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Diary of an Academy voter: Rosilyn Heller

Part one of two

A voting member since 1972, Rosilyn Heller serves on the Academy’s foreign language committee, which nominates five films from among the official submissions by various countries. Vice president of production at Columbia Pictures in the era of “Taxi Driver,” she became the first woman inducted into the executive branch of the present AMPAS. She has produced and written both studio and independent films, and is developing a number of projects with major directors.

On tackling the demands of awards season:

I love this season. I’m an inveterate moviegoer, and I don’t watch films on DVD and tape; I go to the theaters. I take my filmgoing very personally.

On the Academy’s foreign language films committee, on which she’s served since 1997:

For the foreign film screenings in the big theater at the Academy, everybody’s got their little spot that everyone else respects, because we all know each other, more or less. Mine is usually five or six rows back from the front. (I told you I take my moviegoing personally). Nobody sits in front of anybody — that’s a complete no-no — because it’s all subtitled. So everybody makes sure everybody else can see. It’s quite a little dance we perform.

The viewing schedule is divided into three sections. And you don’t know what films are going to be in each section. Each has about 18 films, and you have to see 15 of them to qualify to vote.

My friends and I try to see as many as we can. Because for us it’s not just about voting; for us it’s about seeing great films. We truly consider it a gift, not a chore. Of course, you take your chances. Some are truly extraordinary, others, maybe not so much. The main thing is that whether you see them all or just a few, you’re bound to be richer for it.

Over the years, I’ve mostly agreed with the films nominated. Often there are far more than five films that are truly worthy, but we can’t really do much about that


Publicists call me to ask what I thought about certain films. I don’t talk to them. I don’t share my views of these movies with anybody, except my friends and others on the committee. They have a break between the screenings and we all talk. Nobody’s shy about that. You can always tell when the group has loved or hated a movie. Everybody’s buzzing.

The Academy theater is a great facility, so every time you see another of these foreign films you feel like you’ve made a trip somewhere. I once sat through a Bulgarian film. It was a lot of drunken men raping women. I thought, well, I’ve been there, and now I certainly don’t have to go back! But for the most part, it’s exquisite to see these differing landscapes and cultures and people. That’s why more members, especially young ones, should take advantage of this terrific committee.

On attending general screenings to nominate movies for best picture:

I don’t try to see everything. I see the movies I would choose to see regardless, and they’re usually the ones that end up getting nominated.

I’m not influenced by ads, I’m not influenced by anything. I’m a pretty opinionated person, and I don’t need any help.

On the value of “screener” DVDs mailed to Academy voters:

There’re some movies I will miss because there’s so much going on, and if I hear there’s a great performance in a movie that I haven’t seen, then I might watch that on DVD.

When it comes to specific nominations, the DVD is very useful. You could say, “Gee, I don’t remember the music in that movie.” I will follow up with the DVDs, and look at a performance again, or the costumes, or the production design. That’s how I like to use the DVDs.

But once again everything seems to be screwed up. I don’t know what we’re going to be getting this year. But meanwhile, we’ve gotten very few.

On the controversy over the mailing of screener DVDs and/or encoded VCRs:

The Academy and the studios apparently can’t get out of their own way over all this. They have just screwed up miserably the last two seasons. Once again there’s a problem with viewing DVDs. I don’t really get it. I know that piracy is a terrible thing. But they’ve just been handling it in the worst possible way, the Academy, the studios, everybody in the business. It’s just been atrocious and embarrassing.

On the perk of amassing a first-class collection of screeners:

I love the collection because it’s usually the best films of the year. I’m one of those people who don’t throw anything away. I’ve got a whole room full of books and tapes and everything else — stuff I’ve saved for years and years. I can go back anytime and look at them, and I do. With TiVo, I probably have it all anyway, but I’m sentimental about these things. Eventually, I’ll give them to a hospital or library, I’m sure.

On the many mixers and parties during the season aimed at currying favor with voters and press:

Well, I read about them, but apparently I’m not on the right lists. I did wind up once at a cocktail party for “Y tu mama tambien,” with Alfonso Cuaron and his brother, Carlos, the director and writer. I enjoyed meeting them. But that was a movie I would have voted for anyway. I had seen it early on, at the Venice Film Festival, and I had already decided it was my favorite picture of the decade. That’s an exaggeration, but I did love it. I was thrilled when it was finally eligible.

On when it all begins:

At the beginning of October, I got the first notices from the studios about whether my address had changed. They all have lists, clearly, or where would I be getting these mailings from? Then the notices of screenings start. For weeks and weeks I’ve been getting notices, which by the way, if you call in, the screenings are always booked. But if I don’t get to go, I’ll wait till it comes to the theater, where you can just show your (Academy) card.

Once it gets going, there are six and seven screenings a week just for the foreign language committee, plus all the others. Obviously you have to love movies more than the rest of your life to keep up.

Wrapping it up for now:

Truly, if there were a fire in my house, I’d save my family, my animals, my photos and my Academy card. Sick, right? Or maybe not. Maybe I’m just another movie fan.

Part two of Heller’s Oscar season diary will appear Feb. 16 in the issue Eye On The Oscars: Oscar Wrap.

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