Oprah Winfrey Jean Hersholt Award Controversy Has Precedents

Oprah WinfreyThe Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' decision to hand Oprah Winfrey a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the November 12 Governors Ball ceremony, has been widely criticized. Some have remarked that Winfrey, rumored as a possible host for the 2012 Oscarcast, is a television – not a film – personality. Others have complained that Winfrey doesn't deserve the Humanitarian Award, period.

Academy president Tom Sherak came to Winfrey's defense, affirming that the billionaire (estimated net worth $2.7 billion in 2009) former talk-show hostess is “one of the most philanthropic performers in the world,” having, as per Sherak, contributed more than $500 million to charitable causes. “She's a member of the academy,” Sherak added, “she was nominated for an Academy Award [in the Best Supporting Actress category for Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple] and she has produced movies. This is not about personality. This is about a person who has come from the depths, risen to the heights and given back. That's a perfect example of why this award was created.”

Unlike the Academy Awards' competitive categories, the Academy's honorary awards usually have been devoid of controversy. Even so, there have been a few instances when the selections of the Academy's Board of Governors were less than well-received.

Three years ago, the announcement that Jerry Lewis would receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award led to an outcry against the choice of the comedian/muscular dystrophy advocate for both his repeated anti-gay slurs and what some perceived as his condescending views on those suffering from the disability.

Charlton Heston's Jean Hersholt Award at the 1979 ceremony didn't stir up trouble because at the time Heston wasn't known as a far-right National Rifle Association supporter. On the other hand, the Honorary Award given to Elia Kazan, a two-time Best Director Oscar winner and an unrepentant collaborator with the House Un-American Activities Committee, became a major issue for the Academy. There were calls for boycotting the Oscar ceremony, and a number of those present at the 1999 Oscarcast – Nick Nolte, Amy Madigan, and Ed Harris among them – refused to applaud when Kazan showed up onstage to accept his statuette.

The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award is supposed to be given to individuals with an “extraordinary distinction in lifetime achievement, exceptional contributions to the state of motion picture arts and sciences, or for outstanding service to the Academy.” Oprah Winfrey is only the sixth woman to receive the Jean Hersholt Award since the periodic award was instituted in 1957, following actresses Martha Raye (at the 1969 ceremony), Rosalind Russell (1973), Elizabeth Taylor (1993), and Audrey Hepburn (1993), and former Paramount chairman Sherry Lansing (2007).

In addition to the aforementioned names, previous winners include Paul Newman, Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, Danny Kaye, Quincy Jones, Samuel Goldwyn, George Seaton, Frank Sinatra, and Arthur Hiller.

Sherak quote: ABC News

Photo: Todd Wawrychuk / © A.M.P.A.S.

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