You get an Oscar! And you get an Oscar! And you get an Oscar…
Seems like the Academy is emulating its latest honorary recipient, Oprah Winfrey, in being unbelievably generous. Oscar officials announced yesterday that Winfrey is the winner of this year’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. She’ll join fellow honorary Academy Award winners James Earl Jones and movie makeup pioneer Dick Smith to pick up her Oscar at the Academy’s annual Governors Awards on Nov. 12.
Oprah’s humanitarian credentials aren’t in doubt. But why would the TV icon get an award ostensibly meant for people known for their contributions to the movie industry?
It would be easy to dismiss Winfrey’s award as a ploy for ratings — if they still gave out the honorary awards during the Oscar telecast each February. But for the past couple of years, to streamline the ever-draggy awards ceremony, the honorary trophies have been shunted aside to a separate gala, the Governors Awards, which takes place three months earlier and is not televised. Of course, if the Academy wanted to start televising the Governors Awards, what better year to start than when the Queen of All Media and the Lord of the Sith are recipients?
Oprah does seem to have conquered every medium she’s tried. She won an Oscar nomination for her acting debut in 1985’s ‘The Color Purple,’ even before she launched the nationally syndicated talk show that became the cornerstone of her fame and her empire. Since then, she’s appeared in two other live-action features (‘Native Son’ and ‘Beloved’) and done voice roles in three animated movies. She’s also produced three feature films (‘Beloved,’ ‘The Great Debaters,’ and ‘Precious’). So that’s eight movies in 26 years — not chopped liver, but not anything like her prolific work in TV or magazines or other media, all of which she is better known for than her Hollywood work.
Of course, Oprah has also done work for the Academy. She’s appeared on the Oscar show a few times as a presenter (this year, she handed out the Best Documentary Feature prize to ‘Inside Job’ filmmakers Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs), and in recent years, she’s taken over Barbara Walters’ traditional slot on ABC as the host of an annual pre-Oscar celebrity interview special. Maybe this is the Academy’s way of thanking Winfrey and ABC for services rendered.
Among Oprah’s fellow honorary winners, Jones has made nearly 70 movies in 47 years, including an Oscar-nominated turn in 1970’s ‘The Great White Hope’ and roles in such classics as ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ ‘Field of Dreams,’ ‘The Lion King,’ and the first ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, where his booming voice made Darth Vader one of the most iconic movie characters of all time. Dick Smith, a makeup artist for 50 years, already has an Oscar (for aging F. Murray Abraham in ‘Amadeus’) and did the makeup on such landmarks as the first two ‘Godfathers,’ ‘Taxi Driver,’ and ‘The Exorcist.’ Both have worked extensively in television as well, but no one would argue that they haven’t had Oscar-worthy film careers.
Oprah may be a philanthropist second to none, and she remains a dominant and influential figure in TV even after having pulled the plug on her talk show. But she doesn’t have a movie career with the depth and breadth of other honorary Academy Awards winners, past and present. When she does, maybe then she’ll deserve an honorary Oscar.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.