In the 36 hours since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced that Oprah Winfrey will receive its prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award this year, there’s been a smattering of criticism from some quarters that she’s not deserving of such a high film-industry honor since she’s mainly known for her work in television. So let’s look at the other 33 people that have earned the Hersholt prize over the last five decades and see how Winfrey measures up.
Twelve of the past honorees have been movie-biz executives who worked mostly behind the scenes on numerous projects (think Samuel Goldwyn, Lew Wasserman, or Sherry Lansing). Seven others have been producers, screenwriters, or directors like Arthur Hiller (Love Story) or David L. Wolper, who, it should be noted, worked mostly in TV. The other 14 recipients are best known as performers of some sort: Bob Hope, Gregory Peck, Martha Raye, George Jessel, Frank Sinatra, Rosalind Russell, Charlton Heston, Danny Kaye, Charles “Buddy” Rogers, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Quincy Jones, and Jerry Lewis.
Though Winfrey is certainly an industry powerhouse off-camera, she seems to fit best into this category. Since her film debut in 1985’s The Color Purple, Winfrey has been credited on five other film productions: Native Son (opposite Matt Dillon), Beloved, The Princess and the Frog (in which she did a voice part), and as producer on Precious and The Great Debaters. So she clearly has the fewest film credits of any of her comparable honorees.
But should that matter? Winfrey isn’t getting the same general honorary Oscar that veteran actor James Earl Jones will receive. Her award is for her humanitarian work, which is undeniably worthy of celebrating. And the fact remains that although she’s focused mainly on television in her career, Winfrey is a past Oscar nominee for her acting as well as a current Academy member. I don’t buy the argument that giving her the prize is a ratings ploy – though Winfrey will likely make a quick appearance at the Oscars next February, her award will be presented at the non-televised Governors Awards in November.
After last year’s predictable Academy Awards results, I’m just hoping there’s this much drama around the rest of this year’s Oscar season.