Playing It Safe

In “Sunset Boulevard,” Joe Gillis says to forgotten, silent film star Norma Desmond, “You used to be big.” She takes umbrage. “I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.” As it turns out, she had it wrong. The stars are now, very often shrunken to pint size or dwarfed by the booming special effects, sound effects, and cgi.

This thought is occasioned by the latest AFI Lifetime Achievement Award – to Steve Martin! He’s a funny man, or once was, but since the award was created in 1973, only 43 people have been recognized. Should Steve Martin have been one? Mel Brooks, Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford? It quickly becomes apparent that stature often means box office gross (George Lucas), glamor or Hollywood insider status (Elizabeth Taylor, Warren Beatty, Michael Douglas) even political correctness as in the case of Morgan Freeman, an admirable actor but surely not one of the 50 most important figures in American film.

Those from outside Hollywood also need not apply. Woody Allen has not been recognized nor was another New York-centric director, the late Sidney Lumet. Mavericks or iconoclasts also seem unwelcome, one suspects because AFI worries they might not accept or if they did might give a less than anodyne acceptance speech, so Brando, George C. Scott, Robert Mitchum, and Paul Newman were all passed over. Risk takers like Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola aren’t in, one-trick pony George Lucas and reliably safe establishment icon Stephen Spielberg are.

In the early years of the award there was clearly a rush to induct Golden Age giants while they were still above ground, so the first ten awards went to John Ford, James Cagney, Orson Welles, William Wyler, Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart and Frank Capra.

It’s hard to quibble with those choices, but the AFI also had a chance to get to Charles Chaplin before it was too late. And they also failed to recognize directors Howard Hawks, George Cukor and Raoul Walsh along with actors including Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Kathrine Hepburn.

Thinking about who should get an AFI Lifetime Achievement award may be silly, after all, the work remains so the awards don’t really matter. We also live in a time when canons are sneered at, but it’s not really silly to try to decide what constitutes greatness in any art form we love. So for the movies, do we give the palm to heart or mind, range or depth, a couple masterpieces or a considerable body of work, ground-breaking originality or steady elegant, unobtrusive craft, technical whiz-bang or emotional power, the auteur or the creative collaborator?

Consider the case of Michael Curtiz, who died before AFI began their awards. He was a Hollywood company man who directed any script the studio entrusted him with. A hack? Hardly, since he made solid entertainments and an occasional masterpiece across an astonishing range of genres – biopic, western, swashbuckler, suspense, crime, and melodrama. A partial list of his credits includes “Captain Blood” and a half dozen more Errol Flynn films, “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Mildred Pierce,” “Life with Father,” and “Casablanca.”

When the AFI starts honoring Steve Martin, Mel Brooks, Jane Fonda, Harrison Ford, George Lucas, it is hard not to conclude that they are chiefly after contemporary crowd-pleasers who will raise the ceremony’s TV ratings rather than actual Lifetime achievements which may be less safe, more edgy and controversial. We are left to make our own lists of preferred honorees. Or simply deserving people the presenty generation has nebver heard of, but isn’t the AFI meant to be preserving film heritage?

So how about directors Norman Jewison, Barry Levinson, Stephan Frears, Jonathan Demme or actors like Albert Finney, Anthony Hopkins, William Hurt, Christopher Walken, Gene Hackman, Judy Davis, Joan Allen, Annette Bening, Michelle Pfeiffer, Holly Hunter. In fact, why not take a page from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and add a couple posthumous awards each year? Starting with the people named above they missed and Anne Bancroft, William Holden, Jean Arthur, Jean Simmons, Spencer Tracy, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Buster Keaton. Make your own list.

Any such mind game soon makes you do what the AFI’s recent picks don’t. That is, hurry to watch once again beloved movies from the people who made them. So cue up “The Actress,” “Palm Beach Story,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Melvin and Howard,” “My Man Godfrey,” “Married to the Mob,” “Wag the Dog,” “Tin Men,” “Moonstruck,” “In Country,” “My Brilliant Career,” “The Grifters,” “Master and Commander,” “The Hospital,” “The Conversation,” “Off the Map,” “Two for the Road,” “Howard’s End,” “Tender Mercies,” “Brazil,” “Body Heat,” “Broadcast News,” “In the Bedroom,” and many more.

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