- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2003

Since the competitive side of the Academy Awards leaves plenty of room for neglect and misjudgment, it's gratifying when the system attempts to compensate with career awards. These citations are usually a stirring part of the presentation. One problem: There are more deserving careers than there are career awards bestowed to honor them.
This year's honorary subject is actor Peter O'Toole, whose seven nominations for best actor never resulted in an Oscar. The big oversight year in Mr. O'Toole's case was 1968, when he was nominated for a rousing performance as Henry II in "The Lion in Winter." That year's award went to Cliff Robertson in "Charly," a verdict that has not held up well.
Forty years ago, Mr. O'Toole had the title role in David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia," the best-picture winner of1962. But the logic of an overdue career Oscar for Mr. O'Toole quickly begs the question: Why not add Albert Finney to the celebration? After all, he played the title role in "Tom Jones," chosen best movie of 1963. Like Mr. O'Toole, he's the son of a bookie.
Although Mr. Finney, 66, is a few years younger than Mr. O'Toole, 70, he emerged as a movie lead a bit earlier, in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," and he's maintained a sturdier career over four decades on stage, screen and television. Of course, he's only been an Oscar finalist on four occasions, but it wouldn't be difficult to find two or three credits that the Academy underrated.
One honorary recipient a year doesn't seem adequate to cover the backlog, especially when you remember that the Academy dallied too long for Ralph Richardson, Claude Rains, James Mason, Richard Burton, Robert Morley, Peter Sellers, W.C. Fields, Rosalind Russell, Eddie Bracken and many others. Even when catching up with Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas and Deborah Kerr, they were tardy to a fault. Some of the recipients, notably Miss Kerr, had ceased to resemble the image that remained so vivid from a generation earlier.
Curiously, the very first Academy Awards presentation seemed to recognize limitations that would need to be corrected in some way. Mr. Chaplin was nominated in two categories for "The Circus" as best actor and comedy direction, a category that was abandoned after a single year. He didn't win either, but the founding board of directors authorized a special award "for versatility and genius in writing, acting, directing and producing 'The Circus.'"
I assumed that Robert Altman would be in line for a career award in 2002, the year after "Gosford Park" (2001). Guess not. It was his fourth Oscar contender (following "M*A*S*H," "Nashville" and "The Player") during a prolific and stylistically distinctive career that dates back more than 30 years. He's known to be in somewhat frail health. Is there some impediment that can be removed with the aid of press lobbying? And has a similar impediment prevented career awards from being approved for Sidney Lumet, Arthur Penn and Blake Edwards?
A couple of names to ponder among actors: Jean Simmons and Tony Curtis. A gorgeous camera subject, Miss Simmons had an impressive 20-year run from "Great Expectations," when still in her teens, through "Divorce American Style." Maybe it would help if her performance as a cruelly deceived but resilient faculty wife in the now forgotten "Home Before Dark," circa 1958, could be revived. It was a much classier soap opera in its time than Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows," the inspiration for Todd Haynes' Oscar contender, "Far From Heaven." The Simmons performance should be required viewing for feminists. Indeed, her entire career ought to be a subject of fascination to feminist critics and scholars.
Mr. Curtis was merely one of the major stars and movie personalities of the 1950s and 1960s. He gave two of the best performances never nominated for Academy Awards: the unscrupulous press agent Sidney Falco in "Sweet Smell of Success" and Joe/Josephine, the saxophone player in drag in "Some Like It Hot." In fact, one of the funniest aspects of the Curtis career is that he had a knack for outshining Jack Lemmon whenever they were on the screen together. The contrast in their temperaments is forever fun to watch in "Some Like It Hot," but almost painful in Blake Edwards' "The Great Race," which encased Mr. Lemmon in bluster.
The decision-making process that determines career awards is sometimes prematurely compensatory. Witness the gratuitous award to Paul Newman in the 1980s, shortly before he finally won as best actor in "Color of Money." More recently, the deliberations resulted in an absent-minded choice: Elia Kazan, who had never lacked for recognition as best director in his prime, winning Oscars for both "Gentleman's Agreement" and "On the Waterfront" and being nominated on three other occasions. This gesture did buy the Academy an ugly backlash from die-hards on the Hollywood left, still indignant about Mr. Kazan's anti-communist stance in the 1950s. The unseemly ruckus might have been avoided completely if anyone had remembered that Mr. Kazan had a winning record as an Oscar contender.
Maybe it's not too early to remind the board of some younger eligible names. Everyone probably assumes that Morgan Freeman will win an Oscar the next time he connects with a prestige role, but maybe it shouldn't be taken for granted. If the career option is needed, keep Mr. Freeman in mind. And maybe John Travolta and Glenn Close and Harrison Ford and Judy Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, if it appears that decisive roles are passing them by.
I don't think Martin Scorsese deserves to win as best director for "Gangs of New York," but he should have won in the years when "Taxi Driver" and "GoodFellas" were new (1976 and 1990, respectively). His career has also been a boon to film preservation, an aspect that transcends the annual competitions. Mr. Scorsese is almost as overdue for Oscar recognition as Mr. Altman.
If the Oscars could bring a little of Mr. Scorsese's studious reverence and filial piety for his cinematic ancestors to its own deliberations, perhaps there would finally be enough lifetime achievement awards to go around.

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