Oscar History: Honorary Oscar as Compensation for Not Winning Competitive Award

What do Chaplin, Garbo, Stanwyck, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, and Deborah Kerr have in common?

They have all been nominated for multiple competitive Oscars but have never won a legit Academy Award. As compensation, the Academy has conferred on each of these–and many other artists–Honorary Oscars, which acknowledge their cumulative contribution to the film industry

Among directors, the beneficiaries of the Honorary Oscars include King Vidor, Hitchcock, Fellini, and a score of other foreign filmmakers, among them Indian Satyajit Ray, Japanese Akira Kurosawa, and Polish Andrzej Wajda.

Welcome to the politics of the Honorary Oscar, a mishmash, catch-all category. Historically, the Honorary Oscars have fulfilled five different functions.

First and foremost, they serve as corrective mechanisms to the inevitable imperfection of the Oscars as a meretricious reward system.

Second, they single out the achievements of major industry players, be they entrepreneurs, execs and moguls, such as Walt Disney, Mack Sennett, Bob Hope, Jack Warner, and Louis B. Mayer.

Third they honor artists who have won legit Oscars for individual performances but deserve recognition for their entire screen career and body of work. Gary Cooper (a sentimental vote, weeks before dying), Jimmy Stewart, Sir Laurence Oliver, and Sir Alec Guinness all belong to this category.

Fourth, they recognize the contribution of various film activities and film organizations, such as the library and film department of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, in 1937 and 1978, respectively, or Henri Langlois of the French Cinematheque, in 1973.

Fifth, the Honorary Oscar has often recognized foreign-language films, before a competitive category was established in this field, in 1956. Hence, the French film “Monsieur Vincent,” was cited in 1948, “The Bicycle Thief” in 1949, the French-Italian production, “The Walls of Malapaga,” in 1950, the Japanese “Rashomon” in 1951, the French “Forbidden Games ” in 1952, the Japanese “Gate of Hell” in 1954, and “The Seven Samurai” in 1955.

However, as this year’s honoree demonstrates, the most prevalent function is that of compensation and correction.

Sidney Lumet

Vet filmmaker Sidney Lumet, could not have been more deserving, but he is a perfect example of the main function of the Honorary Oscars. Lumet, who began directing films in the 1950s, has been nominated several times for the Best Director Oscar but has never won. His nominations span half a century, from “Twelve Angry Men,” his very first film, back in 1957, to The Verdict.” Lumet did his best work in the 1970s: “Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon” (his undisputed masterpiece), “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “Network,” were released back-to-back.

Lumet made a few good movies in the 1980s, such as “Prince of the City,” for which he was not Oscar nominated, but did received the directing citation from N.Y. Film Critics Circle. However, with the exception of “The Verdict,” in 1982, his work has been in artistic decline. Unfazed and still kicking, Lumet is now directing Vin Diesel in the courtroom thriller, “Find Me Guilty.” Along with Robert Altman (who’s exactly his age), another multiple nominee who has never won a legit Oscar, Lumet is one of Hollywood’s oldest and most respected filmmakers

Some historical perspective is in order. The Honorary Oscars, set apart from the competitive merit awards, are given “for exceptionally distinguished service in the making of motion pictures or for outstanding service to the Academy.” The regulations stipulate that Honorary Oscars “are not limited to the awards year,” but “shall not be voted posthumously.”

The brilliant comedian Chaplin had never won a legitimate award, but he was honored with three Special Oscars. The first of which was in 1927-28 for his “versatility and genius,” in writing, producing, directing, and acting in “The Circus”; Chaplin was nominated for this film in competitive categories, but did not win. Whenever the Academy sensed that a major contribution stands no chance of winning a legitimate award, they vote a Special Oscar (as the Honorary Oscars were first called).

Laurence Olivier received the 1946 Special Award for his first Shakespearean film, “Henry V.” “One of the greatest foreign films,” the citation stated, “no play of classic theatre was ever translated to celluloid with such faithful flawless art.” Olivier received Best Actor and Picture nominations for this film but did not win.

In 1948, Olivier caused a scandal, when Hamlet, which he directed and starred in, swept the Oscars with Best Picture and Actor, respectively. The studios resented the fact that the Academy voters disregard American movies, such as “The Snake Pit” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” in favor of “Hamlet” and “The Red Shoes.” In Olivier’s case, it made perfect sense to confer on him an Honorary Oscar in 1978, 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.”

Similarly, when rumors circulated that Fred Astaire was going to retire, the Academy hurried and honored him with a Special Oscar in 1949, for “his unique artistry and contributions to the techniques of musical pictures.” Astaire, who had never been nominated for his musical films, received a supporting nomination for “The Towering Inferno.”

Over a short period of time, Garbo, one of the screen’s greatest actresses, was nominated for four performances (two in the same year), but for one reason or another she never won. Garbo retired in 1942, though periodically there would be rumors about a big comeback, which never happened. In 1954, Garbo received a Special Oscar for “unforgettable screen performances.” Living up to her reputation, the recluse actress didn’t even bother to show up—or to inform the Academy that she will not be present.

