CALENDAR GOES TO THE OSCARS : Who Are These People? : * Academy members always seem to vote the Establishment line because they <i> are</i> the Establishment

<i> Andy Marx is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

The way people talk about the Oscars, you’d think they were discussing the Nobel Prizes. But let’s face it: The Academy Awards are a lot closer to the People’s Choice Awards than the New York Film Critics Circle prizes. Indeed, as has been shown at almost every Oscar ceremony since 1927, the academy and its members are really nothing more than a very mainstream, populist group that, for the most part, likes very mainstream, populist movies.

“People speak of (the academy) like it’s the Supreme Court, but it isn’t,” says veteran director Stanley Donen, who produced the 1986 Oscar telecast. “The academy is over 5,000 people. It’s not like the French academy where there are 10 or 12 aged artists who make judgments about which films are good. The academy is a big, big group of people. It’s close to going out and taking a straw poll.”

That sentiment is shared by many non-members. “It’s an Establishment membership,” says Movieline magazine film critic Stephen Farber. “They like Establishment films. They are hostile to films made outside the studio system and they don’t want to get involved with those films.”


But Donen, the director of “Singin’ in the Rain,” says, “The non-mainstream movies are overlooked because there are so many (academy) members and usually the members like what the public likes.”

Sheer numbers aside, there’s no denying that the academy is Hollywood Establishment. Once a person is admitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, membership (annual fee: $150) and voting privileges are rarely taken away. This may account for the fact that the average age of academy members is said to be in the mid-60s. And also for the feeling in Hollywood that much of the group’s membership consists of people who no longer have much to do with the film business, other than attending weekend screenings in the academy’s posh Beverly Hills theater and voting for the awards.

“It’s like the last vestige of where somebody who used to be active in the business can still hang in there and feel like they’re part of the raging tides going on because of the Oscars,” says veteran Oscar-watcher and Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne. “A lot of them aren’t active, but they’re making judgments on movies.” Although the academy refuses to divulge any information about its membership, Osborne says he once saw the list of members. “It was kind of surprising at the number of lightweights in the structure of the movie business,” says the author of “60 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards.” “There seemed to be a lot of Virginia Mayos.”

Producer Robert Solo, a member himself who produced “Colors,” agrees. “Sometimes when I go to the screenings during the year, I get the feeling that they sent the bus down to the Motion Picture Country Home and they drove everybody into Beverly Hills to see a movie.”

Those screenings are the weekend showings the academy runs for its members throughout the year. Because there are only between 80 and 100 slots for films--usually two per weekend--many of the smaller independent releases go unnoticed, another reason for the members’ mainstream leanings.

“Every year there are a number of movies that we’d like to screen, but we don’t have time,” says academy theater operations coordinator Candice Courtney, who points to 1986, when she says the academy’s screening committee didn’t choose to screen “Platoon” until it was nominated for best picture. The film went on to win the Oscar.

Although no one’s stopping the academy members from going to a regular theater to see a movie, many of them don’t. As one writer member says, “Why bother? It’s a lot easier for me to just go to the member screenings.”

If this sounds like a club, that may be because admission to the academy is not unlike joining a country club, says Osborne. According to the organization’s bylaws, membership is by invitation of the Board of Governors and is limited to those persons employed by motion picture producing companies or credited with screen achievements. At least two screen credits on theatrically released films are required. (The public relations and executive branches have slightly more nebulous requirements--a high-level position for a certain amount of years, overseeing a department at a studio or distribution company.)

But screen credits aren’t enough. The applicant must be sponsored by two members from his branch (i.e., a director needs two directors) and then the branch executive committee of 25 or so will consider an applicant for their inner circle. (The only exception to this rule is if an applicant has been nominated for or won an Academy Award, which almost automatically ensures membership.)

“It isn’t like someone who has requirements fills out paperwork and sends it in and is automatically a member,” says Mary Phillips, who oversees the academy’s membership department. “It is possible that in the case of two writers with shared writing credits applying for membership, one might get in, while the other might not. The committee looks at the individual’s whole career.”

Once accepted into one of the academy’s 13 branches, a member then becomes eligible to vote in the Oscar competition. (Most branches, other than the actors’ branch, which has more than 1,300 members, number fewer than 400 members.)

The branches are important when it comes to nominations: It’s the members of each who nominate in their field. For example, the writer’s group makes the writing nominations. The only category everyone gets to nominate is best picture. (That’s the sole nomination producers, public relations executives and members-at-large get to make.) This is why Barbra Streisand can be overlooked by the directors, but “The Prince of Tides” can still pick up numerous nominations in other categories.

“It’s ludicrous when they start talking about collusion,” says Donen. “The argument that I always hear is that Streisand’s film was nominated in seven categories, so how could she be overlooked as a director? The point is that only the directors vote for the director category and they don’t know that it’s going to get all those nominations. Obviously, the directors didn’t think she did as good a job as the others.”

Two other branches nominate the foreign and documentary films, made up of volunteers from all the other branches. Some observers reason that because screening and nominating the foreign and documentary films is so time consuming, the academy tends to draw from those members who are not very active in the business, which could explain the usually conservative picks in these categories.

Once the nominations are announced, the entire membership votes in every category, although over the years, there have been numerous stories about academy members letting their spouses, children, housekeepers or gardeners do the actual voting.

“I always let my wife do it,” admits one member of the writers’ branch. “She sees more of the movies than I do, so it’s only fair to let her vote.” And former UCLA Film Archive curator Bob Epstein says that when he was 12 years old, he and his best friend, the son of a noted Hollywood cinematographer, filled out his friend’s father’s ballot. “The only one he voted for was the cinematographer award,” says Epstein. “He let us vote on everything else.”

One well-known actor, himself a best supporting actor Oscar winner, said he always lets his son vote for him.

But the Hollywood Reporter’s Osborne thinks most of the stories about non-members voting aren’t true. “You always hear about this, but I think it’s the media trying to make something out of it,” he says.

According to some, the academy now is actively trying to enlist younger members. “There has been a practice of trying to think of writers who haven’t applied for membership and who should,” says screenwriter Dan Petrie Jr., who became a member of the writers’ branch after he was nominated for “Beverly Hills Cop” in 1985. But Petrie, who serves on the writers’ branch executive committee, admits that sometimes it’s hard to find qualified applicants. “Today, it’s not easy to get two solo credits on real good films,” he says. “You can be a famous working writer now and not get in for quite a long time.”

Some also believe that the fact that “The Silence of the Lambs” was nominated for best picture proves that the academy membership is changing. “A few years ago, that film would be regarded as a slasher film by most of the academy members,” says one studio executive. “Only a younger membership would vote for it for best picture.”

As for the academy itself and the seemingly endless discussions that invariably take place every year regarding the Oscars, writer-director Jerry Zucker (“Ghost,” “Airplane!”), a member of the writers’ branch says: “Everybody makes too big a deal out of the academy. It is what it is and that’s all. The only thing that I care about is whether or not Price Waterhouse correctly adds up the votes.”