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A Year After Oprah, Academy Opts Against Honoring A-Listers at Governors Awards (Analysis)

A closer look at stuntman Hal Needham, doc filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, producer George Stevens, Jr., and studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg.

A year after the Academy honored the world famous Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones at its third annual Governors Awards ceremony, it has decided to honor at its fourth four individuals who are decidedly not household names, but whose immense contributions to the industry should not be understated. At the Dec. 1 ceremony, 81-year-old stuntman Hal Needham, 87-year-old documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, and 80-year-old producer George Stevens, Jr. will receive honorary Oscars, and 61-year-old studio executive Jeffrey Katzenberg will be presented with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which has only been given out 34 times in the past. Collectively, they have no shortage of great Hollywood stories to share -- or of A-list friends to help share them at the event.

Needham, who trained under John Wayne's stunt double, began working regularly in the 1950s. He most frequently doubled for Burt Reynolds, in whose guest house he lived for many years, and for whom he also co-wrote a story and directed a film, Smokey and the Bandit (1977). (I would be very surprised in Reynolds isn't among those fêting Needham at the ceremony.) He recently wrote a fascinating autobiography, Stuntman! My Car-Crashing, Plane-Jumping, Bone-Breaking, Death-Defying Hollywood Life, which he also discussed on NPR. In the Academy's 85-year history, only one other person has ever received an honorary Oscar for stunt work: the legendary Yakima Canutt got one in 1966.

Pennebaker is best known for his cinéma vérité style, which he most famously employed in two political docs: Primary (1960), which tracked John F. Kennedy's march to the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, and The War Room (1993), which tracked Bill Clinton's. In the Academy's 85-year history, no one has ever previously received an honorary Oscar for documentary filmmaking, so this selection should delight the Academy's documentary branch and doc lovers everywhere.

Stevens, Jr., is the son of the legendary filmmaker George Stevens (to whom the Academy awarded two best director Oscars, an honorary Oscar, and an Irving Thalberg Award). The younger Stevens has written, directed, and produced, primarily for television (he has 11 Emmys to his name and co-founded the Kennedy Center Honors in 1977, which he has produced every year since), but also for film (his 1963 short The Five Cities of June was nominated for best documentary short and the 1998 feature The Thin Red Blue, which he produced, was nominated for best picture). He probably made his greatest mark, though, as the founding director of the American Film Institute, which has done as much as any organization to preserve and enrich American cinema. He has also compiled two wonderful oral histories, Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood's Golden Age at the American Film Institute and Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation.

Katzenberg, meanwhile, is best known as the K sandwiched between the S (Steven Spielberg) and G (David Geffen) in DreamWorks SKG, the studio that the three men co-founded in 1994; he now runs DreamWorks Animation, which was spun off from DreamWorks in 2004. Katzenberg has been a longtime fundraiser for the Motion Picture and Television Fund, among many other philanthropic organizations. He is also a leading fundraiser/bundler for President Barack Obama's re-election campaign.

This is the first time since the creation of the Governors Awards in 2009 that an actor will not be among the honorees. Early responses to the announcement of this year's selections have included surprise and dismay that a woman and/or a person of color is not among this year's honorees and that two Hollywood insiders are -- but mostly applause for the Academy's decision to honor eminently deserving but frequently under-appreciated people rather than A-listers.