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The Honorary Oscars: Who Could Be on the List? (Analysis)

When the Academy's board of governors meets tonight to vote for its annual Governors Awards, it will follow a complex process.

Oprah Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award - H 2012
©A.M.P.A.S

This evening, the 43-member board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the best-known members of which include actors Annette Bening and Tom Hanks, directors Kathryn Bigelow and Michael Mann, screenwriter Bill Condon, animator John Lasseter and documentary filmmaker Michael Moore -- will hold its monthly meeting, during which it will vote to determine the recipients of this year's Governors Awards.

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The Governors Awards encompass the honorary Oscar (presented each year as sort of a lifetime achievement award), the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (given periodically -- only 39 times, thus far -- to a producer with an impressive body of work) and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (the least frequently presented award -- it has been awarded only 34 times -- which goes to someone who has done important work for others). As many as four honorees can be chosen. (Last year, there were three: James Earl Jones and Dick Smith received honorary Oscars, and Oprah Winfrey was presented with the Hersholt Award.)

If I had to guess which four people will be honored this year -- and it's strictly an educated guess, based on who currently sits on the Academy's board, who has not received proper Academy recognition in the past, the lack of women among the Academy's past nominees and the fields that have not been represented by a recent honoree -- I would predict the following: composer Philip Glass, documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog and actress Gena Rowlands for honorary Oscars and producer Robert Evans for the Thalberg Award. (My backups: actor-director Mel Brooks; actors James Garner and Hal Holbrook; actresses Cicely TysonDebbie Reynolds, and Leslie Caron; visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen; and film critic Roger Ebert for honorary Oscars, and Doris Day for the Hersholt Award.)

To understand what informs those picks, it's necessary to know how the honorees have been chosen by the board. As it has been explained to me, it works as follows: The governors each can nominate as many people as they wish for each award, and the names are then posted in their meeting room. Each governor then can vote for one nominee to receive one award. The nominee who has the most support is then put before the entire group for a yes or no vote; should the majority of those votes prove to be yes, then that person is confirmed as a winner. Then the process repeats itself, until a second and then third honoree is chosen. For a fourth and final award to be given, the threshold increases to a two-thirds majority. In other words, the Academy would like to see at least three honorees but no more than four, and a fourth honoree has to be as widely regarded to be as deserving as the initial three choices.

Each of the Academy's 15 branches  -- actors, cinematographers, designers, directors, documentary, executives, film editors, makeup artists and hairstylists, music, producers, public relations, short films and feature animation, sound, visual effects and writers -- is represented on the board by three members, save for makeup artists and hairstylists, which has only one representative. Consequently, each branch would like to see one of its own honored every once in a while.

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During the past 20 years, the honorary Oscar has been presented to 27 individuals: nine directors (Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Donen, Elia Kazan, Andre Wajda, Blake Edwards, Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman and Jean-Luc Godard), eight actors (Deborah Kerr, Kirk Douglas, Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Peter O'Toole, Lauren Bacall, Eli Wallach and Jones), two cinematographers (Jack Cardiff and Gordon Willis), a producer (Roger Corman), a screenwriter (Ernest Lehman), an art director (Robert Boyle), a makeup artist (Smith), an animator (Chuck Jones), a composer (Ennio Morricone), a choreographer (Michael Kidd) and even a film preservationist (Kevin Brownlow). During that same time period, the Thalberg Award has been presented to eight people: directors George Lucas, Norman Jewison, and Francis Ford Coppola; actor-directors Clint Eastwood and Warren Beatty; producers Saul Zaentz and Dino De Laurentiis; and studio chief John Calley. Finally, since 1992, the Hersholt Award has gone to nine people: actors Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman and Jerry Lewis; actor-producer Winfrey; director Arthur Hiller; studio chief Sherry Lansing; composer Quincy Jones; and executive Roger Mayer.

In short, it's a pretty safe bet that at least one actor or director will be among the three or four honorees announced Thursday, and that at least one nonactor or nondirector will be, as well. (Honorees tend not to have won an Oscar outright during their careers, but having done so is not automatically disqualifying -- see Coppola, Smith, etc.)

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But since the process is inherently unpredictable, here's a longer list of possibilities that the Academy could choose to honor this year:

Directors: 92-year-old Alain Resnais (never nominated, despite making many French New Wave classics including Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Year at Marienbad, and Muriel); 74-year-old Ridley Scott (zero-for-three nominations -- Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and Black Hawk Down -- and also he just lost his beloved brother/collaborator); and 84-year-old James Ivory (the surviving half of the Merchant Ivory team that became synonymous with period-piece costume dramas such as the three that were nominated for best picture -- A Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day).

