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Honorary Oscar Recipients to be Chosen Today

AMPAS board of governors will select the largest slate of honorary winners in years.

The first Academy Awards of 2009 will be voted on today – not by the full AMPAS membership of close to 6,000, but by the 43 members of the Academy’s Board of Governors, who’ll meet to select the recipients of what will henceforth be called the Governors Awards.


The awards come in three categories: the Irving Thalberg Award, a bust of its namesake which is given to a producer for his body of work; the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an Oscar statuette given for charitable or humanitarian efforts; and the most-awarded of the three, the Honorary Academy Award, which rewards a career in any aspect of film.


The honors are being voted a couple of months earlier than usual, since they’ll be handed out not on the main Oscar show but at a separate gala on November 14. And that event will undoubtedly see the largest slate of honorary winners in many years, courtesy of new rules that make it much easier to bestow the awards.


In recent years it’s taken a two-thirds vote of the governors to select the first recipient and a three-fourths vote for the second. New guidelines, instituted when the awards were moved to their own event, call for a simple majority for the first three awards, and three-fourths for the fourth. That means tonight’s gathering will almost certainly result in three Governors Awards, and possibly even four. (Above, composer Ennio Morricone receives his honorary Oscar from Clint Eastwood in 2006.  Photo: AMPAS)


So how do they choose who gets what? As usual when it comes to the Academy and voting, it’s a little more complicated than you might imagine.


Prior to the meeting, the AMPAS administration sends each governor a binder containing all the letters of nomination the Academy has received from its members throughout the year. (Letters from non-members are generally discounted – because, executive director Bruce Davis once told me, “if we did it based on public things, all three of the Three Stooges would have honorary awards.”)


At the meeting, the governors can then nominate candidates for any of the three awards. Their candidates don’t have to come from the names in their binders, and many of the members’ proposals are not placed in nomination.


Rather than deciding on each type of award separately, all the names are put on the table at once: one governor might nominate somebody for the Thalberg, another tabs someone for the Hersholt, others pick candidates for Honorary Oscars.


This usually results in about nine or 10 names on the board – at which point, says Davis, “there’s usually a moment when you can see everybody’s mouths open as they’re thinking, my god, they all deserve it. How do you narrow it down?”


But narrow it down they do: each governor votes electronically for the person they think is most deserving, and a winner is chosen. But that person hasn’t won his or her Oscar quite yet – instead, another round of voting is held, where the question before the Governors is a simple one: Do you support giving an Oscar to this candidate?


An Oscar is awarded if the person under consideration gets enough votes (in recently years, the magic number was 30 if all governors are present; tonight it’ll be 22, or fewer if they have no-shows). Then the process starts again: an initial vote narrows the remaining candidates to one, and a second vote decides the fate of that one.


So it goes, until the candidates don’t get enough votes, or until the limit is reached. (For the past seven years, that limit has been two honoraries in a single year; now, it’s four, with no more than one Thalberg and one Hersholt.)


“It’s a very genteel process,” says Davis. “People assume that there are furious speeches against various candidates, but that never happens. No one ever attacks another candidate.”


Adds a former governor, "Somebody might say, 'Here's a person who's been nominated six times but never won.'  If that comes after another governor has nominated somebody who already has an Oscar, it could factor into our thinking.  But that's the closest thing you'll ever hear to a negative comment."


Even in the case of the controversial honorary Oscar given to director Elia Kazan in 1999, there was reportedly no rancor in the room.  In fact, actor and past AMPAS president Karl Malden gave such a passionate speech in support of Kazan that the governors voted immediately with a show of hands; apart from two abstentions, recalls a participant, the vote was unanimous.


So tonight they’ll vote calmly, and tonight they’ll probably make it up to a few of the people who’ve been passed over in recent years under a system that made it extremely difficult to award more than one honorary Oscar.


Alan Ladd, Jr., John Calley and Brian Grazer are among those who've been rumored to be near-misses in the past few years, so it wouldn’t surprise if at least one of them ended up on the list.  (They've been rumored despite the fact that the governors are strongly warned, says one former board member, never to discuss the process and never, ever to reveal the runners-up.)   


But there are plenty of others who could be in the running. Roger Corman, for discovering and/or nurturing so many significant talents? Gil Cates, no longer a board member himself (sitting governors are ineligible), for taking over the Oscar show in 1990 and becoming its most prolific, and in some ways its most successful producer?


Particularly with this year’s crop launching the new Governors Awards dinner, though, it seems unlikely that the honorees won’t include at least one veteran actor – probably one who’s been nominated never won a competitive Oscar, such as Tony Curtis, or Maureen O’Hara, or Lauren Bacall, or …


And if you envision that the increase in the number of likely honorees would mean that lobbying has been particularly fierce this year, Davis says that hasn’t been the case.


“I have been somewhat surprised by how little lobbying there has been,” he says. “Maybe we’ve just sprung the rule changes as so much of a surprise that people haven’t rallied, and by the second year we’ll be seeing more of that. But this is a decision that the governors themselves are supposed to make, and it would please me if they did some soul searching and thinking, and if the proposals came from them.


“You can always tell when there’s a PR campaign going on behalf of somebody, because the letters we receive all sound the same. And generally, the governors discount those kind of things if they seem too managed.”


In the past, the Academy has waited until the next morning to make the announcement; they’ve also spread out the announcement over a couple of days in the instances when they’ve had more than one winner. This year, though, the names will all be announced at once – and while the release might come tomorrow morning, it also may well come tonight, immediately after the meeting.