The American Film Institute was launched with an acute awareness of how time ravages both film & its early pioneers. Films need to be catalogued & transferred to safety stock so they can be preserved in some sort of accurate historical context. The first of a series of most wanted lists of lost films was released & folks began digging around for antique films that had been in storage for many, many years: one batch was discovered in a frozen food locker.
The AFI Life Achievement Awards were always expected to be fundraisers from the very beginning, but between 1973 & 1993, great care was taken to select worthy recipients between the ages of sixty & eighty who would (a) participate & (b) attract high rollers who'd pay to watch the oldtimers' film clips, listen to speeches by colleagues &, finally, make the honoree feel like a real star when he or she collected the award. Contrary to popular opinion, not every golden age star had faded away by the mid-nineties when the awards began to go to younger performers who presumably had plenty of life left in their careers. Forget Katharine Hepburn: Awards shows were never her scene. Until her death in 1990, Greta Garbo said no year after year after year.
But while baby boomers & World War II babies are claiming their prizes, there are many overlooked veterans who never won an Oscar~ never provided fodder for the tabloids &, therefore, are probably considered unsuitable for fundraisers. Until her death in 1999, I kept hoping that someone, anyone would honor Sylvia Sidney for a lifetime of outstanding performances from the 1920's through the 1990's, but no one did. In early 2002, columnist Liz Smith lobbied for Academy recognition for Richard Widmark, another wonderful, vastly underappreciated actor. It didn't happen, but maybe in 2003? Not too much longer than that, though: Widmark turns ninety in 2004. As the latest AFI show was repeated umpteen times on the USA channel, no less than three talented giants: the brilliant director John Frankenheimer, Oscar nom1nee Katy Jurado, who co-starred in "High Noon" opposite Gary Cooper & Oscar winner Rod Steiger, who co-starred in Bogey's swan song. All died suddenly. Still living is Olivia De Havilland, who not only contributed a gallery of rich performances but also fought a court fight against the inequities of the studio system. Tony Curtis gets no respect, but deserves some for being in some of the greatest comedies & dramas ever made. The list goes on. Would you move heaven & earth to save "The Road To Perdition" ahead of irreplaceable decomposing nitrate originals in vaults? Then why lionize relatively young actors still untested by Hollywood's roller coaster ride when we can still learn so much from sturdy survivors who've been up & down & all around & who can still melt our hearts with matchless skill?
© 2002 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 7/10/02
The AFI Life Achievement Awards