Oscars: Who Will Academy Tap for Governors Awards? (Analysis)

Ahead of Tuesday's big vote, THR's awards analyst reports that a record number of names have been submitted for consideration; letter-writing campaigns have been mounted on behalf of Robert Evans, Lina Wertmuller and Jonas Mekas; and Doris Day has asked not to be honored.
Tommaso Boddi, Gary Gershoff/WireImage; Anthony Harvey/FilmMagic
Top candidates include Robert Evans (left), Cicely Tyson and James Ivory.

At the Aug. 30 meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science's board of governors, the 54 board members representing the roughly 7,000-member organization will vote to determine the recipients of a couple of honorary Oscars and perhaps an Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and/or Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. The awards, which will be presented at the 8th annual Governors Awards ceremony on Nov. 12, will be announced publicly once the Academy notifies the honorees.

Before the meeting itself, each member of the board gets to nominate candidates, and The Hollywood Reporter can confirm that there have been an unprecedented number of nominations this year — more than 100, with others undoubtedly still to come before the Tuesday night vote. Each name then will be discussed and debated at that closed-door session. (Some candidates and their friends have already begun rallying support for their cause.)

Governors Awards honorees always come from a variety of sectors of the business, because each of the 17 branches represented on the board wants to see someone from its ranks recognized. For that reason, it's quite likely that at least one of this year's honorary Oscar recipients will hail from one of the seven branches that have not previously had someone from their field recognized.

Who could emerge from those branches? In the case of casting directors, Lynn Stalmaster is hands-down the most revered among those still living. Among the designers, 90-year-old Albert Brenner is 0-for-5 in competition, despite credits including The Turning Point and Pretty Woman. Film editors could put forward past board member/Oscar winner Anne V. Coates, whose work spans Lawrence of Arabia through Fifty Shades of Grey, or perhaps Oscar-less Richard Marks, whose résumé includes The Godfather Part II, Apocalypse Now and all of James L. Brooks' films. Among music branch members, Philip Glass somehow has never won in competition. As for the public relations branch, retired legend Pat Kingsley would have the best shot, even if she ruffled some feathers during the course of her career. A possible sound candidate is past board member Kevin O'Connell, who is 0-for-20 in competition. And in the area of visual effects, nobody would argue with 2001: A Space Odyssey's groundbreaking Douglas Trumbull, who never won a competitive Oscar and still is innovating.

The other honorary Oscar probably would go to an Oscar-less actor, director or writer, since the Academy wants at least one of its honorees to be a widely known name.

Among male actors, the best bet appears to be 87-year-old Swedish legend Max von Sydow (he did 11 films for Ingmar Bergman and still guests on Game of Thrones). Alternatively, there is Gene Wilder (beloved master of screen comedy), Ned Beatty or Hal Holbrook (both ultimate character actors), Martin Sheen (Badlands and Apocalypse Now) and Albert Finney (star of 1963's best picture Tom Jones). A potential wild-card: Harrison Ford, star of innumerable blockbusters, who was nominated only once (for 1985's Witness) and has a lot of powerful friends on the board (including Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Marvin Levy).

On the distaff side, look out for 91-year-old Cicely Tyson (a nominee for Sounder), who's still going strong, or the trailblazing 77-year-old Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann (Bergman's muse and a two-time runner-up who recently was cited by Meryl Streep as a major influence). Other top foreign-born possibilities include Catherine Deneuve, Leslie Caron (star of two best picture Oscar winners, An American in Paris and Gigi), Jeanne Moreau and Gina Lollobrigida.

Directing frontrunners include 88-year-old James Ivory (the surviving half of the Merchant Ivory team that became synonymous with period costume dramas such as best picture nominees A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day), 77-year-old Peter Bogdanovich (as significant a film historian as filmmaker), 84-year-old Richard Lester and Terrence Malick (although the fact that he's almost sure to be a no-show would be a deterrent). Also, look out for Italian filmmaker Lina Wertmuller, the first woman ever nominated for the best director Oscar (for 1975's Seven Beauties), on whose behalf Oscar winners Sophia Loren, Harvey Weinstein, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren and Taylor Hackford all have sent letters to the board.

Other prospects include writer Philip Kaufman; documentarians Michael Apted and Frederick Wiseman; and a real outside-the-box name being pushed by WGA West president Howard Rodman, writer/director Steven Soderbergh and numerous other big-name auteurs — Jonas Mekas, the 93-year-old "godfather of American avant-garde cinema," who is being described in letters to the board as "the ultimate embodiment of New York film culture." (Considering that the board previously awarded an honorary Oscar to film historian Kevin Brownlow, whose profession also doesn't neatly correspond with one of the Academy's branches, this absolutely could pan out.)

Unlike the honorary Oscar, the Thalberg, which recognizes a producer for an outstanding body of work, is given very irregularly — just 39 times, most recently in 2010. Robert Evans, the larger-than-life Paramount studio chief (The Godfather and The Godfather Part II) turned independent producer (Chinatown, Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Urban Cowboy), has the strongest shot at landing one this year. The charismatic 86-year-old, who never won a competitive Oscar, has been championed in letters to the board penned by the likes of Brett Ratner, one of many younger filmmakers he's mentored, and he also has the support of close friends including Jack Nicholson, Ali MacGraw, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman — precisely the type of heavyweights the Academy would hope to have on hand to toast an honoree in November.

The Academy also could make history by giving the Thalberg to someone who is younger than Evans but also eminently qualified: Gale Ann Hurd, who would be the first woman ever accorded the Thalberg. Hurd, who won the PGA's David O. Selznick Achievement Award in 2015, has producing credits spanning The Terminator and Aliens through TV's The Walking Dead, though she never has been nominated for an Oscar. If her candidacy was championed solely by her ex-husbands (James Cameron and Brian De Palma) she'd have a great shot, but in fact her fan base is much larger (and includes past Governors Award honoree Roger Corman, who gave her a start in the business).

Were Kathleen Kennedy, Spielberg's producer-turned-chief of Lucasfilm, not currently on the board, she would be a likely pick — she's an eight-time best picture nominee.

Longer-shot Thalberg possibilities include several producers who have won a competitive Oscar — something that did not prevent the Academy from recognizing Francis Ford Coppola a few years ago — such as 78-year-old Alan Ladd, Jr. (Braveheart), Scott Rudin (who has turned down the honor in the past) and Harvey Weinstein (the embattled co-chief of The Weinstein Co.).

As for the Hersholt, the least frequently presented Governors Award — bestowed only 35 times, it honors someone who has done important work for others — the people's choice is, as always, animal savior Doris Day. But I'm told that the reclusive 92-year-old has asked, in years past, not to be given the award, so I wouldn't bet on her. Alternative options include another longtime animal activist, Tippi Hedren; George Clooney, for his many good works; Barbra Streisand, for her Barbra Streisand Foundation; or — how about this for a surprise, in the wake of last year's #OscarsSoWhite tensions — Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith for their Will Smith and Jada Smith Family Foundation.

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