Academy's Governors Awards Selections Generate Applause, Raise Questions (Analysis)

Angelina Jolie Berlin Film Fest - H 2012
Getty Images

Angelina Jolie Berlin Film Fest - H 2012

This afternoon, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the names of four individuals who will be honored at its fifth annual Governors Awards ceremony -- for my money, the single best event that the Academy puts on each year, with the exception of the Oscars itself -- on Nov. 16: actress Angela Lansbury, actor-writer-director Steve Martin and costume designer Piero Tosi will receive honorary Oscars, and actress-director-humanitarian Angelina Jolie will receive the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

All four choices are certainly interesting -- and, in a few cases, provocative.

Moments after the identities of the honorees was released by the Academy, I spoke by phone with Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who was elected president of the Academy back on July 30. Boone hopped on the phone with each of the honorees over the last 48 hours, notifying each of the honorees about their selection. And she told THR that her first month or so in office couldn't be going better. "I am having so much fun, Scott -- I mean, really, truly -- whether it was announcing Ellen [DeGeneres as the next Oscar host] or now announcing this fabulous group of folks," she told me. "It's great."

Isaacs told me that she got a particular kick out of delivering the exciting news to the honorees. "They were probably wondering, 'Why is this woman calling me?'" she said with a laugh. "They were all clearly surprised -- which is why I wanted to speak to them, because I wanted to hear that surprise -- and thrilled. I think it's a bit of a shock, in a way." She added, "But you know what I wish is that I could be a fly on the wall once they hung up the phone, you know? That would be even more fun, just to see how they acted and what they said to their family and friends."

OSCARS: Academy to Honor Angeline Jolie, Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Piero Tosi

Isaacs, who co-produced last year's Governors Awards with Don Mischer, said that the only one of this year's honorees whom she has previously met is Martin -- they once worked together -- but that she is "looking forward to meeting them each in person." She described Lansbury as "one of the finest actresses in our industry," adding, "I can't tell you how many times I've referenced Gaslight, especially in my house when I think I'm being driven crazy. " Of Tosi, she said, "Over my years in the business I have learned of the influence that he has had on many others, and, of course, the importance of costume design to the overall look of a motion picture." She described Martin as "a delight," emphasizing that "his skills are pretty wide-ranging -- he's an actor and a writer -- a real Renaissance man, if you will." And of Jolie, she gushed, "her humanitarian efforts, and how she lives her life and how her support of humanitarian causes are really to be greatly admired."

For years, classic film buffs have been lobbying the Academy to recognize Lansbury, and the 87-year-old's selection was greeted with near universal applause. Lansbury received best supporting actress Oscar noms for two of her first three big screen roles -- in Gaslight (1944) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) -- and was subsequently nominated in the category again for her most iconic performance, as Mrs. Iselin, who famously wields a queen of diamonds, in The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Generations of others know her through her work in the theater (nobody has more Tonys than her five), on television (who doesn't love Murder, She Wrote?) and as the voice of Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast (1991).

The selection of Martin, 68, is a bit more provocative. He is very well-liked and talented and has undoubtedly been a great friend to the Academy, serving as Oscars host on three different occasions -- solo in 2001 and 2003, and with Alec Baldwin in 2010 -- but it is impossible to argue that his filmography is of the caliber of some of the Oscar-less older male actors over whom he was chosen, such as, say, 77-year-old Albert Finney, 85-year-old James Garner, 88-year-old Hal Holbrook, 73-year-old Martin Sheen, 81-year-old Omar Sharif, 84-year-old Max von Sydow, or, from the world of comedy, 80-year-old Gene Wilder. Martin's biggest film credits are The Jerk (1979), All of Me (1984) ¡Three Amigos! (1986), Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987), Roxanne (1987), Parenthood (1989), Father of the Bride (1991), Bowfinger (1999) and Shopgirl (2005).

PHOTOS: 30 Years of Oscar Hosts

Similarly, the selection of Jolie for the Hersholt Award is sure to rankle some, not because she isn't a great humanitarian -- she certainly is one, regularly traveling the world to use her resources and celebrity to help numerous important causes on behalf of herself and the United Nations -- but because she is also still so young and active, like Oprah Winfrey, the somewhat controversial recipient of this same award two years ago. Moreover, she already has a competitive Oscar on her mantelpiece, having been chosen as best supporting actress for Girl, Interrupted (1999), whereas, say, 89-year-old Doris Day, a great humanitarian in her own right, does not, to say nothing of 82-year-old Leslie Caron, 80-year-old Kim Novak, 93-year-old Maureen O'Hara, 81-year-old Debbie Reynolds, 83-year-old Gena Rowlands and 79-year-old Cicely Tyson.

As for Tosi, few outside of the business will recognize his name, but upon Googling it they will surely conclude that he is worthy of this high honor. The 86-year-old Italian costume designer has been Oscar-nominated five times -- for Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963), Death in Venice (1971) and Ludwig (1972), Edouard Molinaro's  La Cage Aux Folles (1978) and Franco Zeffirelli's La Traviata (1982) -- without ever winning. Now he will get his moment in the sun with an honorary Oscar, something that no other costume designer -- not even the great Edith Head -- ever received, making this a landmark day for the Academy's costume designers branch, which was only established back in January.

Isaacs says she is very much looking forward to the 5th Governors Awards, which will again take place in the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood & Highland Center. "We believed five years ago that this would be a hit evening," she said of the decision to take the presentation of special awards off of the main telecast and give them their own non-rushed, non-televised evening, "and it was, and it is continuing to grow." She added, "One of the things that the Academy does is we honor those creative forces that have been so influential in our business. Everyone is deserving, and we get a chance to spend more time, at the Governors Awards, with each honoree."

Follow Scott on Twitter @ScottFeinberg for additional news and analysis.