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CRITIC AT LARGE

Academy Award Voting Is Hard To Figure

March 26, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Psephology, which derives from the Greek use of pebbles in voting, is not a term that is much employed in this country. It means the scientific study of elections, and in Britain, psephologists are a whole subculture of television analysts. They are particularly clever at explaining what went wrong with their predictions.

It is not clear what the psephologists would make of the Academy Awards, although by now the voting population of just over 4,100 is a respectable constituency, the size of a ward at least.

Leafing through Oscar's annals, it is possible to be retroactively outraged at nominations not made or nominees denied their statuettes. Reasons can be adduced why, say, "All About Eve" beat "Sunset Boulevard" in 1950, when only a tie would have been a proper solution. Or why, in 1937, "The Life of Emile Zola" defeated nine other nominated films, including "The Awful Truth," "Captains Courageous," "Lost Horizon," "Stage Door" and "A Star Is Born." That would not have been an easy election to call, or to vote in.

The truth is that it's hard to find patterns in the academy voting-- although it's not impossible--and hard to be sure why any specific vote went the way it did, although it's getting easier.

The electorate has been growing ever larger. It's up 500 or more in the last half-dozen years, and the larger the base, the more democratic an election has to be, the less subject to voting blocks of young or old, left or right.

It is in the nature of academies to be conservative and to favor continuity over change and experimentation. But ever since Gregory Peck and subsequent presidents of the academy in the mid-'60s began their efforts to create a younger, larger, more active membership, the organization has more directly reflected the state of the industry--which is to say younger and more independent, less dominated by the major studios.

The awards themselves seem to me to reflect increasingly open preferences, openly arrived at. If the Oscars are by definition American awards, they are more international right along, reflecting an international art form, as witness successive victories for "Chariots of Fire" and "Gandhi."

Few of the detectable changes in the academy results have been more dramatic, it may be, than the end of obeisance to the box office. There were always good little films that copped the Oscar, and the reverence of grosses was never quite slavish, but the big, mass-audience spectacles like "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Ben-Hur" did have their day.

But latterly the biggest money-spinners have tended not to get even some of the nominations they might be thought to deserve, as for scripts or performances. It is as if there were a kind of backlash against commercial success or, more likely, a wide awareness that excellence comes in all sizes, and revenues.

But some things don't change, and what confounds all psephologists always are those subjective considerations that lurk like sand bars in a placid river. The voters, after all, are industry voters, and sentiment (or the reverse of it) enters in.

There are votes that seem indubitably to be for a body of work and a career, like John Wayne's for "True Grit" or Katharine Hepburn's for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." On the other side of it, the lack of support for Barbra Streisand's "Yentl" was hard to read except as a popularity contest that Streisand lost.

It remains true that excellence is a relative idea, and that the smallest, least-publicized and least-seen films may well be superb and stunning but don't get into the mainstream of consideration. It is still true, despite ongoing efforts by the academy governors, that a lot of ballots are cast by voters who haven't seen all the work they're voting on. Word-of-mouth works in the academy as it does on ticket-buyers.

The consequence is that the Oscars are in the end a kind of informed popularity contest, more apt these days to produce disagreements than outrage and seldom an affront to good sense. And by a week from today memory will already start to be uncertain who won. Waiting for Oscar is all the fun.

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