For those who think that Oscar ballots are filled out in eeny-meeny-miny-mo fashion, think again. Academy voters say a great deal of time and thought goes into their votes. The U.S. electorate should take its duty so seriously.
The Times spoke to a dozen of the nearly 5,000 voting members of the academy from the various industry branches: director Tony Scott, actors Barbara Hershey and John Lithgow, producers Doug Chapin and Laurence Mark, publicity executive Claudia Gray, costume designers Ellen Mirojnick and Marilyn Vance, special-effects creator Dennis Muren, writer-producer Nancy Myers, production designer Laurence Paull and former academy President Fay Kanin, an active writer-producer and academy member for more than 40 years.
Oscar ballots are cast in a similar fashion to the way sports competitions are judged, with factors such as degree of difficulty, success and style of execution and home-team advantage taken into consideration.
Since the technical aspects of filmmaking are more widely discussed today, academy voters tend to be better informed about areas outside their particular specialty. In some cases, studios sometimes send out specially made videos explaining the nominee’s technical contributions to further educate voters.
That’s in addition to videocassette copies of virtually every nominated film (excluding foreign entries, shorts and documentaries). So current academy voters are likely to have seen at least four of the five nominees in each category before casting their final ballot. And unless they have, they say, they usually don’t vote in that particular category.
HYPE AND GLORY
Some voters ignore the Oscar season ad blitz in trade and consumer publications, believing that they’ll be unduly influenced, while others find them beneficial as a refresher course, “especially to jog my memory about films that opened early in the year,” says Gray, Gramercy Pictures’ executive vice president of publicity.
Particularly helpful are screening calendars in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, daily reminders for academy members to catch up on films they might have been too busy to see in first run.
Voters also tend to ignore other media hype. Extensive newspaper review quote ads send Scott (“Top Gun”) running from the room. “I’m very wary of them, he says. “They seem to negate one another.” Hershey (“A World Apart”) agrees: “You can only hear the word genius thrown around so many times before it loses its meaning.”
But 10-best lists and other year-end critical kudos do have some impact. “If two or three movies that I missed are mentioned on several lists, I make a real effort to see them,” says Lithgow, a two-time supporting actor nominee (“The World According to Garp” and “Terms of Endearment”).
“I pay attention to the more serious critics groups,” says Myers (“Father of the Bride”). “They raise my awareness.” She cites this year’s cinematography awards by several critical organizations to Stefan Czapsky for “Ed Wood.” “It made me think about his work more, though I don’t think it influenced me one way or the other.” (“Ed Wood” is not among Oscar’s five final cinematography nominees.)
Also, motion picture guilds and unions (Directors Guild, Writers Guild and so forth) annually select their own favorites, and several members factor those choices into their voting equation. “I take a cue from the editors because I think they know more about it than I do,” says Mark (“Working Girl”).
But Paull (“Blade Runner”) tends to discount those plaudits. “It’s great that they honor their own,” he says, “but they’re basically a network with their own viewpoint and agenda. It’s important to take a more objective look at the work.”
BIG SCREEN VS. LITTLE SCREEN
Videocassettes of nominated films are both a boon and a bane to academy voters. Kanin, a onetime screenplay nominee (“Teacher’s Pet”) who was president of the academy from 1979 to 1982, is more of a purist about the experience.
“I want to see films on the big screen,” she says. “That’s what they were designed for. The academy has screenings in its theater every week. At Oscar time, every nominated film is screened twice. Anyone who really wants to see the films (in a theater) has very little excuse not to.”
But for many active members of the academy, seeing the film on video is better than not seeing it at all. Many view at least 50% of the nominated films only on cassette. And if they’re busy working, sometimes even more.
The experience is a mixed bag, they say. Says Mirojnick (“Showgirls”): “Some films have been designed to be viewed only on the large screen. Others translate to the small screen just fine. I’ve started watching some films on video, pulled them out of the machine and gone right out to the theater.”
“It’s very imbalanced,” Scott says, “because not everyone has the same equipment quality at home.” But if it’s a performance film, he says, it suffers less than a large-scale action film.
Particularly in technical categories, videocassettes may not be the best way to judge a particular contribution regardless of one’s home entertainment system. “It’s not only that the picture is shrunk,” Paull says, “but depending on the camera work and lighting, backgrounds on the video may go black, which makes it hard to judge production values.”
