Ben's Top Pick for January
Governors Awards and its Academy Honorary Award winner, Cecily Tyson.
With the Golden Globes and the Critic's Choice Awards wrapped up and the Oscars around the corner, award season is in the air. You can practically smell it - the Santa Ana winds blowing in that rare Los Angeles mixture of exhaust and human desperation. I'm just kidding. You can't really smell the exhaust anymore.
I always strive to be cynical this time of year - to be one of the thousands who hold award season in disdain, rolling our eyes at the pomposity, artistic self-congratulation and aggressive salesmanship that accompanies it. But I can't. Because I love this time of year. I love talking about it, arguing it, predicting it and wagering on it.
One of my favorite Oscar stats is this: Meryl Streep, perhaps the finest actor of her generation, has three Academy Awards - but 18 losses. Eighteen times she's been nominated, yet departed empty handed. She's the Buffalo Bills of the Oscars. And therein lies one of the great injustices of every award show. We exult the winners (we love winners in America) while the other nominees are too often forgotten, as if there's any shame in losing an Academy Award to Katherine Hepburn or Shirley MacLaine or Cher or Jodie Foster or Kate Winslet or Helen Mirren.
Which brings me to the Governors Awards, which represents artistic achievement at its purest form. There is no competition and there are no losers. The Governors Awards are hosted by the Academy, bestowing honors for lifetime achievement in the industry. The Academy presents three distinct awards: The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award and the most consistently given, the Academy Honorary Award.
This year, the Academy gave a married couple, producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, the Thalberg Award for their remarkable resume of quality movies. During her speech, Kennedy provided the night with a particularly memorable moment. "I am the first woman to receive this," she said. "I'm not the first to deserve it and I'm 100% sure I'm not the last." That line, delivered mid-speech, earned a raucous standing ovation.
In addition to giving Kennedy and Marshall the Thalberg Award, the Academy recognized three industry veterans with Honorary Oscars: Marvin Levy, who became the first publicist honored by the Academy; composer Lalo Schifrin, whose film resume includes Bullitt, - which we'll have the night of January 28 - Cool Hand Luke and the Dirty Harry films, part of his longstanding collaboration with Clint Eastwood, who presented Schifrin with his Oscar in a ceremony that was simultaneously sweet and cringe inducing, as Eastwood appeared to be winging it when he invited Schifrin to the stage for an impromptu interview. Most notably, Schifrin composed the finest theme song in the history of television, Mission Impossible (with all due to respect to The Rockford Files, Hawaii Five-O and The Sopranos).
But the night's highlight was Cicely Tyson, the third artist to receive an Honorary Oscar (Sounder, with Tyson and Paul Winfield, will kick off our night of movies saluting The Governors Awards). Among the most respected actors of her generation, Tyson's Oscar is no small feat. It took her years of tireless work and commitment to break through.
She began her career as a model before landing a role in the B movie Carib Gold, alongside Ethel Waters. Tyson went on to share the big screen with the likes of Richard Burton, Harry Belafonte and Alan Arkin while simultaneously appearing to work nonstop in television before taking to the stage. Finally, in 1972 with Sounder, Tyson made a name for herself with a leading role befitting her talent and determination. Tyson delivers a brilliantly subdued and natural performance as Rebecca Morgan, a depression-era Louisiana sharecropper and mother of three, forced to fend for the family after her husband is arrested and imprisoned for petty theft, an act motivated solely by his desire to keep his family fed. Tyson's performance carries with it equal parts dignity, rage, restraint and fatigue - and it earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The same year, Tyson and Diana Ross became just the second and third black women to be nominated for Best Actress following Dorothy Dandridge for Carmen Jones from 1954.
Tyson's stunning achievement wasn't relegated to a single moment in the sun. While Hollywood continued to mainline many African American stars to supporting roles in major pictures - or starring roles in low-budget Blaxploitation films - Tyson steadfastly refused these roles. "I would not accept roles," she has often said, "unless they projected us, particularly women, in a realistic light and dealt with us as human beings."
She instead transitioned to television movies, further cementing her legacy portraying determined, strong and resilient women in prominent stories, most notably in Roots, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and an underrated miniseries, King, where she played Coretta Scott King, again opposite Paul Winfield as Dr. King.
By the end of the 1970s, with her legacy secure, Tyson continued fighting for civil rights and equitable representation for African Americans in movies and television. And she has kept working. In June of 2013, at the age of 88, she won a Tony Award for Best Actress for The Trip to Bountiful. Then, in 2016, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, who perfectly defined Tyson's legacy: "Cicely's convictions and grace have helped us to see the dignity of every single beautiful memory of the American family."
By Ben Mankiewicz