August 03, 2011 8:24pm PT by Tim Appelo
Critics Boo Oprah's Honorary Oscar
Oprah, meet Oscar. On Tuesday the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to give Oprah Winfrey an honorary Oscar at the Nov. 12 Governor's Awards. It's called the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, given to an "individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.'”
Not everyone is applauding the move, because Winfrey hasn't exactly shown a laserlike focus on movies since her 1986 Oscar nomination for The Color Purple. "She's in the motion picture industry?" New York Film Critics Circle chair John Anderson asks THR sarcastically. "It seems like a shameless bid for a ratings boost -- although once they start showing clips from Beloved and The Color Purple the numbers will plummet." Many charge that giving Winfrey the philanthropic award is really an attempt to get her to be philanthropic to the academy, by showing up at the February Oscar broadcast as well as the untelevised Governor's Awards.
The Los Angeles Times' Patrick Goldstein called Winfrey's award "boneheaded." Even a Winfrey fan like former NWFCC chair Armond White, who enthusiastically voted for her in the 1986 National Society of Film Critics Awards and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, was appalled. "Does this newly announced Academy prize prove that Oprah means the same thing to Hollywood as past Jean Hersholt Award winners Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Lew Wasserman, Charlton Heston?" White asks THR rhetorically. "Is this just another way for the academy to continue to grovel for TV ratings?"
Yes, probably. And Winfrey could sure use some Oscar-fueled ratings boost for her fledgling Oprah Winfrey Network.
Winfrey's award, along with the honorary Oscar that will be given to James Earl Jones, also serves to soothe the Academy's probable guilt over the much-criticized chronic absence of black faces among the regular Oscar nominees. Winfrey is the second black Hersholt winner after 1995's Quincy Jones. "Is the Academy kowtowing to the silly complaints that no black actors were nominated this year?" says White. "The Oscars are supposed to be about the works Hollywood admires, not a score-keeping mechanism for ethnic and racial equality. By that standard the Oscars fail Native Americans, Asians, Africans, Scandinavians, and Latin Americans every year. I'm afraid those complaints were just media hype, an attempt by some to hold the Oscars hostage to political correctness."
It seems unlikely that Winfrey (or the exceedingly eminent actor Jones) is a mere example of PC tokenism. But so far, her Hersholt isn't winning many awards in the court of public opinion.