Jean-Luc Godard on what his honorary Oscar means to him: ‘Nothing’

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Governors Awards on Saturday night offered up lots of nostalgia and heartfelt sentiment, which is probably why Jean-Luc Godard didn’t bother to show up to accept his honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker who has loathed nostalgia and sentiment more than the refreshingly blunt and famously cranky French filmmaker, who needless to say has been roundly ignored by the academy until now. As you’ve probably heard, Godard has been the focus of controversy in the weeks leading up to the Governors Awards for his alleged anti-Semitism.

Having read a lot of what Godard has had to say on the issues, I’d be comfortable calling him pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel, but it’s hard to find any decisive evidence of clear-cut anti-Semitism. Godard is against so many things that it’s often difficult to know when he’s being a bigot and when he’s just being a contrarian. But this much is clear: Even though the academy and Godard kept sending cordial greetings to each other, Godard had utterly no interest in his honorary Oscar.


He finally gave a serious interview last week, which has now been translated into English, that offered his reaction to the whole academy imbroglio, along with some wonderfully tart Godardian quips. Let’s start with the lifetime achievement award. Asked what the award means to him, Godard replies: ‘Nothing. I think it’s strange. I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films? The award is called the Governors Award. Does that mean that Schwarzenegger gives me the award?’

As Godard sees it, he earned the award for his early work as a critic, not as a filmmaker. As he put it: ‘Maybe it is a late acknowledgement that I -- like Lafayette in the American War of Independence, in the uprising against the English -- supported the beginning of the revolution. In the 1950s, when I was a critic for Cahiers du Cinema, we loved independent films. We discovered that directors like Hitchcock, Welles and Hawks fought for artistic independence within the big studio machinery. After the war, we praised this -- back then, a sacrilege for French film criticism. They sniffed at directors like Hitchcock and said: He’s just making commercial films.’

As for the issue of anti-Semitism, Godard is as provocative as ever. He volunteers a traditional explanation for why Jews have always been overly represented in Hollywood, alluding to the quota system in early 20th century America, arguing that Jews ‘were neither authorized to be bankers or doctors, nor lawyers nor professors. That’s why they concentrated on something new: cinema.’

Just when you’re nodding your head in agreement, thinking Godard is making a fair historical point, he goes on to add: ‘The Jews also came to an arrangement with the Mafia quite quickly. But if you say this, immediately you are accused of being an anti-Semite, even though this is not true. People don’t see the images -- one should have a closer look at the people who founded Las Vegas.’

It’s classic Godard. After all, as anyone who’s ever seen ‘Bugsy’ could tell you, Las Vegas was largely the brainchild of an alliance between Jewish and Italian mobsters, looking for an unregulated oasis where they could sell the romance of gambling and make tons of money. It just sounds a lot less romantic the way Godard says it. Maybe that’s why he remains the cinema’s leading enfant terrible -- in movie after movie, we’ve mythologized the whole idea of Las Vegas, while Godard insists on reminding us of the unsettling truth behind its origins.