“Since I work on video a lot during the day I can compensate for things like the camera work or even sound,” says Industrial Light & Magic’s Muren, who has won eight Oscars.
Also, the videos studios send out are of varying quality, Vance says. The sound quality on the video for “The Silence of the Lambs” was “so provocative” that she thought one could make a fair judgment about the achievement. “But there have been other films in which the quality has been horrible,” she says.
Academy voters have specific criteria for judging their peers’ contributions and for other categories as well.
“All of us have worked on movies,” Kanin observes. “We recognize good cutting, good art direction. And the particular branch of the academy has already weeded out the large menu, leaving us the five best to choose from.”
Each category contributes to a whole movie, Mirojnick says:
“It doesn’t matter where your expertise is, you look at every element. When I look at an achievement, I ask myself, ‘Has it been integrated, has it become organic and helped lift the film to a different level?’ ”
Voters, however, say that all too often their colleagues choose the path of least resistance in casting their ballots: For cinematography, they pick the prettiest-looking film. For best sound, the loudest. Best song, the sappiest tune. In the acting categories, the “look at me I’m acting” performance often gets the nod.
Says actor Lithgow: “I know my vote isn’t as well-educated in sound and editing. If I recall extraordinary editing, it gets my vote even though I know the best editing is the least noticeable. In general, it’s what has caught my attention.”
Producers like Chapin (“What’s Love Got to Do With It”) tend to be more well-rounded in the different facets of filmmaking, which comes in handy when they vote.
In cinematography, he says, pretty pictures are easy “if you have the time and the money to wait for God to light up the sky. But I like to look at what the challenges were and how they were overcome.”
For instance, in “Sommersby,” Vance points out, Philippe Rousselot used natural lighting, which helped set a dramatic tone for the film. Because it was understated, Rousselot’s contribution may have been taken for granted.
Paull applies a similar standard when voting in his own field, art direction: “Sometimes the art direction in a wonderful period piece was nothing more than taking down signs in an Eastern European country. But in other films they’ve created a different world. Good art direction can achieve a specific look or style or it can be completely seamless.”
Voters complain that in art direction, as well as costume design, even in the nominating process, strong contemporary films often lose out to period (past and future) pieces. This year’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” is a notable exception, Mirojnick says, in that it’s both contemporary and a comedy. “But mostly it’s European period dramas, epic films.”
B est sound is a category that stumps many of the voters. “Sound is a category I don’t feel equipped to vote for,” Myers says. “So I sometimes pass it over. I don’t want to cast the vote that changes someone’s career.”
“Sound’s a tough one,” Gray says. “People think it’s loudness. But sometimes it’s quiet. I try to decide if the sound made a difference in the film, if it was germane to the story.”
Chapin usually skips the best song category and has definite opinions about best score.
“I don’t understand the song nominations,” he says. “Some of the tunes are played over the titles, which helps promote the movie but isn’t integral to it. The score shouldn’t be a sales tool. The scores for ‘Field of Dreams’ and the ‘Indiana Jones’ films evoked the moods of those movies. ‘Little Mermaid’ won because people liked the songs. It doesn’t surprise me that people vote dumbly in those categories.”
In the major acting categories, Muren says, “a good performance is a rare thing and should be judged as something precious. But I try to break down the process, to see how much was the director asking the actor to improvise or the editor cutting things out. Was the performance good just because of the actor or because the part was well-written?”
Fellow actors are no less rigorous.
“I look for extraordinary work, a performance that was responsible for the success of the film,” Lithgow says. “Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’ is the perfect instance of an acting job that is inextricably identified with the success of the movie.”
Hershey says she looks for a sense of “honest reality” in judging performances, “where you can’t see the person acting. Like Robert Duvall in ‘Tender Mercies.’ It had such a sense of reality that if you didn’t know better you’d think he was really that person. It sounds simple, but it’s a hard place to get to.”
SPHERES OF INFLUENCE
The power of the individual academy voter can be deceptive.
For instance, in the best picture category, for which the entire membership selects the five nominees, voters try to ensure that their favorites make the final cut. The nominating process is weighted, so that a first choice carries more clout than the four others. That slot is often used to vote in the underdog. For instance, this year many voters assumed “Forrest Gump” would be nominated for best picture, so their first choice went to a film that was less certain to make the cut, such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral.”
