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THE OSCARS

Academy Voters Feel the Heat of Campaign Fever

Casting award ballots can be a subjective, haphazard and frazzled process, with this year's stepped-up studio publicity wars adding to the pressure.

March 23, 2002|ROBERT WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"I heard it was very confusing," Lorenz said. "I felt if I left to go get popcorn and go to the bathroom, I'd miss out on something. It was kind of difficult for me to pay attention because it was backward. When I left, I said, 'Who the hell killed her?'"

Christina Smith, the makeup supervisor on such films as "Schindler's List" and "Hook," noted that best sound is always a tough one for her to judge.

"I know what good sound is, but I'm not an expert on it," Smith said. "I usually talk to a soundman [and ask], 'What is the best sound?'"

In her own field, Smith just wishes that more academy voters understood what goes into an Oscar-worthy endeavor.

"If you do a job so well they don't know it's makeup," Smith said. "Our peer group understands that, but I don't know that the entire academy understands."

The academy has, over the years, taken steps to limit the outside influence on its voters. Rules have been adopted that prohibit studios from wining and dining voters, telephoning them at home or sending them tapes packaged in ornate gift boxes.

Voter Was Invited to

'Moulin Rouge' Party

The academy has put studios on notice that any attempt to influence Oscar voters will be dealt with harshly--from withholding Academy Award tickets to eliminating a film from competition, a draconian step that has never been taken.

But the reality remains that in Hollywood, where everyone seems to know everybody else, Oscar voters often get invited to dinner parties or private screenings where a director or a star might just be on hand to chat and answer questions.

Screenwriter Launer recalls receiving an invitation this year to a Jan. 17 party at Le Dome in West Hollywood that was hosted by actor Michael York and his wife. The invitation was to celebrate the "six Golden Globe nominations and DVD release" of "Moulin Rouge." Director Baz Luhrmann was in attendance.

At the time, Launer said, he was wrestling with whether to vote for Luhrmann for the Directors Guild of America's top feature film award or Peter Jackson for "The Lord of the Rings."

"It was fun; [Luhrmann] is a nice guy," Launer said. "Peter Jackson did a great job in 'The Lord of the Rings.' What a sensational movie. It was consistent all the way through. Sweeping cameras [just like] 'Moulin Rouge.' So, who do I vote for?"

Launer paused and, hinting he eventually voted for Luhrmann, said: "Now, had I gone to a party and met Peter and he was just as nice ... ?"

In seeking out Oscar, studios and their publicity machines have turned actors and directors into virtual politicians, sending them out to press the flesh with anyone who might remotely cast a ballot.

One favorite place for Oscar candidates to show up is the Motion Picture and Television Fund's retirement home in Woodland Hills. This Oscar season saw directors Ron Howard, Jackson and Luhrmann as well as actors Michelle Pfeiffer and Billy Bob Thornton making appearances before the retirees. Luhrmann made several visits, sources say.

But academy Executive Director Bruce Davis said stars and directors are wasting their time if they think the retirement home is a good place to mine Oscar votes.

"I checked two years ago," Davis said, "and do you know how many votes come out of the motion picture home? Two!"

Chatting with a movie star or A-list director at a party might occasionally influence a vote, but the real thing they listen to are recommendations from friends and colleagues urging them to see a certain movie or performance.

Indeed, voters can't escape the buzz about films that circulates in the Hollywood gossip mill and concede that what people are saying will whet their curiosity to go see a movie, at the very least.

Animation producer Jane Baer, who has worked on such films as "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," says that this sort of talk has an effect on Oscar voters "because you respect the opinions of your peers, and if they say you've got to go see this great performance, you will. That affects me, initially, to go see it. I may come out with a totally different opinion, but not usually."

And what if a friend or colleague is nominated?

"I suppose if your best friend had done a film and it was getting some buzz and you went to one of these screenings, it would have some influence," Smight said. "That's the hardest thing now, to be fully objective about it. In one sense, I'm sort of glad that I've retired."

In recent years, a debate has raged inside the academy over the power of studio ads to sway Oscar votes. It is estimated that studios have spent as much as $10 million or more during this year's Oscar season.

Smight, an academy voter for more than 40 years, said he is "very upset" every time he picks up the trade newspapers and sees all the Oscar ads staring him in the face.

"It's incredible," he said. "It's bound to have some kind of influence [on voters]."

Others scoff at the suggestion that the Oscar ads influence votes.

"I can't imagine anyone being swayed by it," said film editor Michael Jablow.

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