Spike Lee's dubious honor: Is the Honorary Oscar a way for the Academy to say "this is as close as you'll ever get?"

These awards lately go to retirees, but at 58, Lee still likely has decades of films ahead

By Scott Timberg

Published August 27, 2015 8:43PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jeff Haynes)
(AP/Jeff Haynes)

Recently, director Spike Lee got some good news: In November, he will receive an Honorary Oscar at the Governors Award thrown by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Previous winners include heavy hitting filmmakers – Fellini, Kurosawa, Orson Welles -- and the Academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, praises the work of Lee and two other to be honored that day as driven by “passion, dedication and a desire to make a positive difference” which “will also enrich future generations.” Wow – it doesn’t get any better than that.

And Lee will collect his Oscar alongside actresses Gena Rowlands and Debbie Reynolds. (The latter receives a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.)

But as we squint at this a little bit, this triumph looks a little less unalloyed. There was a time when the Honorary Oscar went to a wide range of figures; Shirley Temple landed one when she was still a child. But lately, the award has been given to figures who’ve been, uh, out of the action for a while. If you’re got new movies coming out, which could win you a best directors or best actor award, why do you need to be in a special “honorary” category?

Over the last few years, Honorary Oscars have gone to Eli Wallach (born 1915), Angela Lansbury (1925), Maureen O’Hara (1920), and D.A. Pennebaker (1925.) Serious talents, all, but not folks with terribly busy cinematic schedules by the time of their awards. The relative spring chicken Hayao Miyazaki won a well-deserved honorary Oscar in 2014 – after the Japanese animator announced his retirement.

Rowlands, by the way, is 85; Reynolds, 83. Lee is 58 and presumably has a couple of decades at least of output left.

So what’s going on here? It would be easy to think that this was a well-meaning but paternalistic way a body that has recently been exposed for its racial homogeneity would recognize a black filmmaker. That’s probably part of the story.

But most likely, the incongruity here has as much to do with attitude and taste -- and his status as a defiant New Yorker who refuses to play the Hollywood game -- as with race. Lee has been nominated for an Oscar only twice – for best original screenplay for “Do the Right Thing” and best documentary feature for the church-bombing chronicle, “4 Little Girls.” The second of those nominations came 18 years ago.

So the lifetime achievement award may be the Academy’s back-handed way of apologizing: Look, we respect what you do – in theory -- and people tell us you are a talented guy. And we really want someone kinda edgy like you at the table. But this is as close as you’re gonna get.

In the Academy’s defense, Lee’s work has been eccentric and unpredictable for a long time, and he doesn’t churn out a steady diet of Oscar bait.

But “The Original Kings of Comedy” (a concert film about four black stand-up comedians) and “When the Levee Broke” (a documentary about the New Orleans flood) and “Passing Strange” (the film version of Stew’s rock musical about a young man’s search for his artistic identity) are hardly obscure or inaccessible: The fact that these, and the rest of Lee’s output since 1998, have failed to earn him even a nomination shows that something is wrong with this picture.

It’s tempting to compare Lee’s honorary Oscar to the 2011 award given to James Earl Jones (born 1931). But a closer parallel may be to Godard, who was offered an Honorary Oscar in 2010.

Godard, for his part, never came to Hollywood to collect his statue, and said at the time that the honor meant “nothing” to him. “If the Academy likes to do it, let them do it,” the French New Wave instigator said. “But I think it’s strange. I asked myself: Which of my films have they seen? Do they actually know my films?”

Is Lee as far from the Hollywood mainstream as 21st century Godard? Probably not. But given Lee’s tradition of provocative statements, we’ll be curious to see where this one goes.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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90s Movies Academy Awards Spike Lee