AFI Life Achievement Award

From Academic Kids

The AFI Life Achievement Award was established by the Board of Directors of the American Film Institute on February 26 1973 to honor a single individual for his or her lifetime contribution to enriching American culture through motion pictures and television. The Trustees initially specified that the recipient must be one who fundamentally advanced the art of film and whose achievements had been acknowledged by the general public as well as by film scholars and critics and the individual's peers. The Trustees also specified that the work of the recipient must have withstood the test of time.

Director John Ford was the unanimous choice of the Board of Trustees for the first award as he "clearly stands preeminent in the history of motion pictures." President Richard M. Nixon attended the gala dinner at which Ford was presented the award on March 31, 1973.

The Board of Trustees later amended the "test of time" requirement to enable the AFI Life Achievement Award to be presented to individuals with shorter careers, such as Tom Hanks, who at age 46, was the youngest recipient ever, and Steven Spielberg, who received the award at age 49.

All 32 Life Achievement Award ceremonies have been televised. Agreeing to appear at the televised ceremony apparently is part of the AFI's criteria for selecting the award, which would explain the absence of such greats as Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Paul Newman and Al Pacino from the rolls of the honored. (According to George Englund, Brando had been approached by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences about receiving an honorary Academy Award, but the Oscar offer was withdrawn when he would not agree to appear at the televised ceremony.) Fonda, Newman and Pacino all were recipients of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Gala Tribute, the most prestigious lifetime achievement award after the Oscar and the AFI award.

The televised ceremony generates income for the AFI, which is no longer funded by the federal government. Due to the exigencies of television, the popularity of the award recipient in terms of potential ratings likely is a factor in selecting the Life Achievement Award honoree, which could explain why it never has been awarded to such major American directors as Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola, both of whom were Film Society of Lincoln Center Gala Tribute honorees, or such distinguished actors as Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman, the latter of whom was a recipient of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Cecil B. DeMille Award for life achievement.

Politics also seems to be a factor in the award, as that likely was behind the notable omissions of Charles Chaplin, exiled from America during the Cold War for his left-wing sympathies, director Elia Kazan, controversial due to his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee during the Cold War, and Charlton Heston, whose presidency of the National Rifle Association made him unpopular in many circles. Heston was the chair of the AFI Board of Trustees that created the award in 1973.

Other notable omissions were Claudette Colbert, George Cukor, Audrey Hepburn, Bob Hope, Shirley MacLaine, and Mike Nichols, all recipients of a Lincoln Center Gala Tribute.

American citizenship seemingly also is a criteria for the AFI Life Achievement Award. Unlike the Kennedy Center Honors, foreigners whom have had a significant impact on film and American culture like Sean Connery are seldom honored. Sir David Lean remains the sole non-American to win the award. Notable omissions of non-Americans are Alec Guiness and Laurence Olivier, winners of both life achievement Oscars and Lincoln Center Tributes, and Michael Caine, Federico Fellini, and Yves Montand, recipients of the Lincoln Center honor.


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