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January 25, 2001

Unhonoured excellence - THE COMMENTARY

By Joseph Planta

There’s a bit to get to before the main Commentary this morning. Al Waxman is dead. In America, he was a supporting player on the drama, Cagney and Lacey. In this country however he was a giant of Canadian theatre and television. Whether it was the CBC show King of Kensington or his heartbreaking performance in Death of A Salesman at Stratford two years ago, he certainly raised the bar for many actors; for many Canadians.

It is with irony today that in my mail I received the Stratford Festival’s 2001 promotion guide. Leafing through it I notice that they’re staging productions of The Sound of Music (starring Cynthia Dale!), Private Lives, Falstaff and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, among others. Their benchmark production was to have been The Merchant of Venice starring Al Waxman as Shylock. It truly is sad he won’t be around. The art of acting is lesser because of his passing. Al Waxman was 65.

This Saturday we will see George W. Bush inaugurated and on Sunday, Hollywood will honour their own with Golden Globes. Look for Elizabeth Taylor to make a triumphant return as she is tapped to present Best Picture. Al Pacino will be given the Cecil B. DeMille award by last year’s Best Actor Drama, Kevin Spacey. If you’re in Washington on Saturday you’ll know where to be, ditto with Hollywood on Sunday night; Merv Griffin’s Beverly Hills Hotel.

VANCOUVER -- For me, the Oscars are mandatory watching on television. Every spring, the awards fever that envelops Hollywood is not immune to yours truly. There’s something about award shows that is simply engrossing. Perhaps it is the act of fellow artists acknowledging their fellow artists. Perhaps it is the just reward for that starving artist; that great performance or that remarkable legend.

Or perhaps not. Every Oscar year following the nomination process and the award ceremony, there are the requisite omissions, as well as the horrifying selections. Not privy to the Oscars, these are seen at most award shows. The gist of today’s diatribe is focused on lifetime achievement awards and the sort, but since Oscar season is upon us, there are some notable points of interest. To wit, how in heaven’s good name does Dame Judi Dench’s tour de force in Mrs. Brown go unrewarded with an Oscar, while Helen Hunt wins for the much more mediocre, As Good As It Gets? The same applies to Robert Duvall for The Apostle. Perhaps the performance of a lifetime is beat out by a humorously less moving Jack Nicholson in the same As Good As It Gets. How about The Sopranos yet to win for Best Drama Series at the Emmy’s? Do The Practise and The West Wing contribute half as much to television history as The Sopranos at its worst episode? And how come Andy Griffith, Desi Arnaz and Rod Serling never won Emmy’s? I digress. More horrifying, how come Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Burton and Lauren Bacall have never been given Oscars?

At the Oscars they have a special award entitled the Honorary Oscar which is bestowed on individuals who’ve made outstanding and/or lifetime achievement in the world of film. In past years, this award has been given to people who haven’t won competitive Oscars. For example: Deborah Kerr, Kirk Douglas, Michael Kidd and Stanley Donen. Barring the fact Miss Bacall could still turn in an Oscar winning performance, she’d be eligible for an Honorary Oscar. Mr. Hitchcock and Mr. Burton however won’t as with their deaths, the Honorary Oscar is not presented posthumously.

When thinking of lifetime achievement awards like the Honorary Oscar, the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honors, one would think that they should be awarded posthumously to give those that deserve recognition their just reward. But, with further thought, I think special awards like that should not be awarded posthumously. Moreover in the case of the AFI and Kennedy Center Honors, those ceremonies are prone to having their recipients present. The AFI is more special as only one presentation is made every year at a fancy banquet with the honouree on the dais. Presenting the award to a very frail Katherine Hepburn or a reclusive Ingmar Bergman or Billy Wilder, who all do not make public appearances, would render their banquet devoid of the revenue from a network telecast. Ditto with the Kennedy Center Honors.

This year the AFI’s banquet will be held in honour of Barbra Streisand. The American Film Institute honours her for her film work both in front of and behind the camera. She is the first female director to be so honoured and while I heartily congratulate her for receiving the honour it makes one wonder of those still living that did not receive that award. Firstly, Miss Streisand is in the company of some of the giants of film. John Ford (the first), Elizabeth Taylor, Sidney Poitier, Lillian Gish, Bette Davis, Frank Capra, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, among others have been AFI honourees. Last year, Harrison Ford was honoured, which begs the question why Streisand and Ford, when Elia Kazan has not received the AFI Life Achievement Award? The director of A Streetcar Named Desire, A Face In The Crowd, On The Waterfront, America, America, among others, overshadowed by the director of The Mirror Has Two Faces, Yentl and The Prince of Tides? Come on.

I do not diminish Miss Streisand at all. I’m very happy she won, but when you think a legend like Mr. Kazan hasn’t received one of films highest honours and she and Harrison Ford have, something is completely out of whack there. (And the half-wit who’ll cry out that perhaps he isn’t worthy, are to be directed to the position Mr. Kazan’s films ranked in the AFI’s own 100 Greatest Movies of the 20th century.)

Perhaps it was Mr. Kazan’s less than honourable position during the whole McCarthy era “witchhunts”. Kazan went on to testify to the committee chaired by Senator Joseph McCarthy and began naming the names that were of show biz ilk that were related to Communism. “The Black List” was composed and Kazan was ostracised by the show biz community including very recently when he was honoured with an Honorary Oscar. Even some 40 years plus after the era of McCarthy, people like Ed Harris and Nick Nolte sat on their hands on Oscar night two years ago in protest to Kazan receiving the Oscar because of his work at naming names. Like Alec Baldwin, I opposed his receiving the Oscar for the reason that he had won at least two competitive Oscars. He most deserved the Honorary Oscar, however I thought it was reserved (and should be) for those who haven’t won competitive Oscars. Kazan deserved the award no less, but the fact he has yet to receive the AFI’s Life Achievement Award is telling in the mess that occurred when he got the Oscar two years ago. There’s something royally wrong when one of the film industry’s highest honour’s go to Barbra Streisand while a giant in filmdom, Elia Kazan goes unrecognised.

I will look with keen interest sometime this month when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Board of Governors announce their selection for this year’s recipient of the Honorary Oscar. Maybe they won’t even give one this year. Whatever the case, Elia Kazan probably won’t be shedding any tears. He’s got a Kennedy Center Honor and an Honorary Oscar under his belt. I won’t bother suggesting any names for the Honorary Oscar. To do so would be silly. If the Academy took every suggestion from the general public under consideration, at least one of the Three Stooges would have gotten one already.

Whatever it may be -- the Oscars, the Order of Canada or even awards at a high school -- there are those missteps that make one wonder why institutions of honour are put up in the first place. To be the recipient of any honour is of magnanimous pleasure, no less, but the words of Cato the Elder are usually apt to those that rise above such pettiness: “I would much rather have men ask why I have no statute than why I have one.”

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