In shock over the Academy’s stats? Not so much.

So, after an 8-month effort of digging, cross-referencing, and prying the news out of agents and publicists that their clients are in the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the Los Angeles Times released its bombshell Sunday.

Academy members are:

  • 94% white
  • 77% male
  • 54% over 60 years old

Board members, reportedly surprised by the results, reacted with variations of, “We knew it was bad but we didn’t know it was that bad.”  You might think that a quick look around the room. . . . oh, never mind.

Dig a tiny bit more and you’ll find that only 2% of the membership is under the age of 40; those in their 40s make up 11%, and 25% are in their 50s.  (I know, there’s a rogue 8% “Unknown” missing. . don’t look at me, I only lose glasses.)

“Uncomfortable,”  “Profound,” “By Mike Leigh” are not words that propel the well over-60-year-old Academy member into a screening. Do you think those same members liked what they saw, when they threw their For Your Consideration DVD of Shame on their home projection system?

Although it’s essentially a noir love story, how well did the unexpectedly violent moments of Drive play in that comfortable Bel Air living room?  What about the knife-edge walked in Young Adult by both Patton Oswalt and  Charlize Theron?  Their (virtual) shut-out in the nominations was a hint. Drive managed one technical nomination, but nothing for its music, let alone its actors, just ask Albert Brooks. On second thought. .

How do you think the near-perfect A Separation from Iran did in the Foreign Language section, where all five of the nominated films must be seen?  Well, that depends on how many voting members get themselves to those screenings at the Academy, and if they are working (as 42% are, the Times says)  even with two screenings of every film, that could mean that only a tiny, dogged percentage chose the winner. And heaven help any film if word gets around that it’s “difficult” or “challenging.”

Don’t look to hip, young members of the Actors branch to rush to the side of “fringe” work, or even toward an outre performance (Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Adepero Oduye of Pariah.) They’re only 20% of the membership, their median age is 65, and they’re 88% white.

How does one become a member, anyway?  According to the LAT:

“There are three ways to become a candidate for membership: land an Oscar nomination; apply and receive a recommendation from two members of a branch; or earn an endorsement from the branch’s membership committee or the academy staff.

The membership committees then vote on the candidates; those who get a majority are invited to join. The academy says almost everyone accepts the offer.

Actors, for example, now must have three significant credits to be considered for membership, and producers need two solo producing credits or the equivalent. Such criteria benefit people with more experience. “The academy is always going to be slightly older — if just because you have to have about five years of credits before you’re even considered,” said Joe Letteri, a four-time Oscar winner for visual effects.”

Look: they added almost 800 new members to the Academy between 1990, (when I still used to go to Academy screenings) and the year 2000, and nothing has really changed, much as Academy board members say they wish it would.  They have, however, put the brakes on admission since 2000.

Part of the fun of those Academy screenings was watching indignant wives lead the Voting Member straight up the aisle and out the door as soon as a Foreign Film nominee crossed the family line on sex. If you ever wondered about the tepid quality of Oscar Foreign Film winners, start there — and certainly with the guardedly-controversial nature of the “Official” films submitted from across the world.

As the Board looks to its branches to bolster their woeful statistics on race, gender and age, the status quo disturbs some not at all. To return to the Times:

Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for original screenplay for “Dog Day Afternoon” in 1976, said merit is the primary criterion for membership.

“I don’t see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population. That’s what the People’s Choice Awards are for,” said Pierson, who still serves on the board of governors. “We represent the professional filmmakers, and if that doesn’t reflect the general population, so be it.”

The late Damien Bona, who wrote the most readable chronicles of the Academy Awards ever, was fond of quoting this from director Milos Forman, who’d won two:

“The Academy Awards are a wonderful game, but if you take them seriously, you’re in trouble.”

Good intentions aside, perhaps that’s the best way to look at the Academy itself, inching its way with no particular haste into the world — as they see it, reflected in the films that they award.

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6 thoughts on “In shock over the Academy’s stats? Not so much.

  1. Thanks for this, Sheila. As an “industry professional,” I have always found the Academy Awards to be grossly and consistently disappointing. They very rarely recognize films that take risks, push boundaries, or even delve deeply into whatever subject matter they happen to be addressing. Most often, mediocre works are lauded as masterpieces or as being “deeply human” when, in fact, they are mostly “play-it-safe” exercises that don’t really challenge anyone. And god forbid they require some measure of abstract thinking. So while films like SHAME and directors like Steve McQueen are ignored, films like THE DESCENDANTS and filmmakers like Alexander Payne are applauded as making deep films that reach into the soul of humanity (one critic had the gall to compare the film to Bergman’s WILD STRAWBERRIES). Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with THE DESCENDANTS, it’s an enjoyable film, but deep it is not. But it’s exactly the kind of film Academy members seem to love. It’s tailor-made for them. It’s a little touching, a little funny, not particularly cinematic, has some likable stars and, most importantly, doesn’t ask its audience to go anywhere too uncomfortable. And if there’s a moment or two that’s sincere or touches upon something genuinely serious, don’t worry, there’s a joke just around the corner. Unfortunately, I don’t see the Oscars as much of a celebration of the artistry of film; its job is clearly not to inspire filmmakers to strive for more, to push barriers, to challenge their audience or even themselves… But I dare say it’s always been that way. Even when I didn’t recognize it as such. And though I am thrilled to see a film like TREE OF LIFE get some recognition, I don’t think anyone out there actually expects Academy voters to vote for it when they cast their final ballots. And so Milos Forman was right. But what’s sad to me is that I would like to take the Academy Awards seriously. But first, they must take themselves seriously. I won’t be holding my breath.

  2. Of course ‘A Separation’ should have been nominated in at least four categories; direction, screenplay acting. ‘Best Foreign Film’ is, in a way, a cop out although I am sure the makers of this perfect film will be glad of the revenue that the nomination will no doubt accrue. I’m not sure if a simple breakdown of the age, colour, gender etc. necessarily means that we can deduce taste from the information. While it is entirely possible that white, middle class men in their sixties will be conservative, it is just as likely that they will be more radical than thirty year old’s.
    I think the real shock this year is the whole nostalgia quotient, mentioned by others, ‘The Artist’ is really just very well made pastiche isn’t it? And aren’t parts of ‘Midnight In Paris’ clunky? Yes, I understand that the ‘Hemingway’ is meant to be humorous, but really. I may have mentioned it before, but for my money the great crime is that ‘Take Shelter’ received no nominations. How can that be?

    • I just wanted to point out that “A Separation” was actually also nominated for Best Original Screenplay, so it was at least given some additional recognition other than just Best Foreign Film.

  3. Pingback: In shock over the Academy’s stats? Not so much. | Parallax View

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