When the social media tributes came pouring in shortly after Sidney Poitier’s death, one clip seemed to be the most ubiquitous. It was a moment from the 2002 Oscar ceremony—the night Poitier was awarded an Honorary Oscar—when Denzel Washington was giving his Best Actor acceptance speech (he won for “Training Day”). Prior to that moment, Poitier had been the only person of color to win Best Actor in the history of the Oscars (for 1963’s “Lilies of the Field”). And as Washington finally became the second person of color to win Best Actor, he looked to Sidney Poitier in the crowd and said, “40 years I’ve been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me, and what do they do? They give it to him the same night. I’ll always be chasing you, Sidney. I’ll always be following in your footsteps. There’s nothing I’d rather do, sir.”
It’s the kind of moment that makes the Oscars resonate with generations of viewers, new and old fans alike. It’s also, sadly, the kind of moment that hasn’t been able to happen for the last 12 years, and may never happen again. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) opted to take the honorary Oscars off of the main telecast in 2009. These honorary Oscars—called the Governors Awards, because they’re given by the Academy’s Board of Governors, rather than by the traditional voting process of the entire Academy—were instead moved to their own, separate event held a few months earlier. And that event is, also unfortunately, not televised.
AMPAS created the Governors Awards “in effort to balance the desire to truly honor worthy individuals and avoid the time limitations that the Oscar telecast imposes on these honors,” and it’s probably not a coincidence that the Governors Awards were moved off the telecast the same year that the Best Picture field was expanded from five nominees to ten (thereby adding five additional intros and clip reels to an already packed show). But while fears over the length of the Oscars may have been a primary cause of sleepless nights for the Board of Governors in the ‘00s, those have almost certainly been replaced by fears of ever-declining television ratings. And those fears could actually be addressed, at least in part, by bringing the Governors Awards back to where they belong: the main show.
The biggest contributor to low Oscar ratings is, almost certainly, that (most) audiences have become increasingly disinterested in (most) Oscar-nominated films. Whether that’s primarily a result of Covid-19, the proliferation of streaming, increased corporate reliance on franchises and recycled IP, movie theater pricing, the rise of prestige TV, or whatever else is a debate for another day. But regardless of cause, we know the problem exists. Most Best Picture nominees just don’t reach the cultural zeitgeist anymore, and audiences apparently don’t want to watch awards get handed to films they haven’t heard of.
Okay, sure, that makes enough sense. But that’s also just a roundabout argument to bring the Governors Awards back because those awards often go to recipients that audiences do care about, and they honor (and highlight!) the breadth of careers that audiences adore. Here’s a partial list of honorary Oscar winners from the dozen years since the Governors Awards were moved off the telecast: James Earl Jones, Francis Ford Coppola, Jackie Chan, Oprah Winfrey, Roger Corman, Steve Martin, Angelina Jolie, Hayao Miyazaki, Spike Lee, Angela Lansbury, Kathleen Kennedy, and David Lynch.
And yes, many honorary Oscars also go to highly deserving legends who don’t exactly loom large in the popular consciousness, like Frederick Wiseman, Charles Burnett, and Agnès Varda, but if someone wants to watch Jackie Chan get an honorary Oscar, they probably won’t change their mind just because a guy who makes documentaries about libraries will be getting one too. (And who knows, maybe if Frederick Wiseman had received his honorary Oscar on the telecast, some viewers who had never heard of him might’ve been inspired to seek out some of his lovely, tranquil films.)
These legends also have the power to deliver more than just ratings; they can deliver viral moments that get people talking and caring about the Oscars. When Oprah Winfrey received an honorary award from the Golden Globes in 2018, she made such a powerful, rousing speech that the internet was agog about it for days. But when she received her honorary Oscar six years earlier, no one heard what she said except for the people in the room. That’s a tragedy of not just the moment, but also of history.
To be fair, the Academy does post speeches from the Governors Awards on their YouTube channel, but that’s a poor substitute for live viewer engagement. Oprah’s honorary Oscar speech has a little over 150 thousand views on YouTube, while her honorary Golden Globes speech has 1.4 million. And I assure you, that’s not because more people care about the Golden Globes; it’s because more people care about sharing and rewatching something that provided them with a resonant moment.
2022 is the perfect opportunity to turn this all around. The Governors Awards were originally scheduled for January 15th, but they were postponed due to Covid concerns and no replacement date has yet been announced. Well, how ‘bout just putting them back on the Oscars themselves? This year’s honorary recipients is a banner crop that has a real opportunity to provide a ratings boost: Samuel L. Jackson, Danny Glover, Elaine May, and Liv Ullmann.
Consider this—the Academy is reportedly trying to secure Tom Holland as this year’s Oscar host, presumably because of hopes that Spider-Man will provide a significant ratings boost. But if Spider-Man could do that, then couldn’t Nick Fury, too? Lest we forget, Samuel L. Jackson is the all-time leader in global box office, and he’s beloved by fans of many tastes and demographic backgrounds. If the Oscars care about viral moments, they should be extremely interested in televising a Samuel L. Jackson acceptance speech to a global audience.
Of course, bringing the Governors Awards back to the Oscar telecast would be complicated, and there are drawbacks. Having them as their own event allows more time to honor the recipients with clips and tributes, and their own acceptance speeches can be less rushed. Likewise putting them back on the main show will take up time. But that’s less of an issue than it might seem, for a few reasons.
First, the Oscars always have several clip montages celebrating movie history, so those general montages can just be cut in favor of targeted montages honoring the Governors Awards recipients. And second, show length isn’t a problem in and of itself. The specific problem hurting Oscar viewership is that the top awards are almost always given out after most of the audience would rather be asleep, an issue that can be easily solved by just starting the show earlier in the day (perhaps at 6:30 p.m., just like the Super Bowl) rather than by being so protective of show length that you axe important, beloved segments.
The benefits of bringing the Governors Awards back to the Oscar telecast should be obvious. In an era when the nominated films have an ever-decreasing cultural cachet, that slice of the zeitgeist pie can be at least partially reallocated with honorary awards that highlight movies (and movie history) that audiences still deeply care about. And as the outpouring of love for that shared moment between Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington proves, the Governors Awards used to matter to audiences, providing an indelible link between classic and contemporary cinema. Just imagine how that link might look this year, if Tom Holland and Samuel L. Jackson—the 2021 box office king and the all-time box office king, both for the same series of films—are sharing the stage together, reminding a global audience about the past and present of Hollywood magic.