At the 1936 Academy Awards ceremony, D.W. Griffith, by then a veteran with more than 500 shorts and features to his credit, became the first individual to win the equivalent of an Honorary Award for his body of work. Seventy-six years and 86 (my count*) body-of-work Oscar winners later — including last year’s James Earl Jones and Dick Smith — a mere nine women have been recognized for their cinematic oeuvre and/or for their pioneering film work.
The chosen nine — eight of them actresses, including one actress-producer — are: Greta Garbo (at the 1955 ceremony), Lillian Gish (1971), actress-producer Mary Pickford (1976), editor Margaret Booth (1978), Barbara Stanwyck (1982), Myrna Loy (1991), Sophia Loren (1991), Deborah Kerr (1994), and Lauren Bacall (2009).
Considering the amount of female talent that has gone un-honored these past seven and a half decades (see Doris Day, Danielle Darrieux, Joan Fontaine, Barbra Streisand: Honorary Oscars and Women), I find it impossible not to believe that the Board of Governors† of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences± suffers from a long-standing inability to recognize women’s achievements on a par with those of men. In that regard, the Academy is as selectively near-sighted as the vast majority of film critics and historians — but that is no excuse.
Although it’s true that female child and/or adolescent stars Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Peggy Ann Garner, and Hayley Mills have something akin to a special "Juvenile Oscar," adult women have fared quite poorly with the Academy’s Board of Governors.
To date, not a single woman has won the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, given out since 1938 to "creative producers whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production," or the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, given out since 1981 to "an individual in the motion picture industry whose technological contributions have brought credit to the industry." Thirty-nine men — from Darryl F. Zanuck, Samuel Goldwyn, and Hal B. Wallis to Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, and Francis Ford Coppola — have taken home the Thalberg Award. The Sawyer Award, "customarily" recommended by the Academy’s Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, has gone to twenty-two men.
True, the complete absence of women from the list of Thalberg Award winners could be explained by the fact that until quite recently relatively few women were involved in the production of Hollywood movies. (That said, Margaret Ménégoz, for one, has been quite busy for decades producing high-quality films overseas, among them Europa Europa and The White Ribbon.) The same type of gender imbalance in the technical development of motion pictures may also explain the absence of female Gordon E. Sawyer Award winners.
But what about the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, whose recipient is handpicked by the Board of Governors? Since the award’s inception in 1957, 34 individuals have been recognized for their "humanitarian efforts [that] have brought credit to the industry."
Of those, only six have been women, five of them actresses, including one actress-producer-television personality: Martha Raye (at the 1969 ceremony), Rosalind Russell (1973), Elizabeth Taylor (1993), Audrey Hepburn (1993), former Paramount chairperson Sherry Lansing, and actress-producer-talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey (2011).
Does that mean women are more self-absorbed than men? Or does the Academy’s Board of Governors believe that women’s deeds carry less importance than those of men?
Now, I’m not arguing that the Academy should impose some sort of — however unofficial — quota system. That would be both unfair and unworkable, especially considering that in the last century or so men have for the most part kept a stranglehold in the industry’s top positions, both in front and behind the camera. As a consequence of this male dominance, it is to be expected that the Academy would honor many more males than females, as the male talent pool is much larger.
But going back to the Honorary Oscar for career achievement and/or pioneering work, would the aforementioned gender gap explain the Honorary Award’s male-female ratio of more than 9 (9.5 to be exact) to 1?
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