liv Ullmann. She has not only been nominated for her acting roles in Bergman films but she has directed, and I recall that one of her films was submitted for the Foreign Language category though it did not make the final cut

Alas, Jeanne Moreau and Marcello Mastroianni are deceased. Mastroianni was nominated three times for foreign language performances, not equaled by any other actor/actress.

And the highly prolific Claude Chabrol warranted recognition.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPete

They should honor people who've done great work but have not won an Oscar- giving a Oscar winner an honorary award seems redundant

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

I never quite understood the honorary award to Sophia Loren - when she had had multiple Academy recognition both as a winner and multiple nominee. Ditto Sidney Portier. Very happy about Donald Sutherland - great example of a perfect honorary winner. I did not understand why Debbie Reynold was cited for her humanitarian efforts vs her screen performances. My expectation is that Glenn Close can not be too far off for much-deserved career recognition. They should put these awards back on the broadcast - such a shame we missed seeing Angela Lansbury, Jerry Lewis, Lauren Bacall being very publicly honored.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

I'm fine with the Thalberg, Gordon Sawyer, or Jean Hersholt going to people who have won previously, since it's for either a specific career achievement or humanitarian work. Otherwise-Honorary Oscars should only be for people who have never won. There are tens of thousands of people who devote their entire careers to the film industry-the Governors Awards can spread the wealth.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

That Vidor situation seems excessive, for sure. I don't have a problem with awarding humanitarian Oscars to worthy recipients who have already won competitive Oscars, but wouldn't you rather see people like Doris Day and Albert Finney get honorary Oscars instead of already-awarded people like Eastwood or Hackman?

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCash

Next up I need to see Albert Finney and Glenn Close getting an Oscar one way or another.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterCraver

An Honorary recognizes the sum total of a career. A competitive Oscar recognizes a specific achievement. To me, these are two very different things. A person can deserve an honorary oscar without having that singular achievement and a person can deserve a competitive oscar without having a career that quite deserves an honorary.

November 11, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

I hate that the Academy has kicked this Honorary award to the curb. They do give some camera time to the honorees sitting up in the balcony - but it's hard to remember that certain people - Angela Lansbury, Lauren Bacall, Spike Lee, etc. were given an award without exactly seeing an acceptance speech. The show used to be catered to the movie buff audience - now it seems to hustle quickly to the casual awards show remote clicker.

November 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

Tom -- which really makes no sense since the casual viewer only watches highlights on YouTube anyway. They should give the die hard fans what they want!

November 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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