Kevin Brownlow now has two Oscars, and I couldn’t be happier. The second award, which bears his name, is the result of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences deciding that a film historian and archivist of his stature is as worthy of an honorary Oscar as two world-class directors (Francis Ford Coppola and Jean-Luc Godard) and one superb actor (Eli Wallach). This says as much about the Academy and its mission as it does about the recipients…and it honors the field of film history.
The first Oscar was bequeathed to Kevin by pioneering cinematographer Charles Rosher upon his death in 1974. It was given the first year the Academy Awards were handed out, in 1929, for the landmark picture Sunrise, which was photographed by Rosher and Karl Struss. Rosher was the first silent-film veteran Kevin ever interviewed, and the cameraman clearly appreciated what his young friend from England did for him—and his colleagues of the silent era—by writing the brilliant book The Parade’s Gone By.
But Kevin is more than an author and historian: he is also a director, a documentarian, a preservationist, and a proselytizer. He set the gold standard for research and writing with The Parade’s Gone By, which brought the silent-film era to vivid life. He almost single-handedly pieced Abel Gance’s forgotten epic Napoleon back together and restored the elderly director’s reputation for a new generation of admirers. In 1980 he and his late partner David Gill unveiled their remarkable 13-part documentary series Hollywood and established a—
—level of quality, scholarship and showmanship that no one has ever topped. (Yes, it took a couple of Brits to come to Hollywood and film interviews with the veterans of the silent era. American television couldn’t be bothered.) Kevin went on to write other great books and with his longtime partner created other superior documentaries, including the eye-opening Cinema Europe and the breathtaking Unknown Chaplin. He then inveigled Thames Television, which backed his television work, to sponsor full-fledged restorations of great silent films and present them at the London Film Festival.
But Kevin is not one to seek the spotlight; quite the contrary. For him, it’s all about the work—and most of all, the films. In his acceptance speech on Saturday night he proudly proclaimed himself a film collector, and reminded the audience of a time not so long ago when the FBI tried to eliminate such hobbyists.
He also took Hollywood to task (carefully blaming the present audience’s predecessors) for allowing so many of its silent films to decompose. Where someone else might have merely taken a bow, Kevin chose to scold his audience and remind them of their responsibility! He is single-minded and stubborn, a perfectionist in everything he does. But he shares another vital quality with his countryman, the late, great William K. Everson: generosity. Countless authors and historians have benefited from his willingness to share notes, interviews, rare films, and most of all his extraordinary knowledge.
Longtime friends and admirers like actor James Karen and producer Lindsay Doran spoke on his behalf Saturday night, and Kevin Spacey presented Kevin with his Oscar. The Academy also prepared a lovely tribute film in which I was happy to participate along with Robert Osborne, George Stevens, Jr., and Martin Scorsese. But this brief catalogue of film clips couldn’t begin to enumerate all that Kevin has done, or how his experience as a filmmaker and editor has elevated his work in the documentary field so far above the norm.
This marked the second year the Academy decided to hold a black-tie evening to hand out four honorary awards. (Last year’s recipients were Lauren Bacall, Roger Corman, Gordon Willis and John Calley.) It is an elegant affair that draws the best and brightest of Hollywood, past and present. It isn’t every award show that can boast a lineup ranging from Clint Eastwood to George Lucas; Tony Bennett even sang in honor of his friend Eli Wallach.
A generous number of contemporary filmmakers were in attendance, including many likely Oscar nominees for 2010. You can watch excerpts from the show oscars.org… yet it is precisely because the event isn’t telecast that everyone feels relaxed. (The show ran a half hour longer than scheduled, but I don’t think anyone minded.)
At the end of the program I congratulated Kevin, who was beaming, and told me the story of writing a fan letter to Charles Rosher when he was very young and winding up with his Oscar. Now, Kevin Brownlow has one of his own to put alongside it on his shelf in London. No one could be more deserving.