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 All outdated figures regarding the Honorary Oscars and the Academy's other Special Awards have been “scratched out,” with the updated numbers and related information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 Oscar's 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 / © A.M.P.A.S. / A.M.P.A.S.

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