This Year’s Honorary Oscar Winners Fill Critical Gaps in the Academy Awards

By  · Published on September 2nd, 2016

Congrats to Jackie Chan, Frederick Wiseman, Anne Coates, and Lynn Stalmaster!

Honorary awards are often synonymous with lifetime achievement, and for the Oscars that often means recipients are recognized for being major figures in Hollywood and/or film history but have somehow totally or mostly eluded being nominated or named winners at the Academy Awards. This year’s four names selected for special statuettes at the Governors Awards – Jackie Chan, Frederick Wiseman, Anne Coates, and Lynn Stalmaster – include a little of that as well as additional significance for professions and craft that have gone unrecognized by the regular Oscars.

For instance, Lynn Stalmaster is the first casting director to be honored by the Academy, which is interesting considering the organization has a voting branch of membership devoted to people in that field. It’s actually only existed for a few years, though casting directors have been included in the Academy for decades, as members at large. Stalmaster was surely one of them, and earlier this year he, Juliet Taylor, and Mike Fenton were already honored by the Academy’s Board of Governors with a special tribute acknowledging the art of casting and their contributions.

Stalmaster is not just a longtime legend of the profession, but he’s noted as a pioneer for receiving the first solo main title “casting by” credit, with The Thomas Crown Affair. He’s celebrated for placing Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and for compiling such classic ensembles as those in West Side Story, The Untouchables, The Right Stuff, and Judgment at Nuremberg, through which he gave William Shatner his break. Others he “discovered” include John Travolta, Jon Voight, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Dreyfuss, Levar Burton, and Christoper Reeve, whom he cast in Superman.

All Movie Fans Need to Watch HBO’s ‘Casting By’

There has been petition for a casting director Oscar for years now, but the field has been disrespected by much of Hollywood, with some people, namely directors, disagreeing they should even be called casting directors. Stalmaster was featured prominently in the great 2012 documentary Casting By as a secondary subject, after the late casting icon Marion Dougherty, and that film seems to have helped with exposure and recognition for him and his colleagues, though still no annual trophy. This is another good step, and Stalmaster will not be the last casting director to get an Honorary Oscar.

Then there’s Jackie Chan. He’s mainly an actor, yes, but not the sort that typically gets Oscar recognition, even after 50 years working, as he has since childhood. He’s a double threat being an action-focused performer and a comical star, and his distinction here relates to the call for there to be a stunt performance category at the Academy Awards, as he’s been famous for doing his own stunts and coordinating for others. Only two stunt men by trade have received Honorary Oscars, Yakima Canutt in 1967 with special address of his focus on safety devices and Hal Needham in 2012.

It’s Time to Create an Oscar For Stunt Coordinators (and How You Can Help Make That Happen) – Film School Rejects

Chan worked with Needham when the latter became a director, appearing in The Cannonball Run and its sequel, neither of which you’d really call Oscar caliber films. Few of Chan’s movies are considered prestige titles, though there are some like Police Story that are renowned by critics and academics in the appreciation of the action genre and foreign films, specifically significant to martial arts pictures and Hong Kong cinema. Chan’s esteem comes via Kids’ Choice Awards and his Guinness World Records – for most stunts by a living actor and most credits in one movie (Chinese Zodiak).

The closest he’s been to an Academy Award other than presenting at the ceremony might be playing, in the remake, a role Pat Morita was originally nominated for in The Karate Kid. Ten years ago, following the 2006 Oscars, he called out movie awards in general as being unfair, stating they have nothing on the Olympics with their clear results regarding who wins and who doesn’t. The Oscars have also just not been good about honoring Asian actors, a diversity problem they’re slowly aiming to fix. Like Stalmaster, though, Chan has been celebrated in a way by the Academy before, having been the focus of a special salute in 2013.

How the Academy’s New Class Impacts Asian Representation in Hollywood

For Frederick Wiseman, there’s not the same issue of his work being ineligible or implausible for Oscar recognition. There’s a category for feature documentaries, and they technically allow for lengthy films like most of his are. But his type of documentary, with its lack of big agendas and commercial flashiness and crowd-pleasing narratives, was apparently unappealing to enough doc branch members that he’s gone ignored through his five decades of production. Of his more than 40 films, if any were close to Oscar ready it was probably his first and most famous, The Titicut Follies.

It’s never helped that he’s not studied on the level that other documentary filmmakers are. He wasn’t part of a historical movement like other documentarians associated with observational style, and despite his work’s presence on public television and his immense influence all over the world, he’s never had a breakout hit the way most of his generational peers have. Even if he is known to critics, he’s often misunderstood by them. The Hollywood Reporter’s story on the Governors Awards news, for instance, mainly gets him right but erroneously associates him with “long, uninterrupted takes.” A nitpick, maybe, but a fair one.

Interview: Frederick Wiseman Discusses In Jackson Heights

Wiseman is also being incorrectly labeled only the second documentary filmmaker to receive an Honorary Oscar. Not including people who’ve made docs in addition to features, like last year’s recipient Spike Lee, there was of course D.A. Pennebaker in 2012, plus comedic documentary short producer Pete Smith in 1953 (his work was, to be fair, typically recognized in the Live Action Short category rather than the Documentary Short), and in 1961, William L. Hendricks, who wasn’t exclusively a documentarian but was honored specifically for a patriotic nonfiction film, A Force in Readiness.

Finally there’s Anne Coates, only the second editor to ever win an Honorary Oscar. The other one, in 1977, was also a woman, Margaret Booth. She was a pioneer in the field, having started in the 1910s working for D.W. Griffith, and a nominee for a regular Academy Award. Coates doesn’t have such significance other than also being considered among the top editors in the industry, and she’s won a regular Oscar, for Lawrence of Arabia. She is notable for being a woman in a field and business where men dominate, though women are regularly recognized in the Best Film Editing category.

We Need More Special Achievement Oscars to Honor What Is Interesting In Cinema

Why Coates over, say, Thelma Schoonmaker? Because she has won three Oscars out of seven nominations, while Coates has only won the one with four nominations since that first? Because she’s older, has been working longer, and in being “semi-retired” (maybe fully retired now) is at the end of her career? That should also just be why her over say any other editors. “I’ve never looked at myself as a woman in the business,” she told Walter Murch in a 2000 interview. “I’ve just looked at myself as an editor. I mean, I’m sure I’ve been turned down because I’m a woman, but then other times I’ve been used because they wanted a woman editor.”

Not that she doesn’t deserve the honor, but the Academy surely wanted a woman in the mix for their Governors Awards. The last time it was all male recipients was 2012, and the last non-actress was in fact Booth almost 40 years ago. However, in 2007, studio exec Sherry Lansing received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which is lumped with the Honorary Oscars. Coates’s recognition by the Academy here is not as monumental as her three fellow honorees, but she’s nevertheless still just as notable and deserving for and in being awarded.

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.