Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Dear American Film Institute,

Congratulations on your choice of Morgan Freeman as the 2011 recipient of your prestigious AFI Life Achievement Award. He is a great actor and a worthy choice. And I watched your show honoring him last week on TV. However, I am writing to warn the AFI that you are on the verge of becoming an obsolete honor if you don’t get your act together pronto and recognize more worthy recipients. Let me explain.
It’s not that Freeman doesn’t deserve the recognition. He does. But he should have been honored a few years from now. The AFI Life Achievement Award is supposed to honor a single individual for his or her lifetime contribution to enriching American culture through motion pictures and work that has stood the test of time. The interesting thing about the Freeman choice is that he’s only been making films since the mid-eighties. A mere three decades. Has INVICTUS or BRUCE ALMIGHTY stood that test of time yet? No, they have not. Even more embarrassing to you, AFI, I can come up with at least six people who deserve the honor who have had film careers starting two decades before Freeman’s. And you’ve ignored them. 

Your oversights have been egregious. And for an organization like yours to hand out a career capper to Freeman so prematurely is disingenuous. So because you clearly need a little guidance and clarity on what constitutes a lifetime, let me offer the following six for you to honor. And they are in the order you should follow.
So far the only recipients of your award have been actors or directors. How narrow-minded of you especially when you consider that film composer John Williams is a household name. Here’s why in case you need reminding: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, JAWS, the STAR WARS trilogy, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, SUPERMAN, the INDIANA JONES trilogy, E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL, EMPIRE OF THE SUN, HOME ALONE, JFK, JURASSIC PARK, SCHINDLER’S LIST, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and the first three HARRY POTTER films. He’s won 5 Oscars and been nominated another 39 times. And I’ll bet most of us can hum at least six or seven of his brilliant movie themes, can’t we? His might be the most remarkable body of work in film history. So show the film community that below-the-line artists matter too. Honor this man in 2012. He is quite simply the greatest film composer of all time.

The Sundance Kid has been a leading man in six decades. Six decades. In addition to BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID he has starred in these cinematic essentials: THE CANDIDATE, DOWNHILL RACER, JEREMIAH JOHNSON, THE WAY WE WERE, THE STING, THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE NATURAL, OUT OF AFRICA and INDECENT PROPOSAL. He’s also a wonderful director who won an Oscar for the Best Picture winner ORDINARY PEOPLE. He’s been nominated for Oscars for acting in THE STING and producing and directing QUIZ SHOW too. And he’s received an honorary Oscar for founding the Sundance Film Festival, because yes, as you know, he is the father of the modern independent film movement. The Kennedy Center has already honored him with their lifetime achievement award. What’s holding you up?

He’s had a far more varied career than Sir Sean Connery who received your award in 2005. He’s had far more hits too. And like Redford, he’s been a leading man for six decades. Who can forget ALFIE, THE IPCRESS FILE, THE ITALIAN JOB, GET CARTER, SLEUTH, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, DRESSED TO KILL, EDUCATING RITA, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS, THE QUIET AMERICAN, BATMAN BEGINS, CHILDREN OF MEN, THE DARK KNIGHT or INCEPTION? He’s also got two Oscars and four other nominations. What else must Sir Michael do to impress you, become a Lord of the British Empire?

He’ll likely never sit for the dinner that you require of your recipients, and we all know that’s why Katherine Hepburn and Paul Newman were never honored, but don’t let Woody Allen’s shyness divert you from the necessary task of giving him your award. He’s made 40 films in just as many years and given us classics like BANANAS, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, SLEEPER, ANNIE HALL, MANHATTAN, BROADWAY DANNY ROSE, ANOTHER WOMAN, THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, CRIMES & MISDEMEANORS, BULLETS OVER BROADWAY, MATCH POINT, VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and the new delight MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. He’s a great movie star, writer and director, and is quite simply our greatest living filmmaker. Whatever it takes, get him to sit for the dinner.

He’s retired from the movies now but he has done more significant work than Morgan Freeman and is one of two American character actors who redefined the term. (More on the second one in the next paragraph.) Hackman has been both leading man and supporting performer throughout the five decades of his varied film career. Look at what he’s done and tell me he doesn’t deserve a lifetime achievement award: BONNIE AND CLYDE, DOWNHILL RACER, both FRENCH CONNECTION films, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, THE CONVERSATION, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, SUPERMAN, SUPERMAN II, HOOSIERS, NO WAY OUT, MISSISSIPPI BURNING, CRIMSON TIDE, UNFORGIVEN, GET SHORTY, THE BIRDCAGE and THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. He's got two Oscars and there are few actors who can do drama and comedy as well as him and he needs to be heralded. 

The other great who redefined the term character actor is Hackman’s old chum Duvall. Look at his list of amazing titles starting in 1962: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (He was Boo Radley!), BULLITT, TRUE GRIT, M*A*S*H, THE GODFATHER, THE GODFATHER PART II, THE CONVERSATION, NETWORK, APOCALYPSE NOW, THE GREAT SANTINI, TENDER MERCIES, THE NATURAL, LONESOME DOVE (on TV), THE APOSTLE, A CIVIL ACTION and GET LOW. He's an Oscar winner too and perhaps more significantly when actors tell you whom they most admire in the business one of them is always Duvall. What more does the AFI need? 

I have been an AFI member for over a decade and wish that I had a vote. But only your committee can determine the winners. So they better start making more thoughtful choices. I implore the AFI to honor these six gentlemen. They have had longer and greater careers than many of those you have already bestowed with your award. Tom Hanks is a wonderful talent, but you awarded him when he was only 45 years old and that's way too young for anyone to receive a life achievement award. So resist giving the award to such contemporary types that would generate greater publicity for you like a Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise. Their time will come. Now you must be smarter and less expedient. You must do the right thing and honor these six without any further delay. If you don’t, you dishonor them as well as the history of film. And your relevancy and credibility will be lost.

