Oscar, Jean Luc-Godard, and the Ethics of Honoring Talented Creeps

The Academy of Motion Picture Sciences will be giving an honorary Oscar to French director Jean-Luc Godard, and nobody who knows anything about film can object to the award on the basis of merit. Godard is one of the most influential film makers who ever yelled “Cut!;”  there are dozens of film classes about his work in schools all over the country. He makes great movies, and has for decades. He deserves the honor.

Or does he? Mr. Godard, it seems, has also been resolutely anti-Jewish, at least in his sentiments, for almost as long as he has been making classic films. Some in the industry and without are questioning whether Hollywood should be honoring a likely Anti-Semite.

Excuse me…did I miss something? When did the rest of the Oscars get junked, leaving only the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award? If that’s what happened, fine, I agree: Godard doesn’t deserve that award, because he appears to be, like a remarkable number of artists, especially those who make movies, an insufferable creep.  No, no…I just checked. The Academy of Motion Picture Sciences still gives out other awards as part of its mission, “Dedicated to the advancement of the arts and sciences of motion pictures.” There isn’t one word in the mission about one’s personal beliefs, or manners, or who an artist is friends with, votes for, sleeps with or admires…or, to look at it from the underside, who or what an artist hates, insults, or treats with disrespect.  Not one word, and that is as it should be, because it doesn’t matter. Creeps can and do make great movies, just like they can write great books (Gore Vidal; Norman Mailer), write great plays (William Saroyan; Lillian Hellman), compose great music (Wagner; Mozart), or in another field, start great nations (Thomas Jefferson).

Being a mean, bigoted, or untrustworthy human being is likely to interfere with an artist getting voted awards, of course. This is wrong, but the unavoidable consequence of human nature, since human beings are incapable of completely separating everything they associate with someone and not allowing biases to warp their judgment.  This has almost certainly happened to Godard, in fact. As the New York Times points out, he has never even been nominated for an Academy Award, while Oscars have been handed out to silly movies like “Ghost” and awful directors like Michael Cimino. This is, in part, because the members don’t like him, and why should they? Godard, while saying bigoted things about Jews through the years, has also expressed his contempt for Hollywood. The Academy, however, does not exist to encourage likable personalities in the movie profession.  When its members allow their personal opinions about an artist to stop them from giving his or her work just recognition, it is they who are acting unethically, directly harming the integrity of the Academy. Orson Welles never won an Academy award, and that looks absurd today. But he was widely disliked, and that was the reason

I believe that character should be a factor in some honors, like admitting baseball players into the Hall of Fame. That is because, however, sportsmanship is part of every sport, and the Hall specifically says good character is a requirement for admission. It is not, however, a qualification for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; if it was, that Hall would have about two members. Art has nothing to do with character, and if anyone should know that, it is artists.

Columnists, however, apparently have trouble with the concept; Richard Cohen, for example, who is capable of misunderstanding almost anything. He is outraged that Hollywood is giving an Oscar to a French anti-Semite, and argues that it doesn’t matter that another great film maker, D.W. Griffith, got the award despite being a virulent racist. He writes…

“My guess is that Hollywood [today]would not even consider such an award. After all, there is no way to give an award to a body of work. It has to go to a person, and the person in this case was a raw racist, an admirer of the Ku Klux Klan. I think there would be protests.”

Sure there would be protests, and so what? Like the knee-jerk liberal that he has always been, that settles the matter for Cohen: people would be offended, so such an award would be wrong. He continues:

“Just as no one in the film industry could look a black person in the eye after giving an award to Griffith, so it should be just as hard to honor Godard and look history in the eye. The victims of the Holocaust whom he has cruelly demeaned—“basically, there were six million kamikazes”—did not merely vanish. They were murdered, usually shot, by people who often said something like “filthy Jew” themselves.”

Okay, it’s hard. That is human nature, too. I would hope that it is hard to nominate Roman Polanski for an Oscar, and look his teenage rape victim in the face, but if Polanski makes a great film, he deserves to be recognized. I, and a lot of other people, find Oliver Stone’s political views revolting and offensive; recently he went beyond America-bashing to Hitler-excusing. Who is going to be the moral arbiter to determine when a director, actor or other film artist’s conduct is so terrible that their art should be ignored? Cohen? Frank Sinatra was about as loathsome a character as I can imagine: do we ignore his music? Actor Randy Quaid is on the lam with his wife in Canada, being sought by the U.S. as a criminal: if Quaid had a great performance this year, and he is capable of one, should his legal troubles disqualify him? Godard, unlike Quaid, Sinatra and Polanski, hasn’t broken any laws in the U.S. or even France. Now we are going to withhold artistic recognition on the basis of mere words, by Cohen’s standards?  Why his standards? Jane Fonda made statements during the Vietnam War that some people thought bordered on sedition. It didn’t stop her from getting an Oscar. (Actually, it helped) . By neither tradition, past standards, fairness or logic should Godard’s obnoxious statements and feelings about Jews enter into consideration of his movies.

Cohen ends with this (and as I am always looking for the smoking gun that shows Richard Cohen’s shallowness of mind and  analysis, this made me happy):

“Given his utter disregard for the Academy and his notorious crankiness, it’s not likely that Godard will show up Nov. 13 to receive his award. If, though, he does, it’s appalling that anyone else would.”

Now THAT’S right…but Cohen doesn’t understand the difference between the Academy honoring Godard’s work and individuals honoring the man. I won’t watch a Roman Polanski movie, or a Woody Allen movie, or an Oliver Stone movie, because I don’t want to put a cent in the pocket of individuals whom I find reprehensible in their values and conduct. I don’t begrudge them honors for their artistic achievements, just leave me out of it. I think it would send a powerful and legitimate message if the Academy gave Godard his honorary Oscar in an empty room. The message: we admire your work, but we don’t respect you.

It is not only ethical to let a creep know that his conduct is unconscionable; it is mandatory. But if we are going to encourage and recognize great art, which is what the Academy’s mission is, we have to recognize the great art created by creeps.

3 thoughts on “Oscar, Jean Luc-Godard, and the Ethics of Honoring Talented Creeps

  1. You’re the only person I’ve heard of with the same sentiment as me toward viewing movies from specific filmmakers. I have refused to watch a Woody Allen movie for more than a decade because of the incident with his current wife. It troubles me that so many talented people want to work with a man who took naked photos of a teenager girl – later having a sexual affair with her – who was, for all purposes, his daughter. Disgusting, and the reason I haven’t seen any of his films since the 1980s.

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