The Academy of Motion Picture Sciences
A touching and evocative portion of every Oscar telecast is its honor roll of important figures from the world of cinema who have died in the past year. The film clips evoke warm and sometimes thunderous applause from the audience of film elite who express their appreciation of the lives and careers of artists in their industry, some famous and celebrated, some virtually unknown but significant nonetheless.
There is a special honor attached to being the last artist shown. This place is reserved for the giants of the screen…John Wayne, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Burt Lancaster. In the years when no true icon has died, the Academy ends the sequence with its choice of the biggest, most beloved star. The twelve months since the last Oscar telecast was such a year, though some accomplished stars breathed their last: Sir John Mills…Eddie Albert…Anne Bancroft…Shelly Winters…Ruth Hussey… Geraldine Fitzgerald. As the celluloid shadows of each of these passed before my eyes, I wondered which actor or actress the producers would select as deserving the final bow. The unexpected choice: Richard Pryor!
When the first President Bush appointed Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, he drew derision from the media and Democratic critics with his statement that Thomas was "the best qualified" jurist to fill the vacancy. Bush deserved it: he was pandering. Everyone knew that Bush had to replace Marshall, a civil rights hero and the first black justice, with another African American judge to avoid a major political battle on the left, and that he had to appoint a conservative judge to avoid a revolt from the Republican Right. The pool of conservative black judges sitting on Federal Courts was miniscule, and given his range of options, Bush's selection was defensible. But nobody, perhaps even the nominee himself, believed that Clarence Thomas was the best qualified judge in the nation. Bush's statement was unnecessary, dishonest, and insincere, as pandering often is. You say what you think will make certain people or groups feel good, rather than what is true. Obvious pandering, however, leaves embarrassment, insult, and shattered credibility in its wake.
Ending the Oscar night In Memoriam sequence with Richard Pryor was obvious pandering to African American viewers and younger audiences who are more likely to listen to a CD or watch TV than go to the movies. It was a transparent attempt to apply affirmative action to posthumous honors. Pryor was a giant in his own field, but that field wasn't cinema. He was a ground-breaking comic and humorist who is rightly credited with inspiring a whole generation of successors, from Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. He received a special honor from the recording industry, recognition he richly deserved for his classic and best-selling comedy albums. He was a Kennedy Center honoree, and deserved that too.
Pryor's film career, however, ranks somewhere between that of Dan Ackroyd and Chevy Chase. He was a terrific dramatic actor but only displayed this on a couple of occasions, earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his turn in "The Lady Sings the Blues," one of his first films. The rest were mostly forgettable or outright bad comedies, though his series of films with Gene Wilder, especially "Silver Streak," are still funny. Richard Pryor was not a movie star. Like Bob Newhart, he was a comic genius who occasionally made movies. And Bob Newhart has had as distinguished a film career as Richard Pryor.
John Mills, Eddie Albert, Shelly Winters and Anne Bancroft, in contrast, had great film careers, with major roles in classic movies. Images of any of them would have provided a fitting conclusion to the Oscar tribute. Darren McGavin, who died this month and is usually considered a TV actor, still managed to have one film role in a cult film that will be running long after every Pryor film is relegated to the discount DVD bin: "A Christmas Story." Don Knotts, who died the same day as McGavin, was a TV immortal whose films were forgettable…but he had as successful a film career as Richard Pryor. Pryor's best film roles were supporting ones; veteran character actors Vincent Schiavelli, Dana Elcar, Howard Morris and John Fiedler, all of whom died in the past year, distinguished themselves in more and better films.
Richard Pryor's sole advantage over all of these artists was that he was an African American at a time when the Academy seems to feel that every choice and statement must have a political subtext. Pryor was a major force in stand-up comedy who earned legitimate accolades elsewhere; it is insulting to his memory for the Academy to resort to racial criteria in over-praising his spotty film career. At the same time, film professionals like Winters, Albert, and Bancroft, good and active liberals all while they lived, do not deserve to have their career achievements minimized by attempts at cloying political correctness. The Academy insulted them as well.
Does it matter? Perhaps not; certainly Oscar shows fade from the mind quicker than, well, quicker than the average Richard Pryor movie. But the Academy of Motion Picture Sciences is the trustee of a nation's cherished film memories, and to be worthy of that trust, it cannot indulge itself in blatant dishonesty. Its choice of Pryor to conclude its tributes made the statement that he was the most important and beloved film actor among the many who had died in the last twelve months, a statement the Academy, Hollywood, the TV audience and Clarence Thomas know is untrue.