The Oscars Finally Find Their Rightful Winners

Last night, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored four artists whose cinematic achievements had been overlooked for decades.

Geena Davis, Lina Wertmüller, David Lynch, and Wes Studi with their honorary Oscars (Mario Anzuoni / Reuters)

Given how concerned the Academy Awards have been about the running time of the Oscars broadcast, they should have given a prize to David Lynch long ago. At yesterday’s Governors Awards, a special ceremony that hands out honorary Oscars for lifetime achievement and humanitarian causes, the venerated director of such films as Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr. was presented a trophy and kept his remarks pithy. “To the Academy and everyone who helped me along the way, thanks,” Lynch said, before turning to the Oscar statuette itself. “You have a very nice face. Good night.”

Lynch, a figure of titanic influence in modern filmmaking, has been nominated for four Oscars in his career, three times for directing (for Mulholland Dr., Blue Velvet, and The Elephant Man). Over the years, he lost to Robert Redford, Oliver Stone, and Ron Howard. Howard’s win (for A Beautiful Mind) produced the enduring image of two Hollywood directing legends, Lynch and Robert Altman, commiserating over yet another loss. Like Lynch, Altman was eventually given an honorary Oscar in 2006, just months before his death. For years, the trophy has sometimes served as an accolade for major artists who never won competitively, but this year’s Governors Awards seemed particularly geared toward acknowledging past mistakes.

Along with Lynch, the 2019 honorees were the Italian writer and director Lina Wertmüller, the Cherokee American actor Wes Studi, and Geena Davis, who was given the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her institute’s advocacy work on gender parity. Only Davis has won an Oscar competitively (in 1989, Best Supporting Actress for The Accidental Tourist). Studi, who became the first Native American actor to win an Oscar, has never even been nominated over the course of his long career. In 1977, Wertmüller became the first woman to receive a Best Director nomination for Seven Beauties (she lost to John G. Avildsen for Rocky); she finally got her first trophy yesterday at the age of 91.

The honorary Oscar used to be given out as part of the main ceremony. It was a stately portion of the broadcast that necessitated a long introduction, a grand video montage of the honoree’s work, and usually a rambling speech from the winner. There have been some exceptions—Alfred Hitchcock, whose 1968 honorary win was another career makeup moment for the Academy Awards, took the stage and said only, “Thank you” (though he added, “Very much indeed” as the music swelled and the microphone was turned off). But in 2009, concerns about long running times led to the creation of the Governors Awards, a non-televised ceremony held at the Grand Ballroom of the Hollywood and Highland Center.

Taking the special awards out of the spotlight (and the hands of aggrieved network-TV executives) has actually been a boon for the Oscars, lending the Governors Awards an atmosphere of genuine reverence where the winners and presenters can speak a little more candidly and without commercially motivated time restrictions. Wertmüller, who gave her speech in Italian—which was then translated into English by the actor Isabella Rossellini—joked that it was time to create a female version of the Oscar statuette. “She would like to call it ‘Anna,’” Rossellini said. “Women in the room, please scream, ‘We want Anna, a female Oscar!’”

Wertmüller’s award was presented to her by Jane Campion and Greta Gerwig; those three, along with Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, remain the only women ever nominated for directing at the Academy Awards (Bigelow is the only winner, for The Hurt Locker in 2010). “How do you correct centuries of patriarchal domination?” Campion asked. “It started with Lina Wertmüller.” Along with the dark drama Seven Beauties, Wertmüller is best known for 1974’s Swept Away, a wry comedy of politics and sex, and 1972’s The Seduction of Mimi; she was an avidly socialist filmmaker whose movies then, and now, were made to provoke and critique her audience as much as delight them.

Studi, a Vietnam War veteran who was an advocate for Native American issues before becoming an actor, first appeared in a small role in Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves, but made a searing impression as the villain Magua in Michael Mann’s 1992 epic The Last of the Mohicans. His casting as the title character in Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) was a milestone for Hollywood (some studios at the time demanded that Hill cast a white actor in the lead role). But though Studi has featured in many projects centered on Native American history (Into the West, The New World, Hostiles), he has also been one of Hollywood’s most reliable and memorable character actors for a generation, with varied work as a grizzled cop in Heat (1995), a mysterious superhero in Mystery Men (1999), and an alien patriarch in Avatar (2009).

“Too few opportunities in film have gone to Native or indigenous artists, and we’re a room full of people who can change that,” said Christian Bale, Studi’s Hostiles co-star, who presented him with the Oscar. “I’d simply like to say, it’s about time,” said Studi, who delivered much of his speech in Cherokee. That appeared to be the prevailing sentiment at the Governors Awards—that the event was a chance to right past wrongs, to fill in the many gaps of Academy history, at long last.