Jerry Lewis, the Oscars and Prop 8

When I first heard yesterday that Jerry Lewis would be getting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the coming Academy Awards, my first reaction was laughter.

It wasn’t because Lewis is a comic, but that he is a comic with insane sensibilities, as likely to stage a pratfall as he is to outrageous pronouncements. What immediately came to mind was a flap last month in which he used an anti-gay slur in a television interview, then apologized. He did the same thing last year during the telethon, and also issued an apology.

Then my thoughts immediately turned to the environment in Hollywood following the passage of Prop 8, where donor rolls are being scrutinized and those who contributed to the effort to ban same-sex marriage have been targeted with threats of boycott. Already, those efforts have extended to the Sundance Film Festival, which has been screening films at a multiplex at a theater chain whose own contributed to Prop 8.

Adding insult to injury was today’s near snubbing of “Milk” by the Golden Globes.

So could the Academy Awards be next? As a fellow editor here quips, imagine it: An Oscar ceremony without a gay audience. Who’s left?

The selection of recipients of honorary awards usually doesn’t reach the level of vetting of an Obama cabinet pick, but some legendary figures have been denied accolades for making controversial comments. A veteran TV star, for instance, was denied entrance into the TV Academy’s Hall of Fame because of a history of racial slurs.

The Motion Picture Academy surely focused on Lewis’ volume of good deeds with the MDA telethon, and it’s a wonder on that level why he was not given this award many years ago. But the post-Prop 8 environment is different. Anger is still out there, and sensitivities are high. There already are reports of calls coming in to the Academy, but it remains to be seen whether this would really rise to the level of, say, the protest over an honorary award to Elia Kazan over his past testimony during the Hollywood blacklist. It’s hard to see it. I called the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and save for mine, they had yet to receive any press inquiries.

Perhaps it will be a question of relevance, as Lewis is not exactly on a career trajectory, and he will merely be seen for who he is: A tempermental comic, prone to the occasional moments of insanity.

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