September 2014 Introduction: This three-part article on the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Honorary Oscars and the dearth of female recipients was originally posted in February 2007 and updated in February 2012. It has been fully revised before its republication today and will continue to be updated.
Outdated figures regarding the Honorary Oscars and the Academy’s other Special Awards have been “scratched out,” with the updated numbers and related information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. Check out “Honorary Oscars 2014 addendum” at the bottom of this post.
Honorary Oscars have usually bypassed women: Angela Lansbury & Greta Garbo among rare exceptions
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 Sept. 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 2015 update: There are now 98 Honorary Oscar recipients, including 12 women.
Honorary Oscars: Women winners
As mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, 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 (for the Clarence Brown releases Romance and Anna Christie, 1929-30; Camille, 1937; Ninotchka, 1939) at the 1955 ceremony.
- Pioneering actress (The Birth of a Nation, Broken Blossoms), Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (Duel in the Sun, 1946), and D.W. Griffith muse Lillian Gish in 1971.
- Oscar-winning actress (Coquette, 1928-29), 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, 1935) in 1978.
- Four-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Barbara Stanwyck (Stella Dallas, 1937; Ball of Fire, 1941; Double Indemnity, 1944; Sorry Wrong Number, 1948) 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, 1961; nominated for Marriage Italian Style, 1964) in 1991.
- Six-time Oscar nominee Deborah Kerr (Edward My Son, 1949; From Here to Eternity, 1953; The King and I, 1956; Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, 1957; Separate Tables, 1958; The Sundowners, 1960) 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, 1996) in 2009.
Considering the caliber of the female talent that has remained Honorary Oscar-less since the mid-1930s (see link to follow-up post further below), it seems clear that the Academy’s Board of Governors has 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.
Check out: “European Film Academy Lifetime Achievement Award Honorees.”
Honorary Oscars 2015 update: There are three more recent female honorees. They are:
- Three-time Academy Award-nominated actress Angela Lansbury (shortlisted in the Best Supporting Actress category for Gaslight, 1944; The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1945; The Manchurian Candidate, 1962) in 2013.
- Actress Maureen O’Hara (How Green Was My Valley, Miracle on 34th Street, The Quiet Man) in 2014.
- Two-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Gena Rowlands (A Woman Under the Influence, 1974; Gloria, 1980) in 2015.
Once again: that’s a total of 12 women, 11 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 Irving G. Thalberg Award. The Gordon E. 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 (or international) 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 2015 update: the number of Gordon E. Sawyer Award recipients now totals 25, with the addition of the following:
- Producer, director, and visual effects technician Douglas Trumbull (2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner) in 2011.
- Cinematographer and visual effects technician Peter W. Anderson (Never Cry Wolf, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla) in 2013.
- Sound technician David W. Gray (Cat People 1982, Prizzi’s Honor) in 2014.
In the last 15 years, the only two Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award honorees have been John Calley (Postcards from the Edge, The Remains of the Day) in 2009 and, the following year, 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.
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 these, 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).
- 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 2015 update: The number of winners now totals 38, following the addition of Jeffrey Katzenberg in 2012, Angelina Jolie in 2013, Harry Belafonte in 2014, and Debbie Reynolds in 2015.
To date, eight women have been honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, seven of them actresses. The “actress” label 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 2015 update: Since 2012, the male-female ratio (currently 86/12) of Honorary Oscar winners has gone down to approx. 7.15 to 1. Among actors, the ratio (39/11) currently stands at approx. 3.55 to 1. (Check out partial list of male Honorary Award winners.)
Honorary Oscars 2015 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 six years, no less than seven women have been named Special Award honorees. They are Honorary Award winners Lauren Bacall, Angela Lansbury, Maureen O’Hara, and Gena Rowlands; and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award winners Oprah Winfrey, Angelina Jolie, and Debbie Reynolds.
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, during the 2014–2015 period nearly one third of them were women.
As a result, in the not-too-distant future this three-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…
“Honorary Oscars Bypass Women: Angela Lansbury, Greta Garbo Among Rare Women Winners” follow-up post: “Honorary Oscar: Doris Day Inexplicably ‘Snubbed.’”
Honorary Oscars: Excluded winners
 Below is a sample list of those excluded from the Honorary Oscars’ count.
Companies and organizations such as the following:
- Warner Bros., for the production of Alan Crosland’s 1927 part-talkie The Jazz Singer.
- The National Endowment for the Arts.
- The National Film Board of Canada.
- The Eastman Kodak Company.
Specific films that received Honorary Oscars, among them: Mervyn LeRoy’s 1945 short The House I Live In, starring Frank Sinatra, and non-English-language productions such as Shoeshine, Monsieur Vincent, The Walls of Malapaga, Forbidden Games, and Samurai.
Honorary Award winners for specific achievements. These include:
- Charles Chaplin “for acting, writing, directing and producing” The Circus.
- William Cameron Menzies for “the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood” in Gone with the Wind.
- Walt Disney for the creation of Mickey Mouse and, several years later, for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia.
Although not necessarily labeled as such, miniature “Juvenile Oscars” were handed out for specific achievements in a particular year.
For instance, Shirley Temple was a 1934 recipient (at the 1935 ceremony), the year she became a star after being featured in Little Miss Marker and Now and Forever, among others. Deanna Durbin was a 1938 co-winner (along with Mickey Rooney), the year she had two major hits, Mad About Music and That Certain Age. And Judy Garland won her Juvenile Oscar for the year 1939, when she was seen in The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Arms. And so on.
And finally, also excluded from my count were those who received Honorary Oscars in recognition of their “services to the Academy.” After all, those were “Thank You,” not career achievement awards, going to the likes of actor Jean Hersholt, screenwriter/producer Charles Brackett, and producer Arthur Freed, among others.
Note: Excepting the handful of female child and adolescent Juvenile Oscar winners, only one woman took home the Academy’s Honorary Award in any of the “categories” mentioned above. That was Onna White, who received her Oscar statuette for her choreography in Carol Reed’s 1968 Best Picture Academy Award winner Oliver!.
Honorary Oscars: Hyphenated actors
 Several of those 50 Honorary Oscar-winning actors – e.g., Robert Redford, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Laurence Olivier, Sidney Poitier – also performed other cinematic duties such as directing, writing, and/or producing films. But their Honorary Oscars were undeniably a direct result of their activities in front of the camera.
For instance, Robert Redford was nominated for two Best Director Academy Awards: Ordinary People (1980) and Quiz Show (1994), eventually winning for the former. Redford, however, is much better known for his star vehicles, ranging from the Best Picture Oscar winner The Sting and nominees Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men to The Great Gatsby, Three Days of the Condor, Brubaker, The Natural, and Indecent Proposal.
Photo of Honorary Oscar winner Angela Lansbury and Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award winner Angelina Jolie at the 2013 Governors Awards: Matt Petit / © A.M.P.A.S.
Oliver! choreographer Onna White photo via oliver1968.co.uk.
Greta Garbo image via Doctor Macro.
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.
I believe that all of the (mostly) actresses you suggested are mentioned in part two of this four-part article. Here:
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..
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.
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.
How could I have forgotten to include Thelma Ritter in my piece? I’ll add her name to it right away…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!