"It isn't like someone who has requirements fills out paperwork and sends it in and is automatically a member," says Mary Phillips, who oversees the academy's membership department. "It is possible that in the case of two writers with shared writing credits applying for membership, one might get in, while the other might not. The committee looks at the individual's whole career."
Once accepted into one of the academy's 13 branches, a member then becomes eligible to vote in the Oscar competition. (Most branches, other than the actors' branch, which has more than 1,300 members, number fewer than 400 members.)
The branches are important when it comes to nominations: It's the members of each who nominate in their field. For example, the writer's group makes the writing nominations. The only category everyone gets to nominate is best picture. (That's the sole nomination producers, public relations executives and members-at-large get to make.) This is why Barbra Streisand can be overlooked by the directors, but "The Prince of Tides" can still pick up numerous nominations in other categories.
"It's ludicrous when they start talking about collusion," says Donen. "The argument that I always hear is that Streisand's film was nominated in seven categories, so how could she be overlooked as a director? The point is that only the directors vote for the director category and they don't know that it's going to get all those nominations. Obviously, the directors didn't think she did as good a job as the others."
Two other branches nominate the foreign and documentary films, made up of volunteers from all the other branches. Some observers reason that because screening and nominating the foreign and documentary films is so time consuming, the academy tends to draw from those members who are not very active in the business, which could explain the usually conservative picks in these categories.
Once the nominations are announced, the entire membership votes in every category, although over the years, there have been numerous stories about academy members letting their spouses, children, housekeepers or gardeners do the actual voting.
"I always let my wife do it," admits one member of the writers' branch. "She sees more of the movies than I do, so it's only fair to let her vote." And former UCLA Film Archive curator Bob Epstein says that when he was 12 years old, he and his best friend, the son of a noted Hollywood cinematographer, filled out his friend's father's ballot. "The only one he voted for was the cinematographer award," says Epstein. "He let us vote on everything else."
One well-known actor, himself a best supporting actor Oscar winner, said he always lets his son vote for him.
But the Hollywood Reporter's Osborne thinks most of the stories about non-members voting aren't true. "You always hear about this, but I think it's the media trying to make something out of it," he says.
According to some, the academy now is actively trying to enlist younger members. "There has been a practice of trying to think of writers who haven't applied for membership and who should," says screenwriter Dan Petrie Jr., who became a member of the writers' branch after he was nominated for "Beverly Hills Cop" in 1985. But Petrie, who serves on the writers' branch executive committee, admits that sometimes it's hard to find qualified applicants. "Today, it's not easy to get two solo credits on real good films," he says. "You can be a famous working writer now and not get in for quite a long time."
Some also believe that the fact that "The Silence of the Lambs" was nominated for best picture proves that the academy membership is changing. "A few years ago, that film would be regarded as a slasher film by most of the academy members," says one studio executive. "Only a younger membership would vote for it for best picture."
As for the academy itself and the seemingly endless discussions that invariably take place every year regarding the Oscars, writer-director Jerry Zucker ("Ghost," "Airplane!"), a member of the writers' branch says: "Everybody makes too big a deal out of the academy. It is what it is and that's all. The only thing that I care about is whether or not Price Waterhouse correctly adds up the votes."