Academy defends Oprah as honorary Oscar winner

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Film academy president Tom Sherak is coming to Oprah Winfrey’s defense.

Sherak says Winfrey is “one of the most philanthropic performers in the world” and thus deserving of the academy’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted Tuesday night to present Winfrey with an Oscar statuette at the annual Governors Awards in November. James Earl Jones and makeup artist Dick Smith will also receive honorary Oscars at the private ceremony.

Blogs have been abuzz with criticism over the selection of Winfrey for the award since the announcement was made late Tuesday. In an article published Wednesday, Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein calls the academy decision “a boneheaded move.”

“Winfrey has done good work in the world, but that’s not enough to merit an Oscar,” he writes, and plenty of anonymous Internet posters on Wednesday agree.

Sherak says the Hersholt Award recognizes an individual who “exemplifies giving back to the community, the world, society in an extraordinary way.”

“Oprah has given and given and given,” he said, adding that she has contributed more than $500 million of her own money to charitable causes. “She’s a member of the academy, she was nominated for an Academy Award and she has produced movies. This is not about personality. This is about a person who has come from the depths, risen to the heights and given back. That’s a perfect example of why this award was created.”

The Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award was established shortly after the death of the actor in 1956. Previous winners include Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor, Quincy Jones and Jerry Lewis.

The award is presented periodically when the academy’s board of governors believes there is a worthy recipient, Sherak said.

Goldstein and’s Nikki Finke say Winfrey belongs more to the world of television than that of film. She was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for 1985’s “The Color Purple,” produced and appeared in “Beloved” in 1998 and was an executive producer of 2009’s “Precious.”

Finke asks in her post if “no one among the philanthropic film bigwigs deserved this award more than her this year? Or is this merely a matter of another of the rich and powerful just throwing their weight around and buying the Governors Award honor for ego feed?”

Sherak said many philanthropists belong to the film academy, but its governors “felt very strongly” about honoring Winfrey this year despite her limited work in film.

“We have a lot of people who are TV people who have made movies,” he said. “It doesn’t matter that they do other things… She is definitely one of us. What really counts is her contribution to humanity.”

Winfrey’s camp did not immediately respond to a phone call and e-mail seeking comment Wednesday.

Goldstein suggests that race played a role in the academy’s decision to honor the 57-year-old media mogul: “It is a way of guaranteeing that some people of color will be taking home Academy Awards, even if the honors aren’t actually presented on Oscar night.”

Jones and Smith will receive their honorary Oscars alongside Winfrey at the Nov. 12 ceremony at the Grand Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland. The two men are being recognized for their outstanding film careers.

Jones has appeared in more than 50 films. The 80-year-old actor — voice of Darth Vader — was nominated for an Academy Award in 1971 for “The Great White Hope.” His other credits include “Field of Dreams,” ‘’Patriot Games” and “The Hunt for Red October.”

Smith was NBC’s first makeup man when he started his career in 1945. He won an Oscar in 1984 for his work on “Amadeus” and was nominated again in 1989 for “Dad.” Known as the “godfather of makeup,” he also worked on “The Godfather,” ‘’The Exorcist” and “Taxi Driver.” Smith also helped train many of today’s top movie makeup artists.

The Governors Awards are not televised, but excerpts from the evening could be included in the Academy Awards telecast in February, 2012.

SANDY COHEN,AP Entertainment Writer: Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.