The James Clayton Column: lifetime achievement awards

Can we stop giving out lifetime achievement awards now, and just start giving the proper awards to the right people instead?

The European Film awards took place in Copenhagen earlier this week and, amongst the prizes, Dame Judi Dench was the worthy recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award. Right on: Dench is an immensely capable actor who only required eight minutes of screen time in Shakespeare in Love to get the Academy falling over themselves to hand her an Oscar. A veteran of stage and screen with unflappable poise and presence, she deserves the plaudits. Just observe the way in which she claimed the MI6 hotseat as her own and obliterated any memory of Bernard Lee’s M in the James Bond series. Six 007 films have seen her silence any doubts about whether Bond could be bossed about by a woman, and Dench’s very human, maternal portrayal of M alongside Daniel Craig’s bruised Bond has been a fundamental feature in the rebooted franchise.

So, the English actress now has a Lifetime Achievement Award sitting proudly on her mantelpiece next to the plaque that proclaims “you may now call yourself Dame Judi Dench”. (I think you are knighted as such upon playing the Queen of England, but seeing as Dench has starred as Queen Elizabeth I and Empress Victoria in Mrs. Brown, I’d say she deserves a double-honour. Henceforth, she shall be Grand-Dame Judi Dench) What was especially intriguing, though, were her comments after she’d accepted the applause, delivered a speech in Danish and departed the ceremony. Speaking on BBC News she remarked, “I know what you’re thinking: lifetime achievement, is that it then?

The Grand-Dame, it appears, isn’t about to pack in and retire and she raises an interesting point about the giving out of lifetime achievement honours. By commemorating someone’s career in such a manner, even if it’s done with the best of intentions, a simultaneous side effect is the sort of sticking-down of a tin lid, marking a conclusive end to their life trajectory with an abrupt full stop. By implication, anything the acclaimed individual does after is demarked and devalued as a result and there is a sort of patronising sense of putting someone out to pasture once you’ve presented them with a lifetime achievement gong.

I’m not a universally-loved cinema personality so I wouldn’t know, but I guess that getting a lifetime achievement accolade, or acknowledgement in any area of popular culture, evokes similar feelings to milestone birthdays. After the initial jubilation and celebration with others, the sad truth that you are, in fact, now older and now also hungover and partied out as well, dawns on you and leaves you in a despairing state of melancholy, musing “what next? Is this it? Am I now a has-been?” If this is the case, then it’s upsetting to think that movie legends may find themselves, post-proclamation event, in such a depression. It makes you wonder: why give out lifetime achievement awards before the lifetime has elapsed?

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It’s also true that these kind of total career commemorations can be used as lip service to reward those that haven’t received due recognition the rest of their life. You need only look to Alfred Hitchcock, who never received an Oscar and only got the Irving G. Tharlberg Memorial Award to make up for it; Stanley Kubrick didn’t even get that. It wasn’t too late for Hitch, though, to make the self-proclaimed critical elite eat humble pie, but Kubrick, on the other hand, can only exact his revenge from beyond the grave. This, I feel, gives us another reason why lifetime achievement awards should only be presented to people once they’ve shuffled off this mortal reel…

As years pass, people grow to gain a real appreciation of what they’ve lost and re-assess just how seminal or spectacularly brilliant certain films or certain film figures really were. As the powers-that-be feel immense guilt over the gongs they never gave out and the praise they never dispensed to such eminent personalities, posthumous awards are the only option to exorcise the shame. So it should be that the various venerated film institutions, organisations and judging authorities should immediately drop the practice of giving lifetime awards or outstanding career accolades to the not-yet-departed and only grant them to dead stars. That way, the tragically ignored would have the opportunity to harangue the critics from the afterlife and insincere lip service schmoozing would be sucked out of the industry (which sucks enough as it is).

How do we go about presenting the prizes? Gathering around shamans and necromancers at grand gala evenings, the spirit of the honouree would be conjured back to this realm for one night only in order to receive mass public veneration and possibly even an apology from the critics for being overlooked whilst they were actually around. Should the spirit choose to haunt some people (I think Hitch would like that) then, by all means, it’s their big party; let ‘em spook to their heart’s content.

If Hollywood and all the other film industry structures and hierarchies start such spiritual dabbling immediately then there’s a chance that, beyond lifetime achievement awards, Heath Ledger could be invoked back in time for the Oscars to collect his Best Supporting Actor accolade. We’re already into the awards season and Ledger’s appearance as The Joker in The Dark Knight has started gathering posthumous prizes. So if we can find a way to have his poltergeist present on February 22nd 2009, as well as saluting what stands as, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest villain performances on screen, we could also give a proper respectful send off to the late, great Paul Newman.

In fact, why stop there? The Academy Awards have been a drag for years; let’s liven things up. Oh, gifted necromancer who has access to the supernatural and the afterlife: bring us Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, Oliver Reed and Richard Pryor to host proceedings. That’d bring the viewers back to the Oscars. If Hollywood calls in the mediums quick, we could have a skit by the Marx Brothers, a dance number from Fred and Ginger and Orson Welles as stage announcer. Hollywood Hell becomes Hollywood Heaven: hooray!

James’ previous column can be found here.

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