On Tuesday evening, the motion picture academy board voted to bestow honorary Oscars to actor James Earl Jones and makeup pioneer Dick Smith. In addition, it was decided to give the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award to television star Oprah Winfrey. While Smith is a movie veteran with more than 40 credits spanning half a century, both Jones and Winfrey have enjoyed their greatest success in other mediums — he on stage and primetime TV and she in daytime TV for 25 years.
Jones contended for his only Oscar back in 1970 for reprising his Tony-winning performance in “The Great White Hope.” He lost Best Actor to George C. Scott (“Patton) who declined the prize. Jones had received his first Emmy bid for a guest spot on Scott’s TV series “East Side West Side” back in 1964. He has contended for TV’s top honor seven more times, winning two in 1991 for Drama Actor (“Gabriel’s Fire”) and Movie/Mini Supporting Actor (“Heat Wave”). In addition, he won a second Tony Award in 1987 for “Fences.” While his stage and television credits are substantial, his best known film work is as the voice of Darth Vader in the “Star Wars” saga.
Dick Smith, along with Paul LeBlanc, won the third-ever competitive Oscar for makeup in 1984 for his work on “Amadeus.” He and his team contended in 1989 for “Dad” losing to the team from “Driving Miss Daisy.” Much of his celebrated work was done before the academy rewarded the efforts of makeup artists, including working on “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Exorcist” (1973).
While Oprah Winfrey picked up an Oscar bid for her first film “The Color Purple” in 1985 (she lost to Angelica Huston, “Prizzi’s Honor”) she has appeared in only three features since, done voicework for four more and produced three pictures. It is perplexing as to how this television powerhouse meets the academy’s criteria for this honor: “The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, an Oscar statuette, is given to an ‘individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry.’”
We know that these three were the top vote-getters among those names put forth by the governors. Each was voted on individually and received support from at least half of those on the board. For a fourth person to have been feted, he or she would have needed to garner two-thirds of the votes.
Since the academy shifted these honorary kudos from the telecast to a separate non-televised ceremony two years ago, they have honored four people each time. In 2009, honorary Oscars went to actress Lauren Bacall, cinematographer Gordon Willis and producer Roger Corman while studio executive John Calley received the Thalberg Award. Last year, honorary Oscars were bestowed on actor Eli Wallach, filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard and film historian Kevin Brownlow while Francis Ford Coppola was given the Thalberg.