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Oscars In Memoriam: Recent Deaths Put Extra Pressure on Academy

The Oscars are coming Sunday, so get ready for controversy. No, not about politics, Woody Allen or even the Oscar results. Every year, one of the show’s most beloved segments, and the one that stirs up the most heated debates is the In Memoriam sequence.

An online petition is requesting that the Oscar segment include Sarah Jones, the 27-year-old Atlanta crew member killed by a train while filming “Midnight Rider.” That petition is touching and heartfelt, and I agree that any worker, in any field, deserves special recognition if he or she died in the line of duty.

The Academy tries to get a cross-section of film-industry people in a short amount of time. Academy decision-makers weigh a lot of factors about who to include. Bottom line: Every person shown in the segment will deserve to be there. But not every deserving person WILL be there, because time is limited. Academy reps are nearly always mum about who is included. The past year has seen the death of notables including Philip Seymour Hoffman, James Gandolfini, Peter O’Toole, Tom Sherak, Shirley Temple, Deanna Durbin, Joan Fontaine, Roger Ebert, Ray Dolby, Ray Harryhausen, Paul Walker and Elmore Leonard, to mention just a few.

Will Harold Ramis be included? There used to be a cutoff sometime around the end of January and some notables were omitted because the death occurred shortly before the ceremony. Technology has changed quickly and presumably it’s now easier to make last-minute changes. But would that entail bumping someone else?

People love this segment. They LOVE it. But it stirs up a lot of emotions. When Leni Riefenstahl was included, many people protested that their favorite had been bypassed — and for Hitler’s favorite filmmaker? In more recent years, there were protests at the omissions of Andy Griffith, Lupe Ontiveros and Larry Hagman, while the absence of Farrah Fawcett was protested so loudly that the Academy issued a rare explanation, saying that she was more of a TV actress than film.

Another source of controversy: Applause. Last year, Barbra Streisand sang (in the photo above), and past singers have ranged from James Taylor to Aretha Franklin. It’s a wonderful addition, but it was instigated to discourage the applause in the middle of the segment. For years, audiences were asked to abstain from clapping until the end, but several prominent faces got applause, followed by silence for other faces. “It’s like a popularity contest for the deceased,” lamented one Academy member. The singers seem to have helped quiet the clapping in the past few years.

But it raises another point of contention: Who gets the final image? That in itself is a source of controversy, because the Academy folks want it to end on an emotional moment. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a strong possibility, but a much safer choice would be Shirley Temple.

Did we forget anyone who should make the Academy Awards show? Leave your choices in the comments.

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