Jean-Luc Godard and his honorary Oscar: Does it matter if he's an anti-Semite?
Jean-Luc Godard, who's getting an honorary Oscar on Nov. 13, is suddenly back in the news, although not with the sort of media attention likely to burnish his image. Last month, the Jewish Journal put Godard on its cover, asking the provocative question: "Is Jean-Luc Godard an Anti-Semite?" And now, Tuesday's New York Times has a front page story examining the controversial honorary Oscar, describing what it calls "a simmering debate over whether Mr. Godard, an avowed anti-Zionist and advocate for Palestinian rights, is also anti-Jewish."
For me, the most fascinating part of the Times story, penned by Michael Cieply, was what wasn't in it. For all the supposed hubbub, there wasn't a complaint about the award from anyone in Hollywood. Even producer Mike Medavoy, who took issue with Godard's "narrow mind" toward Jews, said he was "fine with" Godard getting an award. The only person taking issue with the award was an executive at B'nai B'rith International, who argued that Hollywood had established standards for art but not for decency or morality.
It seemed even odder that Tom Sherak, the academy's president, wasn't quoted at all, while Sid Ganis, who is producing the ceremony, didn't defend the choice either, only being quoted about the selection of film clips in a tribute reel. Curious, I called Sherak to ask if he'd tried to dodge the bullet. Not at all, he said. So, I asked him: Do you have any misgivings about giving Godard an honorary Oscar?
"I support the Board of Governors," he said. "They decided to give an honorary Oscar to Godard for his contributions to film during the early years of the French New Wave era. The academy has traditionally separated the art form from the honoree's personal life." I asked Sherak if he could be more specific. "We've given awards in the past to people like Roman Polanski and Elia Kazan whose personal lives were often far from perfect. They did objectionable things and we've been criticized for giving them awards. But that's not what's at issue here. We've always felt the art form outweighs the personal transgressions."
Although I've been a frequent critic of the academy in other matters, I have to say that I've got no beef with their stand here. Artists aren't always especially admirable people in their personal lives, and if we started shunning every actor or filmmaker for misdeeds and bigotry, we'd find ourselves running out of potential award recipients. The Jewish Journal has gotten a lot of mileage out of Hollywood anti-Semitism scares, having run a cover story last February that examined the Oscar-nominated films "A Serious Man" and An Education," using the headline "Realism or Anti-Semitism?"
In fact, the Journal's Danielle Berrin, who writes one of my favorite blogs, Hollywood Jew, found herself pondering this recently, in the wake of the flap over Mel Gibson getting hired -- and then unhired -- from "The Hangover 2." Noting that a Journal archive search for "Mel Gibson" turned up 204 results, she admitted to having reached a breaking point in her obsession with "his strange psychotic behavior." She added: "No matter how much communal schadenfreude we can muster, it won’t change him; he is already a sad parody of himself. What I fear is that it’s changing us, and every time we talk about him, we give him new life."
Now it's Godard who has a new life, not only thanks to the Journal, of course, but the academy, which started the ball rolling with an honorary Oscar. Godard deserves the Oscar, but he also deserves to be criticized for some of his more outlandish statements. It's OK to do both. I wish all of our most gifted artists had hearts of pure gold, like the gleaming Oscar statuettes, but we don't live in a world of pristine good and evil. Many of our idols have feet of clay.
Photo: Jean-Luc Godard, pictured in 1981, during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Credit: Los Angeles Times