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In praise of Jerry, Jean-Luc

Beyond Lumet, Oscar's MIAs wait in the wings

In 1993, the American Film Institute changed course in its lifetime achievement award ceremony — arguably the institute’s most significant event, and a showbiz honor rivaled by few even in this Oscar-obsessed culture of ours. The AFI changed the distinction to “life achievement” rather than “lifetime,” and instead of saluting artists in the twilight of their careers, talents like Spielberg, Scorsese and Nicholson were being feted for their still-vital work.

But a funny thing happened on the way to this fountain of rejuvenation: They left out Marlon Brando. Brando — the most significant acting force of the last half-century — didn’t get a dinner. But Tom Hanks did, and so did Harrison Ford. By the time Brando died in July, the AFI had lost the opportunity to correct its oversight. (The AFI declined to comment.)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has given out its share of honorary awards. They’ve most often doubled as consolation prizes for perpetual bridesmaids, as with Sidney Lumet this year, Alfred Hitchcock in 1968 or Cary Grant in 1970. Sometimes the Academy’s choice presents a puzzle, as in 1999 when Elia Kazan, already a two-time Oscar winner, was given an honorary statuette amid still roiling controversy over his naming names to the House Un-American Activities Committee in the ’50s.

But the Academy has experienced its own share of missed opportunities, from oft-nominated actors like Claude Rains, Richard Burton and James Mason to groundbreaking filmmakers like Michael Powell, Francois Truffaut and Stanley Kubrick, whose only Oscar was for visual effects on “2001.”

The Academy isn’t always to blame. Highly popular leading men like John Garfield and Steve McQueen had their careers cut short by untimely deaths, while figures like Sam Peckinpah and John Cassavetes might have been too ahead of their time for the Academy to acknowledge during their lifetimes.

Here, then, we might consider a shortlist for Oscar’s next go-round:

  • Martin Scorsese, who — with the momentum swinging in Clint Eastwood’s favor for the 2004 director Oscar — could end up empty-handed after seven nominations.

  • Jerry Lewis, the recent recipient of the Los Angeles Film Critics career achievement honor, is considered by many one of the modern era’s most important auteurs, and one of Paramount’s biggest breadwinners for more than a decade.

  • Jean-Luc Godard, perhaps the most radical of the French New Wave, and whose mixture of anarchy, agitprop and pop culture sensibilities have influenced everyone from Scorsese to Tarantino.

“Scorsese? Yes, please, give him an honorary Oscar and put us all out of our misery,” says author and scholar David Thomson (“The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood”).

“Jerry Lewis is a shoo-in,” adds Thomson. “How could he be resisted with that extraordinary career plus his charitable work? Godard is much more interesting, and much more questionable. He’d be a great honoree but I’d imagine there’d be a lot more resistance there.”

Damien Bona, co-author of “Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards,” sees a wider pool in the offing. “Some other names that I see that keep coming up among actors are Richard Widmark and Doris Day,” he says. “Among producers are Roger Corman. And one assumes Bob Rehme will get a Jean Hersholt (Humanitarian Award) because it seems all (ex-) Academy presidents do.”

But Bona cites Godard’s screed against Spielberg, and America in general, in the filmmaker’s 2001 feature “In Praise of Love” as indication that the French iconoclast “would be too far out there for the Academy.”

Variety film critic Todd McCarthy agrees: “Artistically you could certainly make the case,” he says, “but Godard’s so cantankerous and contrarian, why would the Academy be so masochistic as to give him an award? He’d certainly use it as an excuse to turn it back on them. Besides, he wouldn’t even show up.” (For the record, the Academy assures that attendance is not a prerequisite in considering potential career achievement honorees.)

Everyone interviewed for this article, however, agreed that Godard is certainly deserving.

“The thing about Godard that’s interesting is that in his early years he was taking American generic material and giving it a Gallic spin, and was a great supporter of American film in his critical days (as co-founder of French film periodical Cahiers du Cinema),” says Time magazine film critic and author Richard Schickel.

Bona adds that the Academy Board of Governors, which bestows honorary Oscars, “is much more in tune with international cinema than your garden variety member,” citing such past honorees as Michelangelo Antonioni, Satyajit Ray and Andrzej Wajda.

As for Scorsese, Schickel thinks he might be too young at this juncture of his career, even though Spielberg was 40 years old when he received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award at the 1987 ceremony, and had yet to make “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan.” Scorsese is 62.

“I’m not sure why Marty hasn’t gotten one,” says auteur theorist Andrew Sarris, who critiques films for the New York Observer. “He’s a very warm, positive person who’s very highly regarded. He’s very much a film historian — he should get one just for his scholarship. But I think the main reason why (he never received an Oscar) is because he is based in New York, which is why Lumet might never have gotten one.”

McCarthy calls Lewis, on the other hand, “another can of worms” because he’s never been nominated, and the Academy is usually making amends to multiple also-rans.

“I’m not his greatest champion,” adds Sarris, “but I have no objection to (Lewis) getting special awards. Peter Sellers made me laugh 100 times more and Sellers never got an (Oscar).”

But Lewis’ contribution to cinema certainly runs deeper than Sellers, whose rare efforts behind the camera are largely unknown. “As Jerry Lewis is getting older, and battling illness, I think the jokes about the French liking Jerry Lewis are sounding tired,” says Bona. “I do think people have been looking at his work again recently and realizing what a major talent he is.

“At the very elemental level he was like Chaplin and the silent Keaton, wherein his movies were one-man shows that were entirely focused on his character. But the movies he directed have a Brechtian subtext that breaks down the fourth wall. He wants the audience to know that Jerry Lewis — the artist — is different from Jerry Lewis the clown.”

McCarthy might offer the best solution: “They should get Godard up there to present an award to Lewis.”

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