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Honorary Oscars: Angela Lansbury, Greta Garbo Among Few Women Winners

Honorary Oscars Angela Lansbury Angelina JolieHonorary Oscars have bypassed women: Angela Lansbury, Greta Garbo among rare exceptions (image: 2013 Honorary Oscar winner Angela Lansbury and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award winner Angelina Jolie)

September 4, 2014, Introduction: This four-part article on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Honorary Awards and the dearth of female Honorary Oscar winners was originally posted in February 2007. The article was updated in February 2012 and fully revised before its republication today. All outdated figures regarding the Honorary Oscars and the Academy's other Special Awards have been "scratched out," with the updated numbers and related information inserted below each affected paragraph or text section. See also "Honorary Oscars 2014 addendum" at the bottom of this post.

At the 1936 Academy Awards ceremony, groundbreaking film pioneer D.W. Griffith, by then a veteran with more than 500 shorts and features to his credit – among them the epoch-making The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance – became the first individual to receive the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' equivalent to a "Lifetime Achievement Academy Award." Seventy-six years and 87 (my count*) such Honorary Oscar winners later – including actor James Earl Jones and make-up artist Dick Smith in 2011 – a mere nine women have been recognized for their cinematic oeuvre and/or their pioneering film work and/or their "services to the industry."

Honorary Oscars 2014 update: As of September 2014 – or 78 years (and several months) after the 1936 Academy Awards ceremony – 96 (my count) individuals have been named Honorary Oscar winners for their body of work, pioneering film work, and/or "services to the industry." The number of female recipients has gone up to 11.

Honorary Oscars' Women winners

As mentioned in the first paragraph, the Academy has to date chosen nine female Honorary Oscar winners – eight of them actresses, including one actress-producer-studio executive. They are the following:

  • Three-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Greta Garbo (Romance and Anna Christie†, Camille, Ninotchka) at the 1955 ceremony;
  • Pioneering actress (The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms), Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (Duel in the Sun), and D.W. Griffith muse Lillian Gish in 1971;
  • Oscar-winning actress (Coquette), film producer (My Best Girl, The Gay Desperado), and United Artists co-founder Mary Pickford in 1976;
  • Oscar-nominated editor Margaret Booth (Mutiny on the Bounty) in 1978;
  • Four-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas; Ball of Fire; Double Indemnity; Sorry, Wrong Number) in 1982;
  • Actress Myrna Loy (The Thin Man, The Best Years of Our Lives, Cheaper by the Dozen) in 1991;
  • Best Actress Oscar winner / nominee Sophia Loren (won for Two Women, nominated for Marriage Italian Style) in 1991;
  • Six-time Oscar nominee Deborah Kerr (Edward, My Son; From Here to Eternity; The King and I; Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison; Separate Tables; The Sundowners) in 1994;
  • Hollywood legend (To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, How to Marry a Millionaire) and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Lauren Bacall (The Mirror Has Two Faces) in 2009.

Considering the caliber of the female talent that has remained Honorary Oscar-less since the mid-1930s (see follow-up post "Honorary Oscars: Doris Day Snubbed"), it seems clear that the Academy's Board of Governors have suffered from a long-standing inability to recognize women's achievements on a par with those of men. In that regard, Academy members are as selectively near-sighted as the vast majority of film critics and historians, film festival organizers, and film academies elsewhere – but that is no excuse. (See also "European Movies Lifetime Achievement Award: Women Mostly Ignored.")

Honorary Oscars 2014 update: There are two more recent female honorees. They are three-time Academy Award-nominated actress Angela Lansbury (Gaslight, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Manchurian Candidate) in 2013, and actress Maureen O'Hara (How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, The Quiet Man) in 2014. Once again: that's a total of 11 women, 10 of them actresses – including multitasking film pioneer Mary Pickford.

Irving G. Thalberg and Gordon E. Sawyer awards: No women winners

Although female child and/or adolescent stars Shirley Temple (1934), Deanna Durbin (1938), Judy Garland (1939), Margaret O'Brien (1944), Peggy Ann Garner (1945), and Hayley Mills (1960) have taken home "Juvenile Oscars" – thus comprising half of the total number of winners of that particular Academy award – adult women have fared quite poorly with the Academy and its Special Awards.

To date, not a single woman has been honored with 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 with 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, Alfred Hitchcock, and Hal B. Wallis to Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola – have been handed the Thalberg Award. The Sawyer Award, "customarily" recommended by the Academy's Scientific and Technical Awards Committee, has gone to 22 men, among them cinematographer Joseph Walker, visual effects creator and film producer Ray Harryhausen, and former Walt Disney Studios executive and Iwerks Entertainment co-founder Don Iwerks.

