Oscar Actors: Fonda, Henry–On Golden Pond or Career Achievement Award

When the Oscars honor veteran film artists who have been nominated several times before, it is impossible to tell whether the award is given for a specific accomplishment in a particular movie, or for an entire career of achievements.

This is yet another corrective device, known as the “Career Oscar.”  In such cases, the official reason and particular performance for which artists win serves as an excuse to reward them for careers full of contributions. The career Oscar is not wellrespected, as recipients can never be sure if their win was based on sentimental or meritorious considerations. As one critic observed, the gesture has been dismissed as “more of a back’ scratching symptom of the film capital” love of saying thanks for past services than a genuine tribute for current achievements.”


Henry Fonda

Fonda, of John Wayne’s generation, was the only major star without an Oscar. Fonda’s first and only nomination was for his portrayal of Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath. In the late 1970s, the Academy and the American Film Institute realized that Fonda’s achievements had never received their due recognition–and that he was not very healthy.

Consequently, Fonda was showered with life achievement awards, from the American Film Institute in 1978, the Golden Globe in 1980, and an Honorary Oscar “for his lifelong contributions to the art of filmmaking,” in 1981. “It’s been a very rewarding forty’six years for me and this has got to be the climax,” Fonda said.

It was not the climax, though neither Fonda nor the Academy could have anticipated that a year later he would be named Best Actor for On Golden Pond. The Academy restored justice with the more prestigious legitimate Oscar at almost the very last minute. Daughter Jane Fonda received the Oscar for him in a lengthy and emotional speech. The cameras later followed Jane as she drove to her father’s house to present the statuette in person. Henry Fonda died few months later.