An Honorary Oscar Revives a Controversy
By Michael Cieply
LOS ANGELES — Late last week, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was still coming to terms with that most deeply confounding of European filmmakers, Jean-Luc Godard.
No one had yet signed on to present an honorary Oscar to Mr. Godard, who has said he will not be on hand anyway at the academy’s awards banquet in Hollywood a week from Saturday. But there was also the touchy question of how to deal with newly highlighted claims that Mr. Godard, a master of modern film, has long harbored anti-Jewish views that threaten to widen his distance from Hollywood, even as the film industry’s leading institution is trying to close the gap.
Over the last month, articles in the Jewish press — including a cover story titled “Is Jean-Luc Godard an Anti-Semite?” in The Jewish Journal — have revived a simmering debate over whether Mr. Godard, an avowed anti-Zionist and advocate for Palestinian rights, is also anti-Jewish. And this close examination of his posture toward Jews has put a shadow over plans by the academy to honor him at the Nov. 13 banquet, along with the actor Eli Wallach, the filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola and the film historian and preservationist Kevin Brownlow. (The separate Oscar telecast is scheduled for Feb. 27, on ABC.)
The academy is doing its best to sidestep the issue. For one thing, don’t look for the touchier aspects of Mr. Godard’s work in the five-minute tribute reel being assembled around New Wave masterpieces. Probably missing will be a much-discussed sequence in the 1976 documentary “Here and There,” about the lives of two families, one French and one Palestinian. In it, alternating images of Golda Meir and Adolf Hitler have suggested to some that Mr. Godard, the narrator and one of the directors of the film, sets them up as equivalents.
“I can imagine it might not be there,” Sidney Ganis, who is producing the ceremony, said on Friday. He also said he had a prospect in mind to present the award.
Mr. Godard, 79, has inspired directors as diverse as Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino with his technique, sophistication and exuberant use of pop culture in 70 feature films. That work, however, had never been honored by the academy until a decision this year to present Mr. Godard with an honorary governors award, given not at the main event in February but at a separate black-tie ceremony for entertainment industry insiders.
To date, there has been no surge of opposition to match the protests that greeted a decision to give Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar in 1999, despite his having named colleagues before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating Communist influence in Hollywood during the red baiting era.
But Mr. Ganis and others in the academy have fielded queries from members who question the propriety of an award that is drawing attention not just to Mr. Godard’s well-known disregard for Hollywood but also to positions and statements in which he has mingled his mistrust of the mainstream movie world with a wariness of traits he associates with Jews.
In one of the more striking such statements, in a 1985 interview in Le Matin quoted in Richard Brody’s 2008 biography, Mr. Godard spoke of the film industry as being bound up in Jewish usury.
“What I find interesting in the cinema is that, from the beginning, there is the idea of debt,” he is quoted as saying. “The real producer is, all the same, the image of the Central European Jew.”
In cataloguing and assessing such pronouncements, Mr. Brody, who is generally admiring in the biography, titled “Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard,” attributed what he called “the hardening and sharpening of Godard’s anti-Semitic attitudes” to factors that included his childhood in war-torn Europe, a turn toward pro-Palestinian radicalism in the 1960s and a complicated view of history in which Mr. Godard has blamed Moses for having corrupted society by bringing mere text, in the form of written law, down from the mountain, after having encountered an actual image, the burning bush.
Neither Mr. Godard nor his associates could be reached for comment on Monday, which was a holiday in France.
“If Hollywood wants to honor his work, great, I’m fine with it,” said Mike Medavoy, a film producer and academy member who was born in Shanghai after his parents fled the Holocaust.
But Mr. Medavoy added that he was less than charmed by what he characterized as Mr. Godard’s “narrow mind” when it comes to Jews and the film business. “I’m not fine with that,” he said.
Mr. Godard once complained that Steven Spielberg had misused the image of Auschwitz in the making of “Schindler’s List.” In 1995, Mr. Godard turned down an honorary award from the New York Film Critics’ Circle, in part, he said, because he had personally failed “to prevent Mr. Spielberg from reconstructing Auschwitz."
Mr. Spielberg never responded publicly to that complaint, according to Marvin Levy, his spokesman. Mr. Levy said Mr. Spielberg had not decided whether to attend the awards ceremony but that his absence, in any case, would carry no message about Mr. Godard.
For whatever reason, the gap between Mr. Godard and the academy appears to have run deeper than the occasional snub of a director, like, say, Alfred Hitchcock, who never won a directing Oscar, but was finally given the academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Award, for a lifetime of producing, in 1968.
Researchers at the academy’s Margaret Herrick Library turned up no sign that any aspect of a Godard film had ever been so much as nominated for an Oscar, despite awards and festival recognition abroad.
The absence of recognition by the academy may have less to do with Mr. Godard’s well-known antagonism toward Hollywood than with the fact that many academy members were simply looking elsewhere when his career erupted in the 1960s as a leader of the French New Wave with films like “Breathless” and “Band of Outsiders.” The producer Walter Mirisch, for example, said, “During the time of his films, I was occupied with my own.” Mr. Mirisch, 88, served a number of terms as the academy’s president and won a best picture Oscar in 1968 for “In the Heat of the Night.”
In preparing for this year’s governors awards, the second in a planned annual series separate from the televised Oscar ceremony, Phil Alden Robinson, an academy vice president and a governor, proposed Mr. Godard for recognition that was supposed to close a gap with people like Mr. Mirisch.
“Godard speaks to a generation that’s only now getting voting weight in the academy,” said Mr. Robinson, who is both a writer and a director, and had an Oscar nomination in 1990 for his “Field of Dreams” script. “The older generation didn’t have the same regard for him.”
Inadvertently, however, Mr. Robinson pried open a debate that has raged around artists as august as the poet Ezra Pound and as popular as the actor and filmmaker Mel Gibson: Is the work somehow tainted by the attitudes of the man?
Daniel S. Mariaschin, an executive vice president at B’nai B’rith International, strongly denounced the academy’s decision to honor Mr. Godard.
“They have set up standards for art, but they take a pass on standards for decency and standards for morality,” Mr. Mariaschin said on Monday. “How could one possibly derive enjoyment or pleasure from this, knowing that the individual holds these views?”
Mr. Mariaschin said he was surprised to see, based on recent news reports, that Mr. Godard had not back-pedaled when challenged regarding his view of Jews. “He’s not even contrite,” Mr. Mariaschin said.
For Mr. Robinson, the art and the artist are separate. “D. W. Griffith got an honorary Oscar in 1936,” he said, “and the man was horribly racist.”
Besides, said Mr. Robinson, whose “Field of Dreams” was a fantasy about the disgraced members of the Chicago White Sox team that threw the World Series: “You’re talking to someone who believes Shoeless Joe Jackson should be in the Hall of Fame.”
Scott Sayare contributed reporting from Paris.