Movie Article

Number One with a Ballot

How movies become Academy Award nominees -- We reveal the method that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences uses to fill the Oscar ballot

You may never have heard of Dr. Douglas Dick, but in the peculiar formula that governs Academy Awards voting, the Los Angeles psychologist wields more clout than any studio mogul or superagent. A onetime actor who hasn't appeared in a movie since Elvis Presley's Flaming Star and John Wayne's North to Alaska in 1960, Dick loyally pays his yearly $150 dues to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. That makes him a member in good standing of the Actors Branch and eligible to nominate his former peers in all four acting categories as well as cast his vote for Best Picture. So, while the 70-year-old Dr. Dick can nominate Oscar contenders in five of the most critical categories, most of the industry's biggest power brokers are able to nominate in only one. In fact, agent Michael Ovitz, widely regarded as the most powerfully positioned man in Hollywood, is a mere Associate Member on the Academy's roster, which means he can't vote in the Oscars at all.

Second-guessing the quirky logic of Oscardom is a pastime almost as old as most of the Academy voters — many of whom, like Dr. Dick, haven't been seen on a movie screen in years. Age and inactivity are thus no barriers to power in the contest — it's being in the right branch of the Academy that makes the difference.

Over one-fourth of the Academy's 4,940 voting members — including most of Hollywood's top executives — are treated like second-class citizens by Oscar. Because each branch nominates in its own category (editors name editors, cinematographers cinematographers, etc.), members of the four branches that don't have an award can nominate only for Best Picture. Among those who are disenfranchised by this system: 366 Executives (including studio heads like Disney's Michael Eisner), 405 Producers (like GoodFellas' Irwin Winkler), 334 Public Relations people, and 418 ''Members-at-Large'' who don't quite fit in anywhere else, such as veteran choreographer Michael Kidd (Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) and various employees of the Academy itself. Shorn of votes, these people watch from the sidelines while the artists rule on which films get showered with multiple nominations.

The artists, of course, don't often agree, and each branch has its own agenda, which is often at odds with public taste. That's the reason for the apparently contradictory nominations Oscar watchers find so amusing. This year the Writers honored Whit Stillman for the witty (but sometimes inaudible) Metropolitan, while the Sound branch applauded the noisy (but formulaic) Days of Thunder, starring Tom Cruise.

Only in the Best Picture balloting, where all members get a vote, do the differing artistic concerns of the membership come together. Hence the Academy's top honor — and the one likely to translate into major dollars at the box office — is ironically its most plebeian. It's that singular nature of nominating that explains why, to the perennial befuddlement of many Oscar commentators, the five Best Picture and Best Director nominees almost never match up 100 percent. This year, the 286-member Directors Branch chose to honor the cool brilliance of The Grifters' Stephen Frears and Reversal of Fortune's Barbet Schroeder. Their rather dark films, however, did not win over the Academy's masses, who instead gave Best Picture nominations to the warmly sentimental Awakenings and Ghost. The latter nomination, and Julia Roberts' for Pretty Woman, took some Oscar watchers by surprise. Academy voters usually like movies to do well at the box office, but not too well.

Similarly, winning an award from a group of film critics or receiving a Golden Globe is a way to get the nominators' attention, but it's no guarantee; just ask Oscar strikeout Jennifer Jason Leigh, who was this year's New York Film Critics Best Supporting Actress for both Last Exit to Brooklyn and Miami Blues.

Glossy vote-for-me ads in Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have been a fixture in Oscar lobbying for years, but the newest wrinkle in self-promotion involves sending videocassettes to Academy homes. ''Those videos pay off,'' says actress Kaye Ballard. ''I wouldn't have had a chance to see The Grifters otherwise.'' A self-described ''movie buff,'' Ballard claims her Academy membership fee ''is the first bill I pay at the beginning of the year, and my ballot is the first one there at Price Waterhouse. This year, I nominated Martin Scorsese's mother for Best Supporting Actress for GoodFellas.''

Another tried-and-true nomination technique is to tell a personal hard-luck story and tell it often. This year's surprise Best Actor nominee, self-confessed former hellraiser Richard Harris, spent his time publicizing The Field by letting everyone know what a comeback the role was for him. His sincerity — together with a cassette-mailing onslaught from distributor Avenue Pictures — brought him his second nomination 27 years after his first (for This Sporting Life). Lacking inspirational tales of their own, no one else connected with The Field got any Academy recognition whatsoever.

After the Oscar races have been whittled down to five finalists and the nominations are announced, every Academy member gets to vote for almost everything — and the Executives at last have equal power. The Documentary, Short Film, and Foreign Film Oscars are the exceptions; they can be voted on only by members willing to swear they've seen all of the nominees. Opening the polls to all utterly belies the Academy's proud refrain that Oscar winners are selected by a jury of their peers; in the last true days of judgment, film editors decide on the Best Original Score and costume designers pick the Best Actor and Actress.

On the final ballot, as during the nominating process, voters frequently have a soft spot for such real-life hard-luck stories as The Killing Fields' Khmer Rouge survivor Dr. Haing S. Ngor and Butterfield 8's pneumonia survivor Elizabeth Taylor. Another form of suffering that often goes rewarded is the perseverance of those who buck the odds (and philistine executives) to get noncommercial ''dream projects" made (Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, Oliver Stone's Platoon). That's one reason Kevin Costner is way ahead of his competitors with his unlikely hit Dances With Wolves. The fact that his labor of love is a runaway smash hasn't hurt either.

But Julia Roberts of Pretty Woman has received perhaps the most enviable boost of all during the voting period-another hit movie. The healthy grosses of Sleeping With the Enemy are further indication that the 23-year-old is currently the most bankable female star in Hollywood and that her name on a marquee means more than those of the other four nominees combined.

On Oscar night, they reward people for things like that, too.

Originally posted Mar 22, 1991 Published in issue #58 Mar 22, 1991 Order article reprints
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