This past Saturday night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave special Oscars to Angela Lansbury, Steve Martin, Angelina Jolie and costume designer Piero Tosi. Mark Harris at Grantland says their speeches (Tosi couldn't make it) were better and more appropriate to Hollywood than anything the academy will come up for the Oscar TV show on March 2. "Any one of their speeches would have been an emotional highlight of the Oscar show," he writes. "All of them together would have been spectacular."
The prize to Lansbury, who received her first nomination an astonishing 69 years ago for Gaslight and staked her claim to film immortality with another nominated performance in The Manchurian Candidate, was one of those recognitions that binds us to both the enduringly great and the enduringly wrong in Hollywood history. In her acceptance, Lansbury, now a poised and vigorous 88-year-old who just finished a six-month stage run in a touring Australian production of Driving Miss Daisy, traced the arc of her career with grace, pride, and humility, noting that she had worked with Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, and Katharine Hepburn, but also pointedly explaining that she turned to television and to Broadway (where she won five Tony Awards) when it became clear that Hollywood had no further use for her. (She warmly praised Turner Classic Movies for keeping her films alive.) The award to Lansbury, a beloved figure for many generations, was the best kind of career-merit prize. But it was also a valuable reminder that the industry’s failure to find rewarding work for some of its strongest actresses is not a current phenomenon but a decades-long narrative that awards like this help, if not to rectify, then at least to acknowledge.
The Oscar for Steve Martin represents another kind of acknowledgment, primarily of the degree to which the Academy has failed actors who specialize in comedy. In a film career that, he noted, has spanned 34 years, Martin has never been nominated — not even for Roxanne or for All of Me (each of which won him the Best Actor prize from the National Society of Film Critics). His acceptance speech, which followed tributes from Martin Short and Tom Hanks, was, of its kind, perfect — generous, heartfelt, and capacious enough to make room for half a dozen perfectly delivered one-liners and, less expectedly, his own tears. And the Hersholt award to Angelina Jolie for her work as a U.N. goodwill ambassador and a refugee advocate provided not only a jolt of glamour but a moving chance to contemplate the extraordinary journey that the 38-year-old actress has taken from tattoos through tabloids to her current, fully earned status as — like Audrey Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor before her — the female avatar of Hollywood’s social conscience. Onstage, Jolie paid tribute to her mother, harnessing all of her quiet power; you could feel the whole audience lean forward to take her in.
Moments like these — emotional, contemplative, complicated — are why we watch the Academy Awards, or used to. It's certainly not to see a 10th-anniversary tribute to Chicago or to watch Mark Wahlberg banter awkwardly with a teddy bear. They place the Oscars in a historical continuum. They remind us of the ways in which competitive “And the winner is … ” awards are not, in themselves, an adequate or complete way of recognizing what the Academy wants to recognize — and they demonstrate that the Academy gets this.