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Career Kudos: Are We Overachieved Yet?

Now ubiquitous, lifetime honors spawn their own quirks and qualms

Thanks to the proliferation of lifetime achievement awards, though, your life can be celebrated over and over again.

From the honorary Oscar to the Kennedy Center Honors, from the Golden Globes’ Cecil B. DeMille Award to the High Falls Film Festival’s “Susan B. Anthony Failure Is Impossible” kudo, the industry’s luminaries can find themselves wined, dined, feted and flattered nearly year-round.

Sir Sean Connery has five lifetime honors, leaving aside such odds and ends as his recent Rome Film Fest salute, a membership in the Legion d’Honneur and a knighthood. Sir Sean’s done well, but for some in the industry, that’s as many honors as they turn down in a year. Or maybe a week.

Overall, lifetime kudos totals can be a bit capricious.

Among helmers with pics out this year, Spike Lee has five at age 49, while 81-year-old Robert Altman has seven, including last year’s honorary Oscar. Martin Scorsese has 11, and Clint Eastwood has at least a baker’s dozen.

Oliver Stone, on the other hand, has seven and Sir Ridley Scott, apparently, only one, from the Palm Springs Film Festival — leaving aside the knighthood. (A spokesman for Scott said he has been offered many more but prefers not to accept them.)

Steven Spielberg, who produced “Flags of Our Fathers” with Eastwood, already has 17, not counting the Kennedy Center Honor he’ll get in December. That’s more than twice the total of his pal George Lucas.

Lifetime kudos may be personal honors, but they can be professionally useful as well. Documentary helmer Barbara Kopple, who has 13 lifetime/career kudos to her credit, says her films benefit from the publicity.

“It’s a rare chance for people to see these kinds of films in a very competitive industry,” she says. “Anytime there’s a documentary or one of our films is put in the spotlight, there’s a better chance people will take a look at it.”

Kopple’s “Dixie Chicks: Shut Up and Sing” bows during this year’s awards season, which is, as usual, crowded with prestige releases. Helmer accepted the Maverick Award from the Woodstock Film Festival on Oct. 14.

Lifetime kudos aren’t just for the fall and winter, though. They’re a year-round phenomenon.

Catherine Wyler, artistic director of the High Falls Film Festival in Rochester, N.Y., says: “From what I understand, the kind of people that we invite get so many invitations that they have trouble even responding to them. There’s such a plethora of awards. Everybody’s giving an award. So if you’re on the receiving end, how many awards do you really need?”

The challenge for fests, then, is how to make their own awards so enticing, so compelling, so downright irresistible, that someone who may already have a mantel full of trophies will get on a plane and accept yet another one.

Sometimes the enticement is obvious. The Maui Film Festival’s Galaxy Award invites the recipient to, well, Maui. Joan Allen had to suffer through that trip this year.

But upstate New York in November offers little for hedonists, so the High Falls Fest appeals to the better angels of its winners’ nature.

Its Susan B. Anthony Failure Is Impossible Award, named after Rochester’s famous suffragette and feminist icon, goes to women only, often to women in midcareer. Wyler says winners are usually pleased to be associated with Anthony’s name, as it resonates with their roles as mentors for other female filmmakers. “I think that what we offer them is more emotional than really tangible,” she says.

That drew Allen to gloomy Rochester in 2004.

Another draw is simply the chance to meet other luminaries. Kopple says she was honored to get the 1998 Irene Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award from Human Rights Watch because she so respects the org. But she also treasures the memory because “Alan Pakula gave it to me, and he was killed shortly after that. We had struck up an immediate friendship, and I never would have had that connection if I hadn’t received that award.”

It’s an open secret that for small to midsized events, a lifetime award is a way of securing some star power for an event that might otherwise have none.

But that is not a good reason for a fest to hand out an award, warns Len Cripe of the Savannah Film Festival, which is honoring Bruce Dern, Walter Hill, Tommy Lee Jones and Rex Reed this year.

“You’re trying to honor someone for their body of work — everything else is secondary to that. Festivals shouldn’t throw a lifetime achievement award just because they’re trying to gain recognition.”

Complicating the picture is the fact that getting lifetime awards can be something of a mixed blessing for the recipient.

Some are reluctant to accept because a lifetime achievement award suggests one’s lifetime — or at least one’s body of work — is done, or nearly so. Count Ridley Scott in that group.

Eastwood, though, collected the first of his lifetime kudos in 1980 and the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes in 1988, then went on to do his most acclaimed work: “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” and now “Flags of Our Fathers.” The HFPA probably could give him another DeMille Award for his work since the last one and without anyone batting an eye.

Even the ultimate lifetime kudo, the honorary Oscar, has a downside.

It is often bestowed on someone who’s done brilliant work but never taken honors as the year’s best actor or director. That can lend a bittersweet tinge to the proceedings, as if both sides are a tad embarrassed that the Acad hasn’t given the honoree a statuette before.

Still, says Kopple, lifetime awards have an important place: “I consider them to be very big honors, because in many ways it shows a continuity of vision.

“When you think about the work of a painter or photographer, nobody is talking about a single image but about the significance of the person’s work over time. I think lifetime achievement awards do that as well.”

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