Oscar voters: From Britain to Brazil, academy members span globe
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As Pricewaterhouse Coopers accountants tally the Oscar votes this week, they are sure to be opening lots of envelopes mailed from motion picture academy members in the 90210 ZIP Code. But they’ll also be seeing postmarks from dozens of foreign countries, including Japan, Britain, Ireland, Denmark and India.
The overwhelming bulk of the academy’s 5,765 voting members, including a substantial number who are foreign-born, make their homes in the United States, primarily in California and New York. But according to an L.A. Times study of the academy, which tracked down 89% of the membership, some 500 others, including actors, directors, makeup artists and hairstylists, reside abroad.
The largest regional bloc is from Britain, including England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland (some 250 members). By The Times’ count, at least 57 members live in Canada and about 45 in Australia.
According to The Times’ study, most of the rest reside in European countries including France (more than three dozen members), Italy and Spain (about 20 each), Germany, Ireland, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Hungary and Norway. Members also can be found in New Zealand, Brazil, Japan, Argentina, Mexico and Thailand.
Foreign members include director Roman Polanski, whose legal troubles precipitated his flight from L.A. to France years ago; British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, better known for this Broadway hits than his Hollywood smashes; costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, the first Indian to win an Oscar, for “Gandhi,” in 1982; and Italian cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, an Oscar winner for “Apocalypse Now,” “Reds” and “The Last Emperor.”
There are advantages as well as drawbacks to living thousands of miles from Hollywood during Oscar season, some foreign members said. On the plus side: getting to watch screeners of movies that haven’t yet opened at their neighborhood theater. On the minus side: spotty mail delivery of Oscar-related materials, and the fact that foreign nominees often are out of sight, out of mind when voters are marking their ballots.
French director Bertrand Tavernier enjoys voting for the Oscars although, he acknowledges with a chuckle, “I don’t read the rules. I’ve never really understood how they work.” Tavernier looks forward to getting his annual shipments of DVD screeners of Oscar-eligible films –- at least the ones that make it to his house in Paris.
“They used to send copies by Federal Express, but if you aren’t home, they don’t deliver,” he said. “I’m sure 10 or 15 films arrived that I never received.”
Actor Brenda Blethyn, a London resident, said she felt “very proud” to be asked to join the academy after she was nominated for best actress for her leading role in Mike Leigh’s 1996 comic drama “Secrets & Lies.”
However, she added, “I feel it’s not necessarily a level playing field. Luck is a huge factor. “The success of any film depends to some degree on the amount of publicity and promotion it receives prior to and during the Oscar race,” she continued. “In any case, it is highly unlikely that voters have seen all the eligible films.”
Some foreign members are homebodies, professionally speaking, who’ve immersed themselves in their native film cultures and seldom work outside their own countries. Others style themselves as world citizens, able to uproot and go to live wherever their work takes them.
Wim Wenders, the German art-house auteur whose “Pina” is a contender for this year’s best documentary award, questioned what “foreign” even means in the modern, globalized world of the Internet, frequent-flier miles and multinational film production.
“What is ‘foreign’ in Los Angeles? It’s so much the mother country of cinema,” said Wenders, who made his home in L.A. for many years but now lives in Berlin.
Polish director Agnieszka Holland, a former Angeleno and current Paris resident, said it probably would be good for the academy to have more foreign members, because “the members are so much based in Los Angeles.”
But, said Holland, whose Holocaust drama “In Darkness” is among this year’s best foreign film nominees, “I think all the [academy] members are very serious about watching the movies and conscientious about watching the movies,” regardless of where they live.
“The Oscars are what they are,” she added.
French cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou, 52, who has worked with a number of France’s most respected directors including Jean-Jacques Annaud and Patrice Leconte, said he was invited to join the academy around 2001 or 2002, after the success of the visually sumptuous black and white film “The Girl on the Bridge.”
“I was very honored to be invited to be a part of the academy and to be able to offer my little judgment of all of these works,” Dreujou said during an interview at Paris’ Cinematheque. In France, he added, “No one knows that I am part of the academy.”
Dreujou tries to see as many films as possible in cinemas. But most screenings are in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago or in London, and many films don’t come out in France until after the Oscars, he said.
His countryman Tavernier, 70, whose nearly two dozen feature film credits include “Life and Nothing But” and “Coup de Torchon,” said in a telephone interview that he doesn’t remember when he was invited into the academy. Nor could he recall which Oscar categories he votes for, because he also votes for an array of other awards in the U.S. and France.
For someone who professes not to have read the Oscar rulebook, he was ready to highlight an array of problems that he sees with its nominating and voting process.
“For foreign films, I’ve always felt it was discriminatory,” he said. “It permits all sorts of maneuvering. Everyone has to see all of the films to vote, so if you just show your film to a few people who you know will vote for your film, it improves your chances.”
Tavernier also lamented that Oscar rules permit each country to submit only one movie for best foreign film consideration. “It puts France and Germany on the same level as Zaire,” he said, using the name for the country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Tavernier said that although “I am not into prizes,” he takes his Oscar voting responsibilities very seriously. “If I can support Scorsese or a film like the ‘The Artist’ or ‘Tree of Life’ or ‘The Descendants,’ I will.”
But, he added, “It is hard to remember what I vote for. It all blurs together.”
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-- Reed Johnson, with Janet Stobart in The Times’ London bureau and special correspondent Eric Pape in Paris
Photo, top: French director Bertrand Tavernier in Beverly Hills in March 2011. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times. Bottom: Bhanu Athaiya, with her Oscar won for best costume design for the 1982 film ‘Gandhi,’ standing outside her studio in Mumbai. Credit: Shantanu Das