Last year, when the Trustees of the American Film Institute nominated a candidate to receive our first Life Achievement Award, their choice fell appropriately, perhaps almost inevitably, on John Ford. With a similar conviction of unavoidable rightness, this year they have selected James Cagney.
Unchallengeably, his work fulfills the prime criteria of the award: that it must have, in some way, advanced the film art, and that it be acknowledged alike by the general public, the critical and academic community, and by his professional peers. What is remarkable, I think, is that Jimmy Cagney should have made such a monumental contribution to film…working as an actor.
While the auteur theory of the director as the sole creative contributor to a film has suffered some erosion of credibility in recent years, it’s still generally conceded that film is a director’s medium. To a large degree, he controls the films he makes, and the level of this talent can generally be read throughout the body of his work, while an actor’s work often varies widely, depending on the parts he gets and the directors who guide him.
Not so Cagney. Through a span of over sixty films, many magnificent, some inevitably less than remarkable, he stamped each one with an incandescent vigor of his personality and his driving talent. One of the most significant figures of a generation when American film was dominant, Cagney, that most American of actors, somehow communicated eloquently to audiences all over the world…and to actors as well. Actors as disparate as Albert Finney, Toshiro Mifune, and Jean Belmondo seem to have shaped some of what they do on what Cagney did before them. The model, and the lesson, he has provided for actors in this country is clear, and classic, as most of them would tell you.
Jimmy Cagney richly deserves the Life Achievement Award we give him tonight. Let it serve as token of the admiration and respect of his audiences and his colleagues. He’s had that for nearly forty years.