Nancy Kelly, a Tony-winning actress, accepted the statuette on Garbo’s behalf. “In this year of awards,” she told the press, “there’s more than one Kelly, but there’s only one Garbo.” The statuette was mailed to Garbo’s New York address, on East 52nd Street Manhattan, where the doorman picked it and placed the statuette in front of her door. What the Divine did with it afterwards is anyone’s guess.

In 1958, the Academy’s Board of Directors voted a Special Oscar for French actor Maurice Chevalier “for his contribution to the world of entertainment for more than half a century.” The Board denied rumors that there was a connection between the award and the fact that Chevalier failed to be nominated for “Gigi,” which swept most of the year’s awards. But it was probably a compensation for this oversight as well as for having lost the Best Actor in 1929/30, when he was up for two films.

Lillian Gish, another screen legend, received an Honorary Oscar in 1970 for her cumulative work. Gish was nominated only once, for a supporting role in King Vidor’s sensual Western, “Duel in the Sun.”

Cary Grant, a major movie star and contributor to every form of screen comedy, was nominated twice for “serious roles,” reflecting the Academy’s bias against comedy. Having failed to win a legit Oscar, the Academy bestowed on Grant an Honorary Oscar for simply “being Cary Grant.”

A look at the Honorary Oscars shows that there is always some meaningful link with the legitimate and competitive Oscars. Edward G. Robinson, who was never nominated, received an Honorary Award in 1973 for a half-century career. Unfortunately, the ceremonies took place just months after his death of cancer. A four﷓time nominee, Rosalind Russell was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian award in 1972 for her charity work.

Barbara Stanwyck, a four-time nominee, received an Honorary Oscar in 1982. It was presented by William Holden, who made his film debut opposite Stanwyck in Golden Boy. Acknowledging their first teaming, a grateful Stanwyck provided one of the most sentimental but touching, moment in the Oscar show that year.

Mickey Rooney

Aware of their compensatory functions, most recipients of Honorary Oscars are ultra-sensitive about it. Mickey Rooney, a four﷓time nominee, was given the 1983 Honorary Oscar, in recognition of his sixty﷓year career, which began at the age of two. Standing at the Oscar podium, Rooney recited all the awards he had recently received, lest the Academy think it was doing him a favor. “I’d been the world’s biggest box﷓office star at nineteen and, at forty, I was unable to get work,” Rooney said rather bitterly, reminding his colleagues of the inherent instabilities in his glamorous profession.

Paul Newman

The recipient of the 1985 Honorary Oscar, Paul Newman was absent from the ceremonies; he was filming in Chicago. One of the Academy’s great losers, Newman had received six Best Actor nominations. The special award was bestowed “in recognition of his many memorable and compelling screen performances and for his personal integrity and dedication to his craft.” In his taped remarks, Newman made sure to state that unlike previous recipients, he was neither ill nor close to retirement. “I’m especially grateful that this didn’t come wrapped as a gift certificate to Forest Lawn, my best work is down the pike in front of me.”

And it was. In the following year, injustice was corrected with a legitimate Oscar for “The Color of Money” (an inferior sequel to 1961 “The Hustler”, which boasts Newman’s finest work). Though Newman gave a decent performance as Fast Eddie Felson, now an aging pool player who becomes a mentor to a new protgonist (played by Tom Cruise), doubts prevailed–was it a sentimental, compensatory vote for his previous defeats The Academy could not do enough for Newman, and after winning an honorary Oscar in 1985, and a competitive Oscar in 1986, he was given the Jean Hersholt humanitarian award for years of donating money to various charities. In 1994, he was nominated again for Best Actor in Robert Benton’s “Nobody’s Fool.”

Deborah Kerr, a six-time Best Actress nominee, received an Honorary Oscar in 1993. Stanley Donen received the 1998 Honorary Oscar, “in appreciation of a body of work marked by grace, elegance, wit and visual innovation.”

Stanley Donen had produced and directed twenty﷓seven films, including “On the Town,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” and “Charade,” yet had never been nominated for an Oscar.

In 1937, the Academy established in 1937 the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, to honor “the most consistent high level of production achievement by an individual producer.”

Producer-director Stanley Kramer received this award in 1961, coinciding with the release of “Judgment at Nuremberg,” for which he received a Best Director nomination. Kramer had also been nominated for “The Defiant Ones,” but did not win.

Hitchcock, a five﷓time directorial nominee, received the Thalberg Award in 1967, and Mervyn LeRoy, nominated once for “Random Harvest,” in 1976. In 1975, Howard Hawks, nominated for “Sergeant York,” and French director Jean Renoir, also nominated once for his American﷓made “The Southerner,” both won Honorary Oscars for their cumulative work.

King Vidor, who had been nominated five times as a director–for “The Crowd,” “Hallelujah,” “The Champ,” “The Citadel,” and “War and Peace”–received an Honorary Oscar in 1978 to make up for all of these losses. His citation read: “For incomparable achievements as a cinematic creator and innovator.” Fellini, a four﷓time Oscar nominee, received an Honorary Award for lifetime achievement in 1992, two years before he died.