Every time The Academy presents awards it adds a page to Hollywood history. As we learn in Bruce Davis’s fine new book The Academy and the Award (Brandeis University Press) the institution known for its Oscars has given honorary awards for many years. But in the 1940s the decisions were made rather haphazardly, often the night before the award ceremony. Producer Walter Wanger talked a tired board of governors into giving him such an award in the wee hours of the morning just so they could go home to bed.
In more recent times the producers of the Oscar telecast have been under pressure to shorten the event without giving short shrift to the winners of the honorary awards, as so often happens. Thus, in 2009 it was decided to devote an entire evening to these presentations. They may not have a worldwide television audience but the recipients are cheered on by their peers and no one is rushing them to finish their speeches.
My wife and I were lucky enough to attend the first of these evenings, when the honorees were Lauren Bacall, Roger Corman, and master cinematographer Gordon Willis. A year later we were delighted to see the Academy recognize one of my heroes, British film historian and documentarian Kevin Brownlow. The honor roll has continued ever since, with no shortage of deserving awardees. (I’m strictly an amateur photographer but I’ve included some of my favorite snapshots from ceremonies past.)
This past Saturday I was privileged to watch as Michael J. Fox received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his dedication to finding a cure for Parkinson’s Disease, a cause which strikes close to home for me. Oscars were also presented to groundbreaking filmmaker Euzhan Palcy, director Peter Weir and songwriter Diane Warren.
The Academy cleverly packs the house with likely contenders for awards this year, adding both glamor and immediacy to the proceedings. The audience is a contemporary who’s who and the result for an observer like me is dizzying. Adam Sandler walked over to give me an unexpected fist bump. Moments later I shook hands with someone I didn’t recognize immediately. I hadn’t seen Brendan Fraser in ages, but am so pleased about the resurgence in his career. J.J. Abrams introduced me to the director of the much-discussed Indian import RRR, S.S. Rajamouli. And my pal Pete Hammond enabled me to meet The Daniels, the directing duo responsible for Everything Everywhere All at Once. I actually sought out Danielle Deadwyler to tell her how dazzled I was by her performance in Till; she couldn’t have been more gracious.
Such encounters aren’t everyday occurrences in my life so I cherish them all the more. At the end of the evening I ran into Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and his wife Zinzi, who had just visited my USC class two nights earlier. I can drop his name with impunity because he actually attended my class years ago. Ryan and Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige are both uncommonly loyal to the their alma mater, the USC School of Cinematic Arts, and my class in particular, so I think I’m entitled to brag about knowing them.