Reclusive French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard will receive an honorary Oscar on Saturday marking his 50 years as "one of the seminal modernists” in cinema history.
However, Godard – known for films like Breathless and Sympathy for the Devil – has told the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that he will not attend the ceremony.
"He reiterated his thanks for the award," Academy president Tom Sherak said in a statement, "and also sent his good wishes to the other individuals being honoured the same night - Kevin Brownlow, Francis Ford Coppola and Eli Wallach - who he refers to as 'the three other musketeers’."
The dinner ceremony will pay tribute to Godard through film clips and commentary by admirers. The award will be accepted on Godard's behalf by the Academy, and the Oscar statuette will be delivered to him in Switzerland, the Academy said.
The recognition of Godard by the Hollywood establishment has rekindled debate over whether he might be an anti-Semite. These accusations were published recently in the Jewish Journal and taken up by the New York Times, and have cooled the already chilly relationship between the filmmaker and Hollywood.
At the centre of the controversy is not only the director’s well known support of the Palestinian cause but also his comments in an interview with the Geneva newspaper, Le Matin, in 1985 that were reprinted in a 2008 biography by Richard Brody. In the book, Godard is quoted as saying the film industry is bound up in Jewish usury.
"What I find interesting in the cinema is that, from the beginning, there is the idea of debt. The real producer is, all the same, the image of the Central European Jew," he said.
The Jewish Journal article also highlights a 1976 documentary “Here and There” in which the director inserted alternating blinking images of Golda Meir and Adolf Hitler, putting them on the same level.
Red carpet aversion
But Godard’s conspicuous absence from the Hollywood ceremony will not likely be interpreted as anti-Semitic, anti-capitalist or anti-American. What it will most probably do is confirm his aversion to awards shows and red carpets. The director skipped going to Berlin in 2007 where homage was paid to him by the European Film Academy. And he chose not to attend this year’s Cannes film festival where his latest work, Socialism, premiered.
In any case, the controversy will put the spotlight on Godard’s name in the Hollywood press, and probably delight the director who, besides his provocative opinions, is a big fan of Hollywood-style moviemaking.
Even if Godard has never made a secret of his disdain for the studio system, he has long admired and been inspired by American B movies, going so far as to dedicate Breathless to Monogram Pictures, a studio that made hundreds of low budget action and adventure films in the 1930s, ‘40s and ’50s.
And the character in Breathless played by Jean-Paul Belmondo was an obvious homage to Humphrey Bogart.
Influence on Hollywood
"More clearly than any other French New Wave filmmaker, Godard did for American film culture what the Beatles and Rolling Stones did for American rock and roll," said Steven Gaydos, executive director of the trade magazine Variety.
“He played it back to us and made sure we didn't miss its vitality and often subversive strains not just running through, but driving the greatest accomplishments of American culture in the form of rock n' roll and genre films.
“Like François Truffaut's brilliant re-evaluation of Alfred Hitchcock's oeuvre, Godard told us to look more closely at our gangsters and the way they behaved and to not worry so much about the flimsiness of the stories."
American director Quentin Tarantino is one of the greatest Godard admirers, dedicating his film Reservoir Dogs to him, and naming his production company A Band Apart, after the Godard film, Bande à part.
"With no Godard there's no Tarantino," added Gaydos. "That's a pretty big start!
“Strangely, of all of the French New Wave directors, Godard's influence on American film is probably the least substantial. But that's not to say it's insignificant. I think he fortified the artistic aspirations of the American filmmakers in the 1960s and 70s and then really served as a kind of patron saint for the American indie movement of the early 90s, for better or worse."
Godard has also influenced Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley and Steven Soderbergh. They embraced his visual style, experimental editing techniques, hand-held shots, voice over narrative style and pop culture references - and everything else defined as guerrilla filmmaking.
Sofia Coppola paid tribute to Godard when she received an Oscar for best original screenplay for her 2003 film, Lost in Translation.
Paradoxically the anti-capitalist and Marxist Godard has become an icon of fashion industry marketing. Last spring, the American designer Rodarte sold replicas of the t-shirt worn by Jean Seberg in Breathless to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the film.
And the Diesel brand has released an interactive video inspired by Bande à part in which the characters move and speak like in the film, but a mouse click on the clothing they are wearing opens a new window with purchasing information.
It shows the power of cinema and pop culture that is so dear to Godard and his American followers.
Jean-Luc Godard was born in Paris on December 3, 1930, the second of four children in a bourgeois Franco-Swiss family. His father was a doctor who owned a private clinic, and his mother came from an preeminent family of Swiss bankers.
During the Second World War Godard became a naturalised citizen of Switzerland, and attended school there, (in Nyon). His parents divorced in 1948, at which time he returned to Paris to attend the Lycée Rohmer. In 1949, he studied at the Sorbonne to prepare for a degree in ethnology. It was during this time that he met François Truffaut, Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer. Together, they founded the “Gazette du cinema” and he would later contribute articles to other film and arts magazines.
With the money he earned in the early 1950s as a construction worker on a dam project in Switzerland, he made a short film about the building of the dam called Opération béton (Operation Concrete).
In 1958 he shot Charlotte et son Jules (Charlotte and Her Boyfriend), a homage to Jean Cocteau. And in 1959 he began working on A bout de souffle (Breathless). The latter became a landmark film in the French New Wave with its references to American cinema, its jagged editing, and its overall romantic/cinephilia approach to filmmaking.
(with input from Claudia Laffranchi in Los Angeles), swissinfo.ch and agencies