Jeff York


  1. Great commentary and criticism. For this particular award to remain relevant today and elevate itself above so many others out there, it needs to make wise and deserving choices. And not be selective only of those who will bring in the best TV ratings. Curious it is that after 28 years on the major networks, it slipped to the USA Network, followed now by TV Land, which doesn’t suggest to me the broadcast of a major event.

    My personal criticism of the AFI selections has been the notable lack of recognition of women in film. Only 15%, six of thirty-nine, awardees are women: Bette Davis (1977), Lillian Gish (1984), Barbara Stanwyck (1987), Elizabeth Taylor (1993), Barbra Streisand (2001), and Meryl Streep (2004).

    I find it incomprehensible that the AFI feels that women have contributed so little to film in the last century.

  2. How right you are, Fan With No Name. Amazing that only six women have been honored. And to include Barbara Stanwyck the AFI had to rely heavily upon her TV work. As I stated before, Katherine Hepburn declined the award so that explains why her name is missing from the tony list. But there are other women that the AFI could honor yet haven't. Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton are three living actresses who are worthy of consideration. (Perhaps that should be a follow-up suggestion list from me.)

    Apparently the AFI is considering some sort of posthumous award version of their life achievement accolades to honor those overlooked while they were alive or those who died before they could be duly honored. If that comes to fruition look for the following female names to be called: Edith Head, Audrey Hepburn, Mariln Monroe, Ingrid Bergman and yes, Katherine Hepburn. On the male side they should call Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Buster Keaton, Marlon Brando, John Wayne, William Holden, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Laurence Olivier at least.

    BTW the great Stanley Donen is still alive. So is Mickey Rooney. Peter O'Toole. Francis Ford Coppola. Shocking omissions really. There are just so many they need to honor and yet haven't. And the sad fact remains that so many that were honored could have been called out a decade from now and they'd still be fairly young to receive it. Not just Tom Hanks but Steven Spielberg, Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, George Lucas and Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese as well. They are all worthy choices, like Morgan Freeman, but others who have been around longer should have been called first. It's just mind boggling how the AFI has missed so many obvious choices.

  3. All worthy candidates but not one woman. This is not a reflection on your nominations, Jeff. Rather it's a reflection of how far the industry has to go.

  4. Michael, it is so unfortunate that there haven't been more women honored. In addition to the six men who should be honored the AFI could recognize Shirley MacLaine, Diane Keaton or Jane Fonda as I stated above. There are some good potential candidates down the road in the likes Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet and a few others. We shall have to watch and see...

  5. I totally agree regarding Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall.

    For my money Hackman is the best film actor there has ever been - it's a travesty he hasn't received it.

  6. my choice comes down to four great talents:robert redford,woody allen,robert duvall,jane fonda,or if you want to give it to a foreign star:peter o'toole or michael caine. a film drirector could be:francis ford coppola or norman jewison.maybe jerry lewis.

  7. You are 100% correct regarding John Williams. He is a music icon. You hear his music everywhere. He should be recognized.

  8. Thanks, Anonymous! It would be a shame for so many of these to be ignored. And it would be wonderful to see the AFI honor a 'below the line' artist like John Williams. He's a masterful composer and the award should be for more contributors beyond acting and directing.

  9. Wonderful thesis and 100% correct, especially where John Williams is concerned. The 2013 selection has since been announced to be Mel Brooks, a worthy selection but in my opinion his body of work and his impact on film history does not compare to Mr. Williams. Hopefully he will be with us for many more years and the AFI will have ample opportunity to properly recognize him. They were absolutely derelict in not recognizing Paul Newman before his death and they need to start awarding these aging icons before they are gone.

  10. Thanks for your thoughts, Robert! I agree that Mel Brooks is a good but not great choice, especially when compared to the individuals highlighted who did more amazing work. And I think it will be a terrible shame if the AFI ignores John Williams. They may feel that because he is 'below the line' that is impact on film has not been as great as 'above the line' directors or actors. And if they think that way, the AFI couldn't be more wrong. Let's hope that they see the light and award Mr. Williams their Life Achievement Award next year!

  11. I too wait patently for Robert Redford and Doris Day to be named. This year will be Steve Martin and although a very talented actor...again NOT a choice that we saw coming.
    As with most things these days, I have to think most of these choices are political...does AFI have a black list as they once did in Hollywood? If so...this fan will turn the channel to anything but their show.

  12. Thanks, Anonymous! I appreciate your following of the blog as well as the fact that you took the time to write. Please keep reading and writing! And Martin is a good choice but alas, there are many great choices that have yet to be picked. I'm particularly perplexed by the lack of recognition for Redford. Hopefully the AFI will amend that one of these years.

  13. Well, they've finally done it! Williams will be the 44th recipient of the award!!! :D

    1. Brian, forgive me for being so egregiously late on this, but I just saw it now. Nonetheless, thanks so much for your thoughts and following this blog. I hope you'll continue, and I will try to be more timely and hopefully see all the responses that friends and followers leave here! Thanks again for your thoughts!

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. Great list!!! I am happy to see that since you first wrote this: Jane Fonda, Shirley Maclaine and John Williams has recieved the award. I do pray that Gene Hackman will be the next one.
    Have you gotten in touch with the AFI regarding this?

  16. Indeed, Unknown, I've written the AFI a number of times, usually once a year, to recommend such worthy recipients. They have written me back too, actually telling me they were giving it to Williams the day before it was announced publicly, and thanking me for championing him! I'm very happy with their latest choice of Diane Keaton and have championed her here too. Thanks for following this blog, BTW, and keep commenting further!