Honorary Oscars Bypass Women: Greta Garbo, Sophia Loren, Deborah Kerr, Mary Pickford Exceptions to Rule

Mary Pickford
Mary Pickford

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?

[Continues on next page. See link below.]

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11 Comments to Honorary Oscars: Women Bypassed

  1. Roy

    I think one of the most overlooked women of all time has got to be Ida Lupino… I believe there should be a special category for women like her.. And if I think real hard,,,,,,,, she’d be the only one in it… In front of the camera,,, she stood toe to toe with some real heavy weights.. Then she shot the locks off the industry when she went behind the camera..

  2. Betty

    Terrific article Andre but also appaling. Seems that it has always been popular to give publicity to the scandals it hasn’t been “the in thing” to honor deserving womem of Hollywood. So many come to mind, writer Frances Marion, actress Bette Davis and so on. Too many of them are gone and I suppose it wouldn’t matter anymore.
    We can only hope that the things will change in the future.

  3. Andre

    How could I have forgotten Thelma Ritter in my piece? I’ll add her name to it right away…

  4. They also won’t do posthumous awards. Members were doing a big effort to get one for Richard Widmark but he died before he got one. The only reason Audrey Hepburn was able to get her Hersholt after she died was that she died between the time of the announcement of the honor and the ceremony. They did go ahead and give Godard his, but he played games with them almost up until the night of the dinner about whether he was coming, so I bet if someone told them firmly they wouldn’t come in advance, they wouldn’t do it. It’s silly. People such as Doris Day still deserve the tribute. I think they should do something to honor those who have died and were never honored as well. Poor Thelma Ritter. 5 nominations and zero wins.

  5. Andre


    Thanks for writing.

    Things have surely changed since Greta Garbo was named a recipient of the Honorary Award back in 1955.

    Anyhow, with the Honorary Awards now handed out at a separate ceremony it’s possible that a recipient won’t have to swear they’ll be present in order to get the award. Jean-Luc Godard certainly wasn’t around last year.

  6. Audrey Kerry

    I didn’t know the recepient had to be present for the Honorary Oscar, since Garbo wasn’t there to accept hers (naturally).

    I truly wish they’d give one to Doris Day!

  7. Andre

    As far as I’m concerned, the Honorary Oscar was the highlight of an otherwise dismal ceremony. It’s indeed unfortunate that it’s no longer a part of the Oscarcast.
    I understand they can honor only so many people a year, but they’ve unjustifiably ignored a number of big names throughout the decades.

  8. I had realized you’d mentioned that before and all the men that had won that they went back and gave honorary ones to later. (One of the most mystifying to me was when they gave the Thalberg to Eastwood two years after he won two Oscars for Unforgiven.) That prompted me several years ago to write the Academy to send thema list of those of who had never been recognized. It just seems foolish to recognize again those who have been honored while those who haven’t grow older and older. Since I wrote them, I can’t confirm my letter did any good, but all the honorees were on my list while there were two or three who werent and only one (Coppola) who was a previous winner. Sadly, since that letter my suggestions who have died before they got the chance were: Eddie Albert, June Allyson, Cyd Charisse, Hume Cronyn, Tony Curtis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Glenn Ford, John Franenheimer, Richard Harris, Betty Hutton, Van Johnson, Howard Keel, Ann Miller, Arthur Penn, Jean Simmons and Richard Widmar. Still, what bugs me the most is that no matter who they honor, true movie fans will no longer get to watch it when those moments have usually been the best moments of the broadcasts as each year the show gets a little worse in their fruitless quest chasing young viewers because they can’t accept they will never equal the ratings of old because it’s not a world with only three networks anymore. They should stop catering to audiences that don’t exist and alienating the ones who do and admit that all programming is niche programming in the television universe of the 21st century.

  9. Andre

    Thanks for writing. A number of Honorary Award winners had previously won a competitive Oscar, e.g., Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Laurence Olivier, Alec Guinness. That’s why I included on my list the likes of Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave, Julie Andrews, etc. Streisand won two, as you point out in your comment (and I point out in the article), but her second Oscar was in the Best Song category. Streisand has only one acting award and none as producer or director.
    And as I explain in the article, according to a source Doris Day has been “queried” regarding a possible Honorary Oscar.

  10. The truth is they really don’t care now about the honorary awards period, since they’ve pushed them to a nontelevised dinner after the constant pressure from Disney/ABC to try to attract young viewers and avoid film history. My objections to some names you mention is my complaint to some they did honor: They won competitive Oscars. The award should be to correct past wrongs. Streisand has two competitive Oscars, she doesn’t need an honorary one when deserving people such as Maureen O’Hara, Glynis Johns, Julie Harris, Angela Lansbury, Jeanne Moreau, Joan Plowright, Gena Rowlands, Leslie Caron, Piper Laurie, Debbie Reynolds and Liv Ullman have none. Doris Day would be a very worthy choice but she seldom leaves her home and even turned down a Kennedy Center Honor because she wouldn’t travel to attend, so they probably wouldn’t try to give her one knowing this (and might have tried before).

  11. Tom

    This has long been a sore issue with the Academy for me, like 30 years or so, back when they gave the career achivement award to Alec Guinness. Yes, he deserved being honored but can anyone defend giving him such an award over Gloria Swanson or Mae West, both of them alive and well at the time and whose cinema careers certainly dwarf Mr. Guinness’.

    Jane Russell founded WAIF back in the 1950′s which has since placed over 50,000 children in American homes yet she has yet to be given the Humanitarian award and I wonder if she has ever even being seriously considered.

    There would be no Motion Picture Home without Mary Pickford’s activity and yet she was apparently never considered for the Humanitarian award either despite the fact that thousands in the industry have benefited from it. And they were ridiculously late giving Mary the “career achievement” Oscar - and THAT was met by a lot of bitchy mysogenetic talk and articles about how old and frail she was!

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