The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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AFI Life Achievement Award: Destroyed by TV

July 21, 2009 |  5:00 pm

Not that any of you actually watched, but the AFI Life Achievement Award had its TV airing Sunday night, where you could watch an schmoozy scrum of Hollywood insiders paying extravagant tribute to Michael Douglas, this year's honoree. The Life Achievement is an award that began with great promise in 1973, going to one of our most gifted filmmakers, John Ford, who was soon followed by such cinema giants as James Cagney, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock (you can see the drum roll of greats here). But the event has been sliding steadily downhill ever since as the AFI has turned what was once a prestigious honor into a dreary TV celebrity event.

Michaeldouglas As my writer pal Bob Elisberg pointed out in a thoughtful post on the Huffington Post, the AFI's desperate quest for TV brand familiarity has resulted in 10 of the last 11 awards being given to actors (the one exception being George Lucas). In fact, in its 37 years, the award has only gone to an actor or a filmmaker. So beyond the obvious question -- why honor Michael Douglas when Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, not to mention Francis Ford Coppola, have all gone wanting -- you have to wonder why the award has  never -- not even once -- been handed out to anyone best known as a writer, composer, producer or cinematographer.

But what bugs me the most is that the AFI has sold its soul without even being bought, in the sense that its TV credibility has continued to decline even as it has honored ever-younger actors (Tom Hanks got his award when he was 46) as the AFI repeatedly stooped to conquer, trying to chase a younger audience that clearly has little interest in stuffy awards fests.

In its early days, the AFI Life Achievement Award was broadcast exclusively on CBS, then, from the mid-1980s to 2000 on a rotating basis among the three original networks. After a one-year stop on Fox, it has dropped farther and farther down the TV hierarchy, playing for a number of years on the USA cable network. This year it reached a new nadir, airing on TV Land PRIME, home of '60s and '70s sitcoms and such lofty fare as Joan Rivers' "How'd You Get So Rich" and the reality show "The Cougar." Talk about how low can you go. Could the AFI end up on E! next year?

Since the show clearly has zero commercial potential, at least the AFI board could regain a small shred of credibility by deciding that because its star-search strategy has failed so miserably, it would actually start honoring industry titans and visionaries who didn't happen to be high-profile actors or directors. Imagine the possibilities! The AFI could honor a great writer -- obvious candidates being Neil Simon, Robert Towne or Larry Gelbart. It could laud a gifted cinematographer, starting with Haskell Wexler, Gordon Willis or Roger Deakins. Or single out a brilliant composer, beginning with John Williams, Ennio Morricone or Randy Newman.

God forbid, the AFI could even recognize one of the industry's top producers and studio executives, the men and women who've often single-handedly willed many of our most wonderful films into existence. I'd be happy to offer a host of names, with the likes of John Calley, Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin and Larry Gordon providing a starting point. The AFI has never seemed a less engaged or relevant institution than it does today. But at least if it regained its self-respect by honoring our truly great film artists and craftsmen, instead of simply trotting out another familiar celebrity, it might someday regain the respect of its peers in the Hollywood community. 

Photo: Michael Douglas. Credit: Manu Fernandez / Associated Press.