The American Film Institute gives out a Life Achievement Award every year as they have since 1973. They’ve honored greats from John Ford that first year to Jane Fonda this past year. And in their 42 years of honoring the greatest legends of cinema, they’ve never given it to one single artist who was “below the line”. That’s right, no one who wasn’t a director, actor or producer has ever been given this prestigious award. That needs to change. This year, the AFI should honor composer John Williams.
The AFI is currently mulling over candidates for this year’s honoree, to be formally announced the first week in October, and no doubt some of the names being bandied about include the likes of Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, David Lynch, Gene Hackman, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton. All are worthy of the award, and hopefully most of that list will be called in coming years, but this year it needs to be Williams.
For starters, he is the only film composer in the history of cinema who is a household name to at least three or four generations. He is a film artist as big as most stars in many respects, and a name that has been known far and wide for over 40 years. Ever since his game-changing scores for JAWS, STAR WARS and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS in the 1970’s, he has been revered by his peers and by everyday movie fans from all corners of the globe. Max Steiner, Bernard Herrmann, the Sherman Brothers, Ennio Morricone and Jerry Goldsmith were all great film scorers too, but none of them was ever as famous or as beloved by so many as Williams. He’s the one true rock star of film composers.
In addition, Williams has been a key member of such seminal films as not only the three listed above, but also of all five blockbuster STAR WARS sequels and these ginormous hits - the RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK films, JURASSIC PARK, SUPERMAN, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, the HOME ALONE franchise, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, EARTHQUAKE and the HARRY POTTER films. These achievements alone should be enough to warrant him the AFI prize.
Williams not only creates themes that practically every movie fan can hum, he also writes multiple themes for almost every film score he’s penned. STAR WARS not only has the famous main title theme we all know by heart, but also the famous ‘Cantina” piece and the Darth Vader theme. If you think his JAWS score is only that two-note theme accompanying the shark attacks, listen to it again. There are at least three other fully realized themes that add to this rich and nuanced score.
And then there is SUPERMAN, perhaps his greatest score of all time. Williams not only wrote the triumphant fanfare that is the main title tune, but also its beautiful and touching love theme, the song “Can You Read My Mind”, the "Waltz of the Villains" for Lex Luthor, et al., and the Americana pastiche that accompanied all of Clark Kent’s childhood. It’s an amazing five scores in one!
And despite his expertise as Hollywood’s official blockbuster score king, he’s also done a variety of other types of scores that were just as crucial to the success of their films. His score for SCHINDLER’S LIST is as haunting as any image in that brilliant masterwork by Steven Spielberg. His sneaky, comical jazz score for CATCH ME IF YOU CAN perfectly set the mood for the cat & mouse shenanigans between Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks that followed after the opening credits. And his percussively driven score for JFK has been imitated by dozens of other films and TV shows since its debut in 1992.
He’s been such a colossal figure in scoring films that people forget his impact on the small screen. He played the opening riff as a studio pianist for Henry Mancini’s famous theme for PETER GUNN. He composed the themes for GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, LAND OF THE GIANTS, and LOST IN SPACE. Known as Johnny Williams in those days, he actually wrote two themes for LOST IN SPACE. His first year effort was deemed too dark and aggressive by CBS TV executives. Thus, he was asked to rewrite the show’s theme for its second season. His sophomore effort sounded more adventurous and family friendly, and worked quite well, though to most purists his original is still the best.
Despite Williams’ five Academy Awards, four Golden Globes, 21 Grammy Awards, and countless other honors too numerous to list here, he has yet to place the AFI Life Achievement Star on his mantle piece. And it’s outrageous that he hasn’t been awarded it already. It’s also outrageous that the AFI has not deemed a single screenwriter, editor, cinematographer or costume designer worthy of their Life Achievement Award. A ‘below the line’ artist needs to be recognized at long last.
This sort of oversight is particularly egregious in regards to Williams as so many of those awarded already started their film careers a generation or two after he did. Williams earned his first Oscar for adapting the score of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF in 1970. 2004 recipient Meryl Streep didn’t star in a movie until almost a decade later. 2011 honoree Morgan Freeman didn’t star in a movie until the mid-1980’s. They were worthy of the AFI career honor, but Williams started his run decades earlier.
John Williams is now 82, and remarkably, he is still composing. He’s working on the new STARS WARS movie because well, it wouldn’t be STAR WARS without him. Isn’t that enough to have him take his rightful place in the pantheon of the American Film Institute’s highest honorees? And for all the reasons I’ve listed above, and because of his age, the AFI should know that they aren’t going to have that many more years to single him out. John Williams demands to be the 43rd recipient of their Life Achievement Award.