Admittedly, 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 have been involved in the production of Hollywood movies. 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. That said, Margaret Ménégoz, for one, has been quite busy for decades producing high-quality international films, among them Mauro Bolognini's Lady of the Camelias, Agnieszka Holland's Europa Europa, and Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon.

Oscar 2014 update: the number of Gordon E. Sawyer Award recipients now totals 24, with the addition of producer, director, and visual effects technician Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) in 2011, and cinematographer and visual effects technician Peter W. Anderson (Never Cry Wolf, Roland Emmerich's Godzilla) in 2013. To date, Francis Ford Coppola, whose credits as producer / executive producer range from The Conversation and The Godfather: Part II to Marie Antoinette and On the Road, remains the most recent Irving G. Thalberg Award honoree.

Few female Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award recipients

Now, what about the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Awards, whose recipients are handpicked by the Academy's Board of Governors? Named after actor and former Academy president Jean Hersholt (Greed, The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg), since the award's inception in 1957 (the year after Hersholt's death), 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 (2007), and actress-producer-talk-show hostess Oprah Winfrey (2011).

Now, does that male-female discrepancy mean women are more self-absorbed than men? Or does the Academy's Board of Governors believe that women's deeds are less important than those of men?

Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award 2014 update: The number of winners now totals 37, following the addition of Jeffrey Katzenberg in 2012, Angelina Jolie in 2013, and Harry Belafonte in 2014. To date seven women have been honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, six of them actresses. That includes not only Oprah Winfrey, but also Winfrey's fellow multitasker Angelina Jolie, who, from Girl, Interrupted to Maleficent, remains by far best known for her work in front of the camera.

Academy's Honorary Awards: Male-female ratio

Of course, 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 Oscars for career achievement, would the aforementioned gender gap explain a male-female ratio of more than 9 (9.66 to be exact) to 1? Even sticking only to the acting categories**, the ratio currently stands at 38 to 8, or about 4.75 to 1.

Honorary Oscars 2014 update: In the last two years, the male-female ratio of Honorary Oscar winners has gone down to 8.7 to 1. Among actors, the ratio currently stands at 4.1 to 1. (See also partial list of male Honorary Award winners.)

Honorary Oscars 2014 addendum

Since the inception of the Governors Awards in 2009, the Academy's Board of Governors has been allowed to select up to four Special Award honorees each year; that, in turn, has given more women the chance to have their career achievements recognized. Here's the evidence: in the last five years, no less than five women have been named Special Award honorees. They are Honorary Award winners Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, and Maureen O'Hara; and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award winners Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie.

Also worth noting, the Academy's early 21st century Board of Governors members are in all likelihood less male-oriented than those of the last century. In fact, currently (2014-2015) nearly one third of them are women. As a result, in the not-too-distant future this four-part article on Honorary Oscars and women will quite possibly become not only outdated, but downright dated as well. For the time being, keep on reading...

["Greta Garbo, Angela Lansbury: Few Women Win Honorary Oscars" continues on the next page. See link below.]

† Greta Garbo was a Best Actress Academy Award double nominee for Anna Christie and Romance, both directed by Clarence Brown, in the period 1930-31. That was the last year the Academy allowed actors to be nominated for more than one film in the same category.

Photo of Honorary Oscar winner Angela Lansbury and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award winner Angelina Jolie at the 2013 Governors Ball: Matt Petit / © Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences / A.M.P.A.S.

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13 Comments to Honorary Oscars: Angela Lansbury, Greta Garbo Among Few Women Winners

  1. Andre

    @Steven Mascaro

    I believe that all of the (mostly) actresses you suggested are mentioned in part two of this four-part article. Here:


  2. Steven Mascaro

    I really think Doris Day should head the list of women honored by the Academy. I also think Barbra Streisand should get a special Oscar for her charity work and the support she has given to other women. Meryl Steep would be another good choice. I'm shocked by the lack of women honored.
    For my dad and his generation the movies were all about the women. I also think Sally Field is as deserving as anyone. And Jane Fonda helped to define what a woman could do as a actor. Women of color should be honored too.
    I really think Cicely Tyson is long overdue an award. If we look to England, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Vanessa Redgrave and Helen Mirren should be honored. What about Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve? Joanne Woodward would be a nice choice too. Diane Keaton and Shirley MacLaine.

  3. 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..

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. Andre

    How could I have forgotten to include Thelma Ritter in my piece? I'll add her name to it right away...

  7. 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!

  8. Andre


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

    Anyhow, with the Honorary Awards now handed out at a separate ceremony, it's possible that a prospective 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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).

  13. 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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