When it comes to the final balloting, all our voters fancy themselves free spirits. No one claims to vote for a film simply because they think it’s going to win.
For instance, most voters don’t automatically subscribe to the belief that the best film and the best director are the same. Degree of difficulty is a strong deciding factor in this and other categories.
“When a film gets a great many nominations and also winds up with a great many awards, my feeling is that there’s a director there who has orchestrated it,” Paull says. “The success of the movie has a lot to do with the people he’s brought to the project.”
But in some cases, Mark says, the film works largely because of the performances and the screenplay. And while the director has helped realize that, “I can see in some cases that it might not be the best directing job that year.”
Chapin points to “Driving Miss Daisy” as an illustration of a well-directed film that won best picture (though the director, Bruce Beresford, wasn’t even nominated) while Oliver Stone won best director for “Born on the Fourth of July.” That year, Chapin voted for “My Left Foot” director Jim Sheridan “because it was the hardest movie to pull off. ‘Driving Miss Daisy’ wasn’t as much of a hurdle.”
The “sweeps” mentality, an impulse to vote for a favorite film in all categories, is one that most voters try to resist--with varying degrees of success.
“When you see a movie, you remember the experience,” Mirojnick says. “Logically, if you think it’s the best picture, then it should be best director, best actor, best screenplay, etc. It doesn’t always work out that way. Some of those decisions are quite tough.”
Mark has the opposite problem: “If I have an Achilles’ heel in making my choices, it’s to spread out the prize-giving.”
Vance can think of only one instance in which she has given into the sweeps syndrome, for “The Last Emperor,” one of the rare films to win in every category for which it was nominated.
But she found it clearly superior in each of those categories. Except best costume, for which she was nominated that year for “The Untouchables.”
“How could I vote against myself?” she says with a laugh.
Eight-time winner Muren (including one for “E.T.”) actually did vote against himself on one occasion. “I thought someone else had done a better job and I voted for it,” he says. “I won anyway.”
Lithgow acknowledges voting for a particular cinematographer or sound mixer because he had a pleasant working relationship with the person. But that can cut both ways, he says. If the experience was terrible, “all of us have been known to undertake vendettas,” he chortles.
During the studio era, there were complaints that executives leaned on their employees to vote the straight studio ticket.
But, says Kanin, that thinking may be more myth than fact: “The studios might have invoked loyalty. But it may have been counterproductive. The ballots are secret and people voted at home. I like to think people are stubborn and independent.”
O ne area in which voters find it most difficult to be objective is in the acting categories. Particularly hard to resist is the inclination to vote an Oscar for a body of work, rather than a specific performance.
Others try to steel themselves from giving in to such impulses. “I really do try to separate myself emotionally from how I feel personally about a certain director or actor,” Scott says.
For Vance, voting a “Lifetime Achievement” is tempting, but “I try to focus on the project and the individual contribution because I would hope that the same is done for me.”
There are certain occasions--a clearly superior piece of work--when it’s easy to be objective, Hershey says. But more often, she notes, the quality differences are not as distinct, and it becomes a more subjective selection, prey to other influences.
There’s the feeling that a particular actor or director is due, that he or she is up against others who have already been honored or that this might be the last chance to recognize them before they die. “I try to think these things don’t influence me,” Myers says. “But I’m not sure I don’t want the joy of seeing them come on stage.”
A certain degree of sentimentality inevitably creeps into the process.
“Remember when Elizabeth Taylor won for ‘Butterfield 8' after she’d had a serious operation?” Paull says. “Or John Wayne when he won for ‘True Grit’? There’s this feeling that ‘Here, this award will make you feel better.’ ”
That kind of thinking, Lithgow says, can be pronounced in the supporting acting categories:
“The award is sometimes a tribute to a body of work. Or it’s given to someone who’s had a wonderful second career late in life, like Melvyn Douglas or Don Ameche. For actors it’s a validation, like saying, ‘If I hang in there long enough, someone will pay attention.’ ”
But such weaknesses are to be expected and perfectly normal, voters contend.
“When push comes to shove,” Mirojnick says, “it doesn’t matter how much thought has gone into it--emotionally you say, ‘I like one thing better than the other.’ And that’s how you vote. And that’s good, because movies are an emotional experience. The reason we go to movies is to be moved, to be entertained."*