Academy President John Bailey on ‘Broad Spectrum’ of Honorary Oscar Picks

John bailey Academy President
A.M.P.A.S./Wawrychuk/EPA/REX/Shutterstock

This year’s crop of honorary Oscar recipients, scheduled to be feted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Governors Awards ceremony on Nov. 11, represents “the broad spectrum of what we aspire to do with these awards,” newly minted Academy president John Bailey says. “It’s really fascinating to see the breadth of the four honorees and just how different their careers have been.”

Set for recognition are writer-director Charles Burnett (“Killer of Sheep,” “To Sleep with Anger”), cinematographer Owen Roizman (“The French Connection,” “The Exorcist”), actor Donald Sutherland (“MASH,” “Ordinary People”), and director Agnes Varda (“Cleo from 5 to 7,” “The Beaches of Agnes”). It’s the first slate of Governors Awards honorees under Bailey’s watch, after the cinematographer won the reins of the Academy at the organization’s most recent election just under a month ago.

However, Bailey notes that he was “totally agnostic” in the selections, so it’s just a happy coincidence that a fellow cinematographer got the call this year.

“I’ve known Owen for 35 years or so and he was a president of the [American Society of Cinematographers],” Bailey says. “I never actually worked with him but I certainly have always been incredibly moved by the commitment he’s had to his work and the variety of work that he’s done.”

Bailey has been an outspoken supporter of Varda’s in his time as an Academy governor. As recently as Thursday afternoon, just before departing for the Telluride Film Festival (where Varda’s latest film “Faces Places” screened), he was speaking with passion about how overlooked she has been throughout her career, particularly as a driving inspiration for the French New Wave movement. Varda’s name has been in the mix for honorary Oscar recognition in the past.

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“We have people who might be under consideration one year, but then their strongest advocates support them the next year and they pick up new ones,” Bailey says. “The two Lauras [Dern and Karpman] were very supportive of her. It’s so wonderful that dynamic women governors spoke on her behalf.”

Speaking of being overlooked, Burnett knows something about that. Widely respected among filmmakers and cinephiles, he and his work have never quite penetrated the popular discourse. He received a career’s worth of notice 10 years ago, however, when his 1978 film “Killer of Sheep” finally saw release.

“There are a number of filmmakers that, in terms of the media and in terms of the so-called studio mainstream, are kind of off the radar,” Bailey says. “But for filmmakers, they are inspiring and committed people.”

And it’s pure happenstance, Bailey points out, that Burnett is set for a sold-out film scholars lecture at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater Thursday night. The event will consist of a talk by Indiana University’s James Naremore pegged to his forthcoming book “Charles Burnett: A Cinema of Symbolic Knowledge,” followed by a screening of Burnett’s “To Sleep with Anger.”

But of course, Sutherland makes for the splashiest of the honorees this year, or at least the one most outside the industry will recognize. The most arresting stat to mention here, however, is that despite a body of work that amasses more than 100 features, Sutherland has never received an Oscar nomination.

“I’ve known Donald going back before ‘Ordinary People’ and I remember when the nominations came out, I was stunned then, as I have been multiple times,” Bailey says. “But we all know the Oscar nominations are a result of many different factors. [The Governors Awards are] not like the Oscar nominations, where there is a lot of promotion and broad-based cultural support and advocacy. This is purely something that is internal with the Board of Governors, and there’s something about actually being given an award by your peers, rather than the industry at large, that is, to me, incredibly moving.”

The ninth annual Governors Awards ceremony will be held at the Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood on Saturday, Nov. 11.

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