Today, the American Film Institute announced that at a gala ceremony to be held in June 2011 Morgan Freeman will be handed the AFI Life Achievement Award, which “honors an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.”
Past recipients include John Ford, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Huston, Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Al Pacino, Fred Astaire, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Barbra Streisand, James Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Mike Nichols, Jack Lemmon, Martin Scorsese, and Barbara Stanwyck. [List of AFI Life Achievement Award winners.]
As per the AFI selection criteria, “the recipient should be one whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”
So, why Morgan Freeman, whose film career began in earnest less than three decades ago?
What about Shirley MacLaine or Lauren Bacall or Diane Keaton or Woody Allen or Olivia de Havilland or Cliff Robertson or Jane Fonda or Joan Fontaine or Mel Brooks or … all of whom have been around making movies for forty years or longer.
Well, probably for the same reason Jude Law and Sylvester Stallone were handed career awards at the French Césars, and Tom Hanks (then 45) and Steven Spielberg (then 48) were honored with the AFI Life Achievement Award: television ratings.
After all, though no longer broadcast on one of the networks (TV LAND will air next year's ceremony), those Life Achievement awards earn the AFI some cold, hard cash.
In fact, in 1993, in order to honor Steven Spielberg, and later the likes of Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, Michael Douglas, Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, Clint Eastwood, Jack Nicholson, and Harrison Ford, the AFI Board of Trustees “extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.”
For comparison's sake: When John Ford won his Life Achievement award in 1973, he had been making movies for more than half a century. The same goes for William Wyler, Alfred Hitchcock, and Frank Capra.
Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, James Cagney, Fred Astaire, and James Stewart had all been around for more than four decades.
Orson Welles was the sole newcomer, what with a mere 34 years of moviemaking.
I should also mention that the honoree must be willing to go to the party. That's surely the reason why Katharine Hepburn and Greta Garbo were never honored. And the same goes for Cary Grant, who declined to be feted.