Actors: 84-year-old Garner (the once-nominated -- for Murphy's Romance -- star of the classics The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, The Children's Hour, and Victor/Victoria); 87-year-old Holbrook (beloved character actor -- best known for All the President's Men -- who scored his one and only nom five years ago for Into the Wild); 72-year-old Martin Sheen (the never-nominated star of classics including Badlands and Apocalypse Now); 76-year-old Albert Finney (zero-for-five nominations -- including a nom for his starring role in the best picture Oscar winner Tom Jones -- but he has declined to attend the Oscars every time he has been nominated); 79-year-old Gene Wilder (beloved comedian who went zero-for-two nominations, losing for both his supporting work in The Producers and writing of Young Frankenstein); 80-year-old Omar Sharif (nominated and lost for Lawrence of Arabia but not for Doctor Zhivago or Funny Girl); 75-year-old Ned Beatty (beloved and prolific character actor who was nominated but lost for Network and was also great in Deliverance and All the President's Men); 83-year-old Max von Sydow, a two-time acting nominee, including for last year's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; 77-year-old Donald Sutherland (the never-nominated star of MASH, Klute, Don't Look Now, and Ordinary People, among others); 72-year-old James Caan (nominated for The Godfather but overlooked for The Godfather Part II and Misery); and 70-year-old Harrison Ford (the once-nominated -- for Witness -- star of more blockbusters than anyone else in history, including the classic Star Wars and Indiana Jones films).

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Actresses: 82-year-old Rowlands (the twice-nominated actress who gave many landmark performances in films that helped to redefine indie cinema, including many with her late husband John Cassavetes); 88-year-old Day (one of the biggest box-office stars of her era -- only once nominated for an Oscar -- and a longtime philanthropist but also a recluse who has declined to accept similar awards in-person in the past); 78-year-old Tyson (a trailblazing and influential black actress who scored an Oscar nom for Sounder); 80-year-old Reynolds (the once-nominated actress best known for the classic Singin' in the Rain and for being one of the great champions/preservationists of Hollywood's Golden Age); 81-year-old Caron (the twice-nominated dancing star of best picture Oscar winners An American in Paris and Gigi); 79-year-old Kim Novak (one of the all-time great beauties and the star of the film that was recently voted the greatest ever, Vertigo); 92-year-old Maureen O'Hara (the never-nominated star of many classics, including The Quiet Man); 86-year-old Angela Lansbury (the thrice-nominated character actress known for classics from Gaslight to The Manchurian Candidate to Beauty and the Beast); 68-year-old Catherine Deneuve (the never-nominated star of numerous foreign classics and one of the all-time great beauties); 84-year-old Jeanne Moreau (ditto); and 85-year-old Gina Lollobrigidia (ditto).

Producers: 82-year-old Evans (the former Paramount executive produced a number of classic films but has only one best picture nomination, for Chinatown, to his name); 74-year-old Alan Ladd Jr. (he won one best picture Oscar for Braveheart, but that doesn't begin to suggest the breadth of his career); and 60-year-old Harvey Weinstein and 54-year-old Scott Rudin -- both are among the most prolific producers of their generation, but it might be too soon for them to graduate to legendary status. Also a possibility: 80-year-old George Stevens Jr., a producer who also founded the American Film Institute.

Screenwriters: 86-year-old Brooks (who has only one Oscar, for screenwriting, despite writing and/or directing many comedy classics, such as The ProducersBlazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein); 69-year-old Mike Leigh (the British director has earned five screenwriting noms and two more for directing), 63-year-old Lawrence Kasdan (three screenwriting noms, beginning with The Big Chill, but no win) and 75-year-old Philip Kaufman (one screenwriter nom for 1988's The Unbearable Lightness of Being). 

Documentary filmmakers: 70-year-old Herzog; 85-year-old Albert Maysles; and 82-year-old Frederick Wiseman.

Composer: 75-year-old Glass (zero-for-three nominations)

Costume designers: 85-year-old Piero Tosi (zero-for-five nominations, including ones for The Leopard and La Cage Aux Folles); Patricia Norris (zero-for-five nominations, including ones for Days of Heaven and The Elephant Man)

Visual effects artists: 70-year-old Douglas Trumbull (zero-for-three in competitive categories but has two tech awards under his belt thanks to work on films including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner and The Tree of Life); and 92-year-old Harryhausen (never nominated, despite paving the way in stop-motion animation with such classics as Mighty Joe Young, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, and Jason and the Argonauts)

Film critic: 70-year-old Ebert (the most famous, widely read and prolific film critic, and only the second to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, who has remained as active as ever despite terrible health problems).

The winners -- whether they are in attendance or not -- will be celebrated at the fourth annual Academy's Governors Awards ceremony, which is widely regarded by talent and press as a highlight of the awards season. The awards will be presented Dec. 1 at the Hollywood & Highland Center.