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Sunday, September 04, 2016

An Oscar for Jackie Chan

When I heard the news on Friday that Jackie Chan was to receive an honorary Oscar, I'll admit my first fleeting thought was: "Jackie Chan? Oscar?" But then my sense of fair play took over. Why not Jackie Chan?

Since the Academy made the Governor's Awards (as they are appropriately called) a separate thing from the Oscar telecast, they have turned into something kind of glorious. Many cried foul at the time, saying that this was ghettoizing the awards, and simply a way for the Academy to shorten the ceremony. That may be true, but it has allowed the recipients their own time (albeit untelevised) instead of a quick five minute's bum's rush off the stage.

It has also done something else--it has allowed recipients who don't fit what the general public might think of lifetime achievement award recipients. The Kennedy Center Honors, for example, goes to the creme de la creme, and in film goes to only major actors and directors. This year, for example, Al Pacino gets one. But the Academy has branched out to honor artists who the public, including even the hardcore film fan, may never have heard of, but are equally deserving.

This year, four Lifetime Achievement Awards are being given. Chan is by far the most famous honoree. As an American who is mostly ignorant of Hong Kong cinema, my first impression of Chan is as the comedic figure in American films such as the Rush Hour series or voicing a character in Kung Fu Panda. But his body of work is so much more. He has acted, directed, and produced some 150 films, and the martial arts genre has never been acknowledged by the Academy before. It is, in its own way, just as legitimate a genre as any other, popular the world over and as demanding a type of acting as there is. Al Pacino, I dare say, couldn't do what Jackie Chan does.

The other recipients are Anne V. Coates, Lynn Stalmaster, and Frederick Wiseman. I imagine these names are mostly unknown even to frequent filmgoers. The name Coates was vaguely familiar to me--she's an editor, best known for editing Lawrence of Arabia, for which she won an Oscar. She was also nominated four other times, for Becket, The Elephant Man, In the Line of Fire, and Out of Sight. Her career began in 1952, and she's still working, her last film being 50 Shades of Grey. She's directed all sorts of films, from Ragtime to What About Bob? It's interesting that editing has been the one job below the line that women have found great success in, when you think of other great editors like Thelma Schoonmaker, Dede Allen, and Verna Fields.

Lynn Stalmaster is a casting director, and the first of that title to receive an Oscar. I think of all the jobs in film, this one is the most mysterious (now that key grip has been explained many times). Unlike films that are made at the low-budget level, when casting may mean "Can you be in my movie?" Hollywood films all have casting directors that work with directors. What they do I'm not really sure, but Stalmaster is considered one of the greats. Here's just a short list of films he has cast: In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Deliverance, Sleeper, Silver Streak, Superman, Being There, and Stir Crazy. He's done big casts, like Judgment at Nuremberg, and small casts, like Two for the Seesaw. Casting directors have long lobbied for their own category, and while that probably won't happen soon, it's nice to see them getting some kind of recognition. I imagine that at this level, they are indispensable.

Frederick Wiseman is a documentarian of some renown, but has never received an Oscar nomination. I've heard of him, but have never seen any of his films. Since 1967, he's made about a film a year, almost always focusing on some sort of institution. His first film, Titicut Follies, was set in a mental institution. He's done them on schools, ballet companies, zoos, high schools, and the Crazy Horse nightclub in Paris. Many of his films are very long, and almost always in the same style: no voice-over narration or talking heads, just pointing his camera and seeing what happens (although h admits to some manipulation--he admits that he's making movies). Not many of his films are available in home media, but his latest In Jackson Heights, is, and I hope to see it soon.

So, mazel tov to these four individuals, whose contribution, both in front of and behind the camera, is to be celebrated this November.

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