Did you know that one of the 6,404 people who vote for the Oscars is a Roman Catholic nun? Dolores Hart, who stole a kiss from Elvis Presley in the 1957 film Loving You, retired from the film business and became a nun at the Benedictine abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut – but not before she had entered the inner sanctum and won the right to vote. She’s now 72, and continues to vote when the review copies are sent to her monastery each year.
I’d never quite understood who gets to vote for the Oscars, and how the whole process works. Tom Shone explains everything:
There are 6,404 of them, mostly living in the Los Angeles area, with further pockets in northern California, New York City and London. They are, by a small majority, male. Their average age is about 57. Rupert Murdoch is one, as are Pedro Almódovar and Sasha Baron Cohen. George Lucas, Woody Allen and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are not. And on 27 February they will announce to an audience of more than 30 million people the results of a secret ballot that will determine the course of careers, cause corporate stock prices to rocket, and induce howls of outrage in office pools and viewing parties around the world.
“They”, of course, are the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group of entertainment industry professionals responsible for handing out the Oscars every year. The Academy’s headquarters are housed in an impassive, mirrored-glass structure on Wilshire Boulevard, suggestive of the fact that Ampas does not like to reveal much about its inner workings. Membership is by invitation only, requiring sponsorship by two existing members and the approval of a board of governors; but once in, you’re in for life, a fact that has been used by the organisation’s critics to conjure up an image of doddering retirees, too entangled in their oxygen tanks to fill out their ballots. When Henry Fonda and James Garner admitted their wives filled out their ballots for them, there was uproar.
Ann Thompson is a columnist with the Indiewire website, who recently attended the governor’s ball thrown by the Academy in honour of Jean-Luc Godard. “One of the things I noticed is there’s a huge bubble of baby boomers at the Academy. They’re all very knowledgeable. They’re very liberal. They’re over 50 for the most part, but it’s a fairly hip demo[graphic]. It’s that group of people who grew up in the 70s and were shaped by a film-maker like Godard. They voted for Silence of the Lambs for best picture, they voted for Traffic, for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. But it’s not a monolithic body. You can almost track the fate of any one film by tracking its course through the different branches.”
The Academy comprises 15 branches, of which the biggest and most powerful voting bloc is the actors, with 1,205 members, 22% of the total; they are the ones who ensured a win for The Hurt Locker last year, after they remained unconvinced the blue people in Avatar were delivering real performances. They are closely followed by the producers (452 members) and executives (437) who, together with the publicists (368), says Thompson, trend “a little more to the mainstream, for movies such as The Green Mile, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat. They’re the group Harvey Weinstein knows how to play to.”
Finally you have the various crafts guilds – sound, effects, sets, costumes and so on – who tend to get more male and red-blooded the further down the credits you go. Thompson calls them the “steak-eaters”: the set-builders and property-masters who are attracted to “large-scale solid narratives such as Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan, The Town, True Grit. Even Inception plays to the steak-eaters. It’s a big group. It probably describes most of the Academy.” It’s this group that bailed on Ang Lee’s gay cowboy drama Brokeback Mountain in 2006, thus ensuring a win for Crash – one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history – and this year helped keep the nominations for Lisa Cholodenko’s same-sex marriage drama, The Kids Are All Right, down to a minimum.
“The steak-eaters are the reason Annette Bening keeps losing,” says Jeffrey Wells, who runs the Hollywood Elsewhere website. “Call it the steak-eater vote, call it the old geezer vote, call it the babe vote. They always vote for the babes.” More recently, though, Wells has detected signs of a fresher breeze sweeping through the Academy’s ranks. “For most of the history of the Academy, going back to 1927, the film that wins best picture tends to be the one that makes you cry. That gets you where you live. It says something that’s true and recognisable about the state of our lives that gets you on an emotional level. But [Ampas president] Tom Sherak has been aggressively bringing in newer members, and over the last few years the emotional gut-punch movies have not been winning. Except when Brokeback Mountain lost: that was the last surge, the last stand of what I call the ‘geezer vote’. That was basically the people like Tony Curtis, the 70-plus crowd who couldn’t abide the idea of two sheep-herders getting it on. That was the last time.”