Trapped By Tradition

A few radical ideas could liven up the Oscar ritual.

MEMO TO: Arthur Hiller

FROM: Peter Bart

Everyone’s eyes instantly glaze over at the mention of Oscar rules, so let me get straight to the point: The Academy Award ritual has become ossified, Arthur. It’s time for a change.

I can already hear the rustle of readers turning the page, so here is Suggestion 1: Why not “open up” the process a bit by revealing the actual voting results? It would be instructive, for example, to know the margin by which “Gandhi, ” that 1982 classic of soporific cinema, beat out “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Tootsie” – two films that live in everyone’s memory. How many members of the Academy voted for the chintzy adaptation of “My Fair Lady” over the mythic “Dr. Strangelove”?

The whole notion of secret votes is kind of old, Arthur. After all, the Academy is a vital organization of professionals; it’s not the Knights of Malta.

And that’s just the start. In your role as president of the Academy, you’ve personally put in many long hours to overhaul the loathsome documentary voting process. Now it’s time to take the next step by banishing the documentary and short subject Oscar presentations from the TV show. According to a Variety survey, the acceptance speeches of people who make shorts have been consistently longer than the running time of the shorts themselves. Let them list their family members off camera!

With Quincy Jones coming aboard as producer, it seems only fair to give him a fighting chance to enliven the proceedings. Last year’s groaner came in at three hours and 25 minutes, with millions of viewers tuning out toward the end of the show at a time when interest should be peaking. While 81 million people in the U.S. sampled some portion of the ceremony, the audience averaged out at about 48 million. Indeed, the show has never achieved the rating it elicited exactly 40 years ago when everyone tuned in to find out whether “Marty” would finally find a date.

Whenever a change in Oscar procedures is proposed, Arthur, one can hear the “harrumphs” emanating from Academy directors, who regard themselves as the guardians of tradition. All of us want to keep the dignity of the awards intact, but I’d still like to ask, what tradition?

We’re talking about the Academy, not the Vatican. It was not that long ago that the Oscar ceremony consisted of a combination roast and cocktail party, with the alcohol consumption matching that of a present-day Golden Globes event. Legend has it that Mary Pickford campaigned for an Oscar for “The Taming of the Shrew” by inviting the so-called Board of Judges to tea at her mansion. (The only memorable element in Pickford’s “Shrew” was the screenplay credit, which read, “Written by William Shakespeare with additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.”)

In that era, the event was such a family affair that the first art direction award went to the man who’d designed the statuette. At the 1931 ceremony, members of the audience were openly sipping from flasks as one nominee delivered a ferocious attack on Prohibition – the only speech that kept everyone awake.

Traditions are made to be broken, and the Academy should start breaking a few that have outlived their time. The Oscar establishment, for example, is fiercely opposed to the serving of cocktails or hors d’oeuvres before or after Oscar screenings.

Come off it, fellas. During the height of Academy season, members should be encouraged to get out of their homes and avoid those seductive videos that the studios send out. Trouble is, there are a lot of movies to see and the electorate is not exactly buoyantly youthful. Hence, what’s wrong with rewarding voters for coming out of their homes by doling out a few refreshments – how does that “vulgarize” the proceedings?

The Academy this year is again discouraging companies from sending books, soundtrack CDs, musicvideos or other items to the membership, on the grounds that a fusillade of “junk mail” is counterproductive. I see the point in all this, but, again, there’s also an educational value to some of this material. Recently the music branch insisted film scores and songs be sent to the voters, despite the objections of the Academy directors. As a longtime Academy member myself, I confess to playing the CDs before casting my votes in the music categories.

Spooky rules

The newly proposed rules governing the ever-fractious foreign-language branch also seem a bit spooky, Arthur. If journalists, representatives of foreign countries or other sordid individuals are barred from screenings, the process, already viewed with skepticism, takes on an even greater conspiratorial air. Shouldn’t we keep our eye on the main objective – namely, to find a way of giving Academy members a chance to vote for what is truly the “best” foreign-lingo picture, not an obscure entry from Outer Mongolia that no one has heard of?

Which brings me back to my first proposal: Tell voters the results of the voting. It was two time Oscar winner William Goldman who first advanced this notion after last year’s show, and his idea was greeted with thunderous silence. His central argument: “We ought to be able to accurately sense the mood of the industry, just as in elections we can sense the mood of the country.”

Taking the fifth

Goldman acknowledged that it could prove embarrassing for someone to finish fifth, but, “After all, it’s not fifth out of five, it’s fifth out of a choice of hundreds of movies and thousands of actors. What, pray tell, is so terrible about that?”

I think he has a point, Arthur – one that I wish you would discuss with your board. While it might seem insensitive to announce the tallies during the ceremony itself, the results could be discreetly disclosed to Academy members and the press on the following day.

And if one of your fusty board members protests about tradition, ask him a few quick questions. Like, why was the award for best comedy direction abolished? Why were write-in votes banished? Those were once traditions, too.

Tell everyone to lighten up a bit, Arthur. This is showbiz, after all, isn’t it?

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