Polite ‘no thanks’ to Oscar changes

MEMO TO: Peter Bart

FROM: Arthur Hiller

AS THE ONLY ACADEMY MEMBER in the world with his own paper, you certainly send high-visibility mail, and I read your memo (Daily Variety, Nov. 27) with great interest but with some confusion.

This “lighten up” campaign you’ve been running recently is intriguing. Am I misreading you? It seems to me you’re telling us to quit being so damned concerned with ethics, and try to get back to the days when a nominee could stand in the Academy’s lobby after screenings and enthusiastically pump hands for votes. Are you saying that Academy members should be no more embarrassed about special-interest blandishments than say, a congressman? Come on, Peter, do we really want the vote of those who, as you suggest, would come to the Oscar screenings because we serve cocktails and hors d’oeuvres as an enticement? Of course we all realize newspapers might be a little dull, journalistically speaking, if they only wrote articles about how well someone is trying to behave. It’s a lot more fun for reporters to write about how the fix is in and the prize is coated in grease. I wish we could be more help with that.

Then I thought: Suppose I wrote you a memo full of advice along the lines of the following:

“Why doesn’t Daily Variety lighten up on this ‘journalistic standards’ kick? This is showbiz, isn’t it, and what’s a trade paper doing taking itself so seriously? We’re talking about Daily Variety, not the New York Times.

“Quit mincing around with all this ‘two confirmed sources’ prissiness and just give us the gossip and innuendo. Take your paper back to the good old days: Issue your reporters a daily ration of rye whiskey and let ’em accept anything up to midsize sedans from the companies whose movies they’re reviewing. Lighten up, Peter.”

DOES THAT INCLINE YOU TO RELAX your standards any? Knowing you, Peter, I’m inclined to doubt it, and I have a hunch that we’re not headed down the low road either.

Now, before I take up your primary suggestion, I’ll do what I can to respond to some of the other ideas you’ve volleyed at me.

1. I doubt that we’ll be “banishing” any categories of Oscars from the show. We realize that we could boost our ratings by pruning the awards down even further than you suggest, to just five or six categories, but we’re not likely to do that either. We like high ratings of course, but the pursuit of them, oddly enough, isn’t our highest objective. We’re there for Academy purposes on Oscar night. If a category is robust enough to justify its existence (meaning that it’s represented in enough theatrical films), we’ll give it an award and we’ll give it on the show. If, like black-and-white cinematography, it essentially disappears from theaters, we’ll pull the plug.

2. Hey, which of our “directors” (we call them governors, actually) are the fusty, harrumphing ones? Haskell Wexler, Martha Coolidge, Sid Ganis? Kathy Kennedy, Bob Daly? Which ones? Bob Rehme? Saul Bass? It would help my thinking considerably if you could be more specific in this area of criticism.

I must point out to you that the board doesn’t consider itself as the “guardian of tradition”; indeed as you point out, many traditions have been broken in the past. The purpose of the Academy as you well know is to reward and to nurture excellence. The board is there to guide and enhance that purpose, and most of our Oscar-show producers display a respect for the past and an eagerness to shake things up a bit. (Within limits. I don’t expect us to be giving out the best picture award first anytime soon.)

3. The Music Branch hasn’t “insisted” that scores and songs be sent to our voters. The branch governors made the change, and there was no objection from any other Academy governor.

4. I’m not sure why you think it’s “spooky” for us to bar journalists from our Foreign Language voting screenings. The more interesting question is why we ever allowed them into the voting sessions for this category in the first place. We don’t do it in other categories, and I don’t see many first-person press accounts of jury discussions at Cannes or Venice. Why isn’t that spooky?

We’re workin’ here, and we want to be able to make critical remarks without having them replayed on the 11 o’clock news.

Now then, as for your main proposal, I realize that you’re only trying to add some zest to our proceedings, but I honestly think the suggestion of releasing the full results of the Oscar voting is a bad one.

We’re not, as you note, the Vatican; on the other hand we’re not a government , either. In national and other elections it’s useful for the public to know which candidates received how many votes, because one of the candidates is going to end up in charge, and it’s good for the governing and the governed to know just how strong the mandate is, and how the vote may have been fragmented.

Releasing the vote tallies for the Oscars serves no purpose except as grist for gossip. There already is a regrettable tendency in some quarters to relegate four of the nominees in each category to the status of “losers” after Oscar night, instead of regarding them as recipients of one of the highest honors our industry can bestow. And while I’m sure it wouldn’t happen at Daily Variety, there’s just the teeniest chance that some reporter somewhere would cozy up to a story about how receiving only 89 votes was sure to send a performer’s career into a tailspin.

AND TO WHAT point, really? All of us of course share the curiosity at times about who came in second (especially us nominees), but it’s not a curiosity that needs to be slaked. (Following your logic, we could release the full tally of votes at the nominations level too, and then people could see how many of their friends lied about voting for them.) We’ve always felt that lusting for that information is a little, well, unworthy of us frankly, and in an increasingly vulgar age it’s a good feeling, now and again, to do the mannerly thing.

That’s just my take on the issue, but I’ll do what you suggest and bring the matter before the board. I think I hear someone harrumphing already, though.

Looking back over this, I realize that it may seem that I’ve been less than receptive to most of your well-intentioned suggestions. I’m always honestly glad to receive feedback from members though, and I consider it thoughtfully. Needless to say, I’d welcome further thoughts from you, Peter.

Next time though, a fax would be OK.

Director Arthur Hiller is serving his third term as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

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