By Steven Zeitchik
10:00 AM PDT, October 4, 2013
Let's say this right off the bat: Jane Fonda, in the opinion of this lowly journalist at least, is a perfectly fine choice for an AFI life achievement award. She's done remarkable film work going back a long way, whether in "On Golden Pond," "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" "Klute," "Coming Home" or many others.
She's a woman on a list that needs more women (only eight have been given the AFI honor in the award's 42-year history). And whether it's videos about exercise or getting conservatives exercised, Fonda has continually reinvented herself in ways that go well beyond the movies.
But the choice, which was announced by AFI Thursday night, also continues something of an unfortunate recent pattern.
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Consider the last seven honorees. They are, in order: Al Pacino, Warren Beatty, Michael Douglas, Mike Nichols, Morgan Freeman, Shirley MacLaine and Mel Brooks.
It's an amazingly diverse list in terms of achievement and Hollywood careers. But the honorees have one thing in common. None of them, with maybe the exception of MacLaine, has done their best or even especially notable film work in the decade previous to their receiving the prize. Even Freeman, who won a supporting-actor Oscar for "Million Dollar Baby" a few years before, took on many forgettable roles before and since.
Fonda continues this tradition. After sitting out the game for 15 years, she came back in 2005 to star in... "Georgia Rule." She followed that up with "Monster-in-Law," "All Together" and "Peace, Love and Misunderstanding." None of them is likely to make any of AFI's own best-of lists. Sure, she was fun as Nancy Reagan in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" this summer, but that was in the blink-and-you'll-miss-it category.
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In fact, though AFI's life achievement honor is specifically designated for film, Fonda's most meaty role in recent years has been on TV, as the biting media mogul Leona Lansing on Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," a part that mischievously riffs on her anti-corporate politics and her time spent as Mrs. Ted Turner.
It's a time when, as every nightly news report reminds, Americans are living longer and doing more. That's true for film personalities too, who are doing some of their best work in their 60s and 70s. But you wouldn't know it from looking at the recent AFI honorees.
But most candidates worthy of this kind of award have already entered a kind of semi-retirement by the time their number comes up, you say? Not necessarily. Here are a few accomplished veterans who are still doing great work but have never won the AFI life achievement award:
Helen Mirren, Ang Lee, Mike Leigh, Spike Lee, Sigourney Weaver, Woody Allen (OK, he wouldn't take it, but still), Terrence Malick (ditto, but how great would that be), Daniel Day-Lewis, Ron Howard, Judi Dench.
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I'm not saying any one of these people deserves the award over any of these last seven winners; how do you compare careers of that magnitude? But all of them would be worthy additions to the AFI list, while also showing that a lifetime achievement award can be given to someone who not only once made great films but continues to do so. It would be encouraging for the people doing this work. And it might just gussy up the musty image of these types of prizes, sending the message that they aren’t just valedictories for achievements long ago but tips of the hat for continued relevance.
It's not as if AFI has been unwilling to fete personalities near the top of their game, by the way. Tom Hanks was given the prize in 2002, and Meryl Streep was so honored in 2004. Each was no more than two years removed from an Oscar nomination, and had plenty of great turns still to come. They just don't appear to be willing to do it lately.
I know, I know, all this shouldn't be taken that seriously. These awards are just meant for some backslapping, to show some nice clips, and, oh yeah, to bring in some money. You’d be better off dissecting ESPY nominees. And who could begrudge Fonda this honor? She has a host of classic movies on her resume and is an icon by any definition. At some point she should get an award like this, and no time like the present.
But taken in context with this recent crop, the Fonda award lands a little awkwardly. AFI bills the prize as "America’s Highest Honor for a Career in Film.” With all the great veterans out there, it might not be the worst idea once in a while to honor someone who's still doing some of their highest-level work.
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