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AFI Life Achievement Award: A Tribute to David Lean (1990)

The American Film Institute Salute to David Lean (original title)


Credited cast:
Chevy Chase ... Self
Goldie Hawn ... Self
Anjelica Huston ... Self
David Lean ... Self - Guest of Honor
John Mills ... Self - Guest Speaker
Peter O'Toole ... Self
Gregory Peck ... Self
Cesar Romero ... Self
Omar Sharif ... Self
Steven Spielberg ... Self


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Johnny LaRue meets Doctor Zhivago

Each year since 1973, the American Film Institute have given their Lifetime Achievement Award to a prominent film star or director. The choice of whom to honour has been motivated by various factors ... such as whose name will sell the most tickets. The guest of honour must be alive, and must be willing to attend in person and give an acceptance speech. The first four annual awards were given to male recipients: in 1977, the AFI decided it was time to honour a woman, but their committee's first choice (Katharine Hepburn) refused to accept the award in person, so they gave it to Bette Davis (who apparently didn't mind being second choice for an award based on gender). Cary Grant had a standing offer to receive the AFI award, but he was never willing to make an acceptance speech and so he was never chosen.

In 1990, the Lifetime Achievement Award went to Sir David Lean: a faintly surprising choice, as Lean did not work within the Hollywood studio system and is therefore an 'outsider'. Yet he has rightly been respected by Hollywood's movie industry as a master filmmaker. William Goldman's book 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' contains an amusing anecdote about how, at any given moment, there are only two hot directors in Hollywood, and one of them is always David Lean.

We get here, as usual, the clips from the guest of honour's films. In Lean's case, the offerings are mostly from his later international epics, rather than his early British films which are not so well-known Stateside. A further weakness here is that this AFI tribute, more so than most, features testimonials from people who are outside the Hollywood system.

One thing which I dislike about the AFI tributes in general is that they tend to include testimonials from current box-office names who have nothing to do with the guest of honour, but who will bring in ratings points from young viewers who aren't familiar with the old-timer who's getting the award. An especially egregious example of this was the Billy Wilder tribute, which featured comments by Whoopi Goldberg and Jessica Lange ... neither of whom ever worked with Wilder. Here, that sort of thing is kept to a minimum during the Lean tribute ... until a very funny payoff, near the climax of this event.

When the guest of honour finally rises to make an acceptance speech, appropriate music is played. At the AFI tribute for Alfred Hitchcock, it was 'Funeral March for a Marionette'. For James Cagney, it was 'Yankee Doodle Dandy'. Here, as David Lean strides triumphantly to the dais, the house band plays 'The Colonel Bogey March', which was used so effectively in Lean's film 'Bridge on the River Kwai'. And now comes the payoff. For a few seconds, the camera cuts away from Lean to show John Candy applauding him. Candy never worked for Lean ... but as I saw him here, I suddenly realised that the Colonel Bogey March has figured prominently in Candy's career. It was the theme tune for his Johnny LaRue sketches on 'SCTV'. He performed it in his film 'Volunteers', and it shows up in a couple of other Candy films too. Whoever had the bright idea of giving John Candy a prominent seat at the AFI tribute to David Lean was very clever indeed, and I'll rate this tribute full marks of 10 in 10.

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