The way people talk about the Oscars, you'd think they were discussing the Nobel Prizes. But let's face it: The Academy Awards are a lot closer to the People's Choice Awards than the New York Film Critics Circle prizes. Indeed, as has been shown at almost every Oscar ceremony since 1927, the academy and its members are really nothing more than a very mainstream, populist group that, for the most part, likes very mainstream, populist movies.
"People speak of (the academy) like it's the Supreme Court, but it isn't," says veteran director Stanley Donen, who produced the 1986 Oscar telecast. "The academy is over 5,000 people. It's not like the French academy where there are 10 or 12 aged artists who make judgments about which films are good. The academy is a big, big group of people. It's close to going out and taking a straw poll."
That sentiment is shared by many non-members. "It's an Establishment membership," says Movieline magazine film critic Stephen Farber. "They like Establishment films. They are hostile to films made outside the studio system and they don't want to get involved with those films."
But Donen, the director of "Singin' in the Rain," says, "The non-mainstream movies are overlooked because there are so many (academy) members and usually the members like what the public likes."
Sheer numbers aside, there's no denying that the academy is Hollywood Establishment. Once a person is admitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, membership (annual fee: $150) and voting privileges are rarely taken away. This may account for the fact that the average age of academy members is said to be in the mid-60s. And also for the feeling in Hollywood that much of the group's membership consists of people who no longer have much to do with the film business, other than attending weekend screenings in the academy's posh Beverly Hills theater and voting for the awards.
"It's like the last vestige of where somebody who used to be active in the business can still hang in there and feel like they're part of the raging tides going on because of the Oscars," says veteran Oscar-watcher and Hollywood Reporter columnist Robert Osborne. "A lot of them aren't active, but they're making judgments on movies." Although the academy refuses to divulge any information about its membership, Osborne says he once saw the list of members. "It was kind of surprising at the number of lightweights in the structure of the movie business," says the author of "60 Years of the Oscar: The Official History of the Academy Awards." "There seemed to be a lot of Virginia Mayos."
Producer Robert Solo, a member himself who produced "Colors," agrees. "Sometimes when I go to the screenings during the year, I get the feeling that they sent the bus down to the Motion Picture Country Home and they drove everybody into Beverly Hills to see a movie."
Those screenings are the weekend showings the academy runs for its members throughout the year. Because there are only between 80 and 100 slots for films--usually two per weekend--many of the smaller independent releases go unnoticed, another reason for the members' mainstream leanings.
"Every year there are a number of movies that we'd like to screen, but we don't have time," says academy theater operations coordinator Candice Courtney, who points to 1986, when she says the academy's screening committee didn't choose to screen "Platoon" until it was nominated for best picture. The film went on to win the Oscar.
Although no one's stopping the academy members from going to a regular theater to see a movie, many of them don't. As one writer member says, "Why bother? It's a lot easier for me to just go to the member screenings."
If this sounds like a club, that may be because admission to the academy is not unlike joining a country club, says Osborne. According to the organization's bylaws, membership is by invitation of the Board of Governors and is limited to those persons employed by motion picture producing companies or credited with screen achievements. At least two screen credits on theatrically released films are required. (The public relations and executive branches have slightly more nebulous requirements--a high-level position for a certain amount of years, overseeing a department at a studio or distribution company.)
But screen credits aren't enough. The applicant must be sponsored by two members from his branch (i.e., a director needs two directors) and then the branch executive committee of 25 or so will consider an applicant for their inner circle. (The only exception to this rule is if an applicant has been nominated for or won an Academy Award, which almost automatically ensures membership.)