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Best performance by an accountant

Hang out with accountants long enough and you’ll realize they are crazy bastards. They’re the kind of guys who justify claiming a bogus home business on your income taxes, or figure out how Enron can sell energy to itself at a loss. So when I met Rick Rosas and Brad Oltmanns -- the accountants who walk the Oscars’ red carpet handcuffed to briefcases containing the winners’ names -- I expected them to make me do shots and prank-call IRS agents. These are straight men, after all, willing to wear handcuffs in public.

But they did not seem so crazy when I talked with them a few weeks ago. To explain how voting for Oscar nominees works, Rosas and Oltmanns invited a few journalists over to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- which is a really pretentious way of saying “Academy of Movies.” (“I should have been working, but I was on the Web watching adult motion picture arts and sciences.”) I wasn’t interested in the technicalities of voting as much as asking them annoying personal questions. Which was hard because Rosas and Oltmanns are startlingly nice in that late-1950s way that implies all kinds of repressed secrets. Most of what I know about that era is from “Mad Men.”

When I walked into the academy’s boardroom, Rosas and Oltmanns were standing next to five of their employees from PricewaterhouseCoopers, who I’m pretty sure were selected for their posture. PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has tabulated Oscar votes for 74 years, is a firm so efficient that it has entirely done away with spaces. It took more than an hour for Rosas and Oltmanns to explain the single transferable voting system, which allows voters to number their preferences for nominees in each category from one to five, and for one journalist to keep interrupting with, “I still don’t get it. This is a math thing, isn’t it?”

The quiet struggle with basic math gave me plenty of time for my irrelevant questions. From the time voting closes Feb. 19 to the Oscar ceremony five days later, these two are the only people who know the winners. To avoid being pestered, they don’t go out that weekend. I figured they must at least tell their wives, as I would, along with my friends, family and the Internet. “I’ve been married for 35 years,” Oltmanns said, “so at this point we have a clear understanding of what each of us is willing to do.” This confirmed my new theory that the first three weeks of a relationship are a critical precedent-setting period when you should try out anything you remotely suspect you might one day be into. Should I again want to light lots of candles and make three-course meals, I am totally covered. Wisdom comes too late in life to be useful.

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While the straight-backed assistants hustled to sort our mock nomination ballots into neat piles, they told us they spend 1,700 hours a year on this task. I suggested that PriceWaterhouse invest in a computer. “We get hacked into all the time by people hoping this information is in our computer,” Oltmanns said, looking over his employees. “I want them on high stools with green eyeshades.” That’s also something to bring up in the first three weeks.

PriceWaterhouse seems to have more safety systems in place than the Air Force department in charge of transporting nuclear missiles. The counting location is kept secret. Counters work in groups but don’t know one another’s totals. “Winners” envelopes are prepared for every nominee; the losers’ are shredded after the ceremony. Rosas and Oltmanns also memorize the winners and take separate cars to the show. So I was shocked to find out that no one checks to make sure Rosas and Oltmanns didn’t just make winners up -- either for fun or under the threat of violence from a Weinstein brother. I was cooking up the plot for an insanely boring John le Carre novel when Academy President Sid Ganis said to me, “After 74 years, I think we can trust them.”

People put way too much trust in accountants just because they dress well and understand math. So I’m putting money on Hal Holbrook to win best supporting actor. He seems like an accountant’s kind of guy.

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jstein@latimescolumnists.com


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