An honorary Oscar for Oprah: Did April 1 come twice this year?


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It’s hard to imagine a more boneheaded move by the motion picture academy than its decision to give an honorary Oscar, in the form of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, to Oprah Winfrey.

It’s bad timing, coming less than a month after rumors surfaced that the academy had her atop its list of candidates to host the Academy Awards next year. We can only hope that the academy has now abandoned that idea, because if Winfrey were to host the show after landing an honorary statuette it would look like the worst kind of backroom, back-scratching deal.


Winfrey is best known as a fabulously successful TV host; her film career is sketchy at best. She was nominated for an Oscar for her first role as an actress, in “The Color Purple.” She produced and had a major role in “Beloved,” which earned mixed reviews. Otherwise, she has little connection with the movie side of showbiz, other than a producer credit for “The Great Debaters” and an executive producer credit for “Precious.”

Winfrey has clearly done lots of creditable humanitarian work, but why should she be getting the Hersholt award — perhaps the most prestigious of all honorary Oscars — which in the past has gone to actors, executives and filmmakers with high-profile movie careers? Judging from my email traffic, the prevailing analysis is that the academy was reacting to the loss of face it suffered this year with the total absence of people of color from its Oscar nominations.

Have the academy governors decided to paper over their embarrassment by handing out honorary Oscars to Winfrey and James Earl Jones, who, sadly, has never won an Oscar, despite a long and distinguished career in film? It is a way of guaranteeing that some people of color will be taking home Academy Awards, even if the honors aren’t actually presented on Oscar night (they are given out at a dinner Nov. 12).

Winfrey simply doesn’t belong in the same company as previous Hersholt winners, who have included such movie icons as Jerry Lewis, Sherry Lansing, Quincy Jones, Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. Even David Wolper, a Hersholt winner from 1985 who was best known for a 40-plus-year career as an A-list TV producer, had a much heftier body of work in film, including producing credits on the original “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and an Oscar-nominated documentary.

Winfrey has done good work in the world, but that’s not enough to merit an Oscar. The academy is usually a stickler for insisting that its talent come from the world of film — when it has been looking for a producer to stage the Oscars, it has passed over several top candidates in recent years because they didn’t possess enough serious movie credentials.

It should have used the same criteria with Winfrey. If the academy felt duty-bound to honor an African American icon this year, it could have easily picked Sidney Poitier or Harry Belafonte, who’ve both done great humanitarian work. With her megawatt personality, Winfrey has all the qualifications to be an Oscar host. But a Hersholt award winner? She is famous for making her audiences feel good, but by being given this award, she is making the academy look bad.


-- Patrick Goldstein


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