Oscar voters aren’t always who you might think
Reporters Amy Kaufman and Steve Zeitchik talk about the surprises they found in the membership of the Academy.
Which two of these four entertainment names — Woody Allen, George Lucas, Meat Loaf, Erik Estrada — are members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences?
It’d be understandable if you guessed Allen and Lucas: The directors made such classics as “Annie Hall” and “Star Wars.”
But neither filmmaker is a member.
On the other hand, the man known for sweating on stage performing “Bat Out of Hell” and the 1970s pinup who as Frank “Ponch” Poncherello in “CHiPs” fought freeway mayhem while wearing oversized sunglasses and a tight uniform have been ensconced for years (both in the actors branch).
The academy is one of the world’s most exclusive clubs, and the only way to get in is to convince the current members to give you a card. Winning an Oscar is no instant ticket to membership. Yet some people who have never been considered Academy Award contenders are granted entry.
Academy officials note that criteria vary from branch to branch and have changed over the years. They acknowledge that the process isn’t perfect.
“Sometimes you scratch your head and say, ‘How did he get in?’” said former academy President Sid Ganis, not speaking about specific cases. “Or … the reverse of that: How come he’s not in? Or she’s not in?”
An analysis of the academy’s rolls by The Times shows that its membership is eclectic — encompassing talents known for comedy, family, action and popcorn films that the august institution rarely honors.
The group includes former soap-opera star Lorenzo Lamas; 1980s comedy actors Steve Guttenberg, Cheech Marin, Judge Reinhold and Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens; “Scream” queen Neve Campbell; and action-movie fixtures Vin Diesel and Jet Li. Of course, the group cannot force people to join. Allen, a 23-time Oscar nominee and three-time winner, and Lucas, a four-time nominee and recipient of the academy’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, have declined membership.
Procedures for joining the academy have changed over the decades; in 2003, the organization implemented rules that allow the group to add only a net 30 members a year. It also clarified its policies for admittance. The three ways to become candidates for membership: land an Oscar nomination; apply and receive a recommendation by two members of a branch; or earn an endorsement from the branch’s membership committee and staff. Membership committees must approve all new members.
“We are an organization that has been around for 85 years,” academy President Tom Sherak said. “But if I sat here and you asked if every single member of the academy met those [admission] rules, I would say to you, ‘No, they haven’t.’ Well how did they get in? Their peers voted them in.... Is everybody perfect? No.”
Guttenberg had made only two films, the little-seen comedy “The Chicken Chronicles” and the Nazi-hunter drama “The Boys From Brazil,” when his “Brazil” costar, the influential actor Gregory Peck, sponsored him for academy membership in 1978.
Guttenberg said he takes his membership seriously and not only votes for the Oscars but also attends many of the group’s seminars and events on film preservation and other topics. The actor recently concluded a run on Broadway in “Relatively Speaking” (co-written, coincidentally, by Woody Allen) and said he is now contemplating several screen projects.
“I find it one of the greatest honors you can have,” said the 53-year-old “Police Academy” star, who added that the Iranian film “A Separation” was his favorite movie of 2011. “Sadly, most people just want to get the free DVDs and don’t care about the preservation of film.”
Rooney Mara, the 26-year-old star of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” was invited to the club in 2011 despite her short list of credits, which at the time included a two-scene role in “The Social Network” and the lead in a remake of “A Nightmare on Elm Street.”
At a recent luncheon to celebrate this year’s Oscar nominees, Mara, who is up for lead actress for her performance in “Dragon Tattoo,” said she had “no idea” why the invite was extended to her.
Sherak said admission is granted based on a person’s “body of work.” But asked about Mara, Ganis said: “The actors branch somehow knew, divined, that this was a talented person whose work, of course, they had seen or she wouldn’t have become a member, and then who went on to prove it.”
Academy memberships don’t expire — which means that some people admitted early in their careers later may struggle to maintain their momentum and find membership a source of both pride and pressure.
When Lamas joined in 1981, he appeared to be an up-and-comer. He’d had a role in “Grease” and had begun work on “Falcon Crest,” the long-running prime-time soap opera. Since then, though, he has appeared mainly in lightly regarded television shows such as “Renegade” and “The Bold and the Beautiful.”
The actor — who was sponsored for membership by his parents, the actors Fernando Lamas and Arlene Dahl — says he’s not proud of some of his most recent credits, which also include a short-lived 2009 E! reality show about his family called “Leave It to Lamas.”
“What I take away from being a member of the academy is that I’m constantly striving to continue to be accepted by this very prestigious group of people,” said the actor, 54, who called this year’s “The Artist” a “magnificent picture.” “The last 10 to 15 years, I don’t feel I’ve done the work that I would have liked to have done that would continue to put me in that kind of company.”
A number of established cinema personalities don’t care to be in that company
Over the course of several years, the group sent Allen numerous invitations to join. According to an academy veteran who was not authorized to speak publicly about the issue, Allen never responded. Finally, then-academy President Karl Malden mailed Allen a letter promising that if the director made a sizable donation to the academy’s fundraising effort for its library, the group would leave him alone. He replied within a week with a check, the academy veteran said.
Allen would not comment for this article, but Eric Lax, who’s written three books on the writer-director, told The Times that Allen “doesn’t want to be dependent on that kind of outside approval.”
Others who don’t care to be members include the actor Viggo Mortensen, who was invited in 2004 and was nominated for an Oscar in 2008 for “Eastern Promises.” “Viggo does not like judging art officially,” a spokeswoman for the actor said.
Meat Loaf, in contrast, is more than happy to be a part of the inner circle. He said he became a member when, after starring in “Crazy in Alabama,” a 1999 drama in which he played a corrupt sheriff, he asked the actor Dennis Quaid to sponsor him for membership. Quaid and actor Chris Sarandon put him up.
“I think they voted me in because I have different aspects than a lot of normal academy members,” said Meat Loaf, who noted that “War Horse” was his favorite movie of 2011 because it made him cry five times. “In that sense, I’m part of the diversity that they talk about.”
Staff writers John Horn and Nicole Sperling contributed to this report.
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