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Friday, September 08, 2017

An Oscar for Hawkeye, Oddball, and Professor Jennings

The Motion Picture Academy announced the recipients of this year's Governor's Awards, known familiarly as Honorary Oscars. As usual, it is an eclectic quartet, and no one could be able to predict who is chosen. The one winner who is obvious is Agnes Varda, whom I will discuss a little later, but the most famous is undoubtedly Donald Sutherland. The other two are Owen Roizman and Charles Burnett.

Sutherland has been a well-known actor for almost fifty years, and has made 140 films, but has never been nominated for an Oscar. Though he was something of a star of the counterculture, as his performances as undisciplined soldiers in The Dirty Dozen, Kelly's Heroes, and M*A*S*H are three of his most prominent roles, he never faded into oblivion. He pops up in the strangest places, such as in the comedies Kentucky Fried Movie and National Lampoon's Animal House (the scene where blows Tom Hulce's mind and gets him high is a classic), and was a leading man in pictures like Klute and The Eye of the Needle. He appeared in one of the most controversial sex scenes of all time (Don't Look Now with Julie Christie--are they really doing it?), and was memorable in science-fiction roles such as The Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

The role that everyone thinks Sutherland was nominated for was his brilliant turn as Calvin Jarret in Ordinary People. Timothy Hutton (who won), Judd Hirsch, and Mary Tyler Moore were nominated, but Sutherland was snubbed. I think he was also snubbed for a very fine performance as Mr. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice. He has been ubiquitous as the voice for orange juice and airlines, and has reached new generations as the villainous President Snow in the Hunger Games films. He has always been an actor who specializes in quirks, which was what made his performance as a, forgive the pun, ordinary man in Ordinary People.

Agnes Varda, now 89 and still making films, was at the forefront of the French New Wave. Some consider her 1956 film, La Pointe Court, to be the first film of the Wave. She also made one of the standards of that genre, Cleo from 5 to 7, and Vagabond, a film I saw in the '80s. I recently saw her wonderful documentary, The Gleaners and I. In a stroke of coincidence, Film Comment has devoted its latest issue to her. Shockingly, she is the first female director to receive this award.

Owen Roizman is a cinematographer with five Oscar nominations but no wins (his five nominations came for The French Connection, The Exorcist, Network, Tootsie, and Wyatt Earp). Each of these films is very different from the other, with the first a gritty tale of New York City (with the famous car and subway chase) to the last, a pastoral Western. Looking over his films he did a little bit of everything, from Woody Allen's Play it Again, Sam to The Electric Horseman to The Addams Family.

Finally, Charles Burnett may be the most unknown to filmgoers. He is a pioneer of African-American filmmaking, making movies long before Spike Lee did. His most important film is The Killer of Sheep, a look at the lives blacks in Watts, Burnett's hometown. I have seen one other of his films, To Sleep With Anger. His only film for mass audiences was The Glass Shield, starring Ice Cube. He has made many documentaries with African or black themes, some of them for television.

I just read Michael Cieply's column on these awards and he's sorry that the Academy did not pick a "heavy hitter" for the ceremony. I have to wonder why that concerns him or the Academy, since the ceremony is not televised and is always a hot ticket, as it is one of the first occasions that would-be winners this year get to hobnob with voters. I think this group just does fine. I'm especially pleased for Sutherland, the kind of trooper who sometimes falls through the cracks.

May I suggest that the Academy call on Liv Ullman and/or May Von Sydow some year, especially since Von Sydow is very old man. Neither of them have won Oscars, and their work with Ingmar Bergman is legendary. Just sayin'.

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