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Commentary : THE TROUBLE WITH OSCAR : He's Only a Doodad, an Icon, a TV Star

April 10, 1988|JACK MATHEWS

But the tarnish on Oscar's electroplated skin can't be blamed solely on the pandering instincts of the TV producers. The little guy is plagued by genetic defects that--despite the clumsy surgical techniques occasionally attempted by the academy's rules committees--will follow him to the grave. Or, at least to the next undeserving fireplace mantel.

The academy puts on a good show of credibility. But it will take more than two tuxedoed guys from Price-Waterhouse to make those in the know forget what's really wrong with Oscar. No one seriously questions the veracity of the accounting firm's voting tabulations, and it has honored its vow of silence with a dependability that would have Trappists mumbling under their breaths. (Too bad, too. If the "Gandhi" sweep had been leaked to the press, millions of us would have been spared that evening.)

The Academy Awards process has more fundamental problems. For starters, its 4,523 voting members are not obliged to be proven moviegoers. Those who care to vote for nominees in the foreign language, documentary and short film categories are required to validate their attendance at special academy screenings for each nominee. But for the other categories--best picture, let's say--they were allowed to vote for "The Last Emperor" even if they hadn't been to a movie since Pu Yi was still sitting on his Peking poddy.

"They ought to at least make an effort to see all the films," said Gene Siskel. "The critics do, why can't the people who work in the industry? They should also fill out the ballots themselves. I know of a number of examples of people who hand the ballots to their spouses and/or assistants because they haven't seen the films, or simply don't care about the process."

Canceling Votes

Academy members respond to charges of ballot promiscuity with the outrage of husbands explaining away lipstick stains on their collars. ("A woman jumped off a building and her mouth hit my neck on the way down. I'm lucky to be alive!") But there are contradictory yarns galore.

A few years ago, a gathering of journalists on the set of a Blake Edwards movie were discussing the Academy Awards when Syd Cassyd, a former documentary film maker, confessed guilt over failing to mail his Oscar ballot in 1969, the year Barbra Streisand ("Funny Girl") and Katharine Hepburn ("The Lion in Winter") tied for best actress.

"I voted for Katharine Hepburn, but I had to go to New York on business and I left my ballot sitting on my desk at home," Cassyd said. "I've always felt bad because (Hepburn) would have won if I'd just mailed my ballot."

The story drew a laugh from Jim Bacon, former Los Angeles Herald-Examiner veteran columnist and one of the assembled scribes.

"Isn't that something?" Bacon said. "I filled out Jack Oakie's ballot that year, and I voted for Streisand."

Bacon, who has since left the Herald-Examiner and is now working on his book "I Never Met a Nymphomaniac I Didn't Like," expanded on the story recently. He said Oakie, who died in 1978, had been a neighbor of his in 1969 and that he often invited him over to chat over a quart or two of scotch.

"Oakie used to go through a bottle of scotch in about 90 minutes," Bacon said. "One night, he brought out his Oscar ballot and said, 'I've only seen one movie this year, you've seen all these movies, so why don't you fill it out for me?' He had seen 'Oliver!' so he voted for it as best picture, and he voted for Ron Moody as best actor. I did the rest."

The incident would have been forgotten if there hadn't been a tie. That's the only time you can be sure your vote counts. Bacon's proxy for Streisand carried as much weight as Streisand's own vote, presuming she found herself worthy, and it gave us all the opportunity for a lingering look at that remarkable see-through pantsuit she wore to the stage that year.

The academy voting apparatus is outright clumsy. The academy is composed of several specialty branches, with each one determining its own slate of nominees. Art directors nominate art directors, actors nominate actors, and so on. Then they take the final ballot and fire it off to their master mailing list.

That list includes 287 publicists and 320 executives. The publicists and executives only participate in the nominations for best picture (thankfully, the academy hasn't created the categories of "best hype job" or "best ego-basher" yet), but they are eligible to vote for everything else on the final ballot.

That means nearly 15% of the entire voting membership of the academy is made up of people whose business it is to either produce and profit from the films nominated, or to market and publicize them. Since careers and stock options can be affected by Oscars, it seems fair to say that members of the executive and public relations branches don't hand their ballots over to Bacon.

For the Better . . .

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