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Outdated figures regarding the Honorary Oscars and the Academy’s other Special Awards have been “scratched out,” with the updated numbers and related information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. See also “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.
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. (See also 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
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.