Voting for Oscar

By Kieth Merrill

It was, on the whole, a grim year for films.

It’s Oscar time again. The Academy Awards makes me think of Raquel Welch. She presented me my Oscar 25 years ago and I got to kiss her. Sitting in the ninth row of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion waiting for “and the winner is”, I found myself musing about whether I should kiss the lovely Ms Welch if I won. Kissing presenters on Oscar night was a well-established tradition.

You may not think it was a hard decision. But look at it from my perspective. If I kissed one of Hollywood’s most glamorous women on national TV, I would have to explain it to my mother in Farmington, Utah. If I didn’t kiss her, I would have to explain it to the Elder’s Quorum Sunday morning at the Mormon Church. My father taught me to be decisive in a crisis. I kissed her.

I have been a member of the director’s branch of the Motion Picture Academy since that momentous night. It has added greatly to my life, giving me an interesting opportunity to see films you’ve never heard of. It has allowed me to participate in the hallowed ritual of selecting who will walk away with the gold and kiss the glittering women of the silver screen who present these most cherished of awards.

The process begins before Christmas and ends at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, February 4. During that period, major studios and independent production companies send voting members of the academy copies of their films on videocassette. It is not unusual to receive a hundred films. Some of them will not have been released broadly in theaters. To qualify, a film must be exhibited in commercial movie theaters prior to the end of the year. The films arrive without other promotional hype or promise. They simply say “for your consideration”. In early January we receive a booklet entitled “Reminder List 2000”. It lists the titles and credits of “eligible releases for distinguished achievement during 1999.”

On the first page is “An Important Note from the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.” The note reminds us that; “this year, as in the past, you may be importuned by advertisements, promotional gifts, dinner invitations and other lobbying tactics in an attempt to solicit your vote. Though crude solicitations that occasionally surfaced in early years seem to be a thing of the past, we would ask each individual Academy member to be on your guard against inappropriate attempts to influence your vote, and to register your displeasure with anyone who might make such an attempt. The more emphatically that all of us can convey to the industry and the wider public that excellence in filmmaking is the ONLY factor we consider in casting our Academy Award votes, the more reason the world will have to respect our judgment.”

The Academy has done a remarkable job in containing the impulse and ability of studios to influence the voting, at least in ways considered “inappropriate” by the Academy. There were 247 eligible films in this year’s “Reminder List of Productions”. To date, I have seen 64 of them, a mere 26 %. Still, I feel qualified to cast my vote to nominate the Best Director and Best Film. Eligibility for consideration is the result of distribution. Many films open and close so quickly they qualify as “eligible” only by a few days or screenings Eligibility for nomination is the result of distinction, yet many films are produced with no pretense of quality or distinction. I never have to see “Xiu, Xiu; The Sent Down Girl”, or “Virtual Sexuality” to know they are not eligible for distinction. And for all its brilliant creativity, “Blaire Witch Project” is not the stuff of which Oscar night is made.

In the hours following 5:00 PM, Friday, February 4, Price Waterhouse will count the votes. Soon thereafter, a few films will emerge from the gloomy waters of Hollywood as nominees. By this time last year, I knew which films would likely receive the nomination. The Golden Globe, Press Associations and Director’s guild make their picks in the months prior setting, some feel, a direction or precedent.

I hope not. “American Beauty” was crowned with multiple awards at Golden Globes. I found the praised innovations, riveting performances and other claims of distinction so overpowered by darkness, brutality and hopelessness, I was left thinking of a phrase from my college courses in communications law. This film was “without redeeming social value”. Few colleagues will agree with me, but I believe that a film elevated for praise and admiration has an even greater responsibility to society.

I don’t mean to groan too loudly. There were a few of my 64 movies I really enjoyed. For the most part, however, it has been a grim year for films. There are a few bright spots, but many of the big box office attractions were dark, loathsome, and depressing. To be honest, some of the films which promise to be serous contenders for Oscar gold still wait on my stack of “films to watch”. I am waiting until I find an iron mood capable of dealing with one more innocent man on death row, one more brutal murder, or one more shattered life. Where is Indiana Jones when we need him? Of course Indiana Jones and Star Wars are never considered. Strange isn’t it. The movies we enjoy the most are almost never honored.

What film deserves the Academy’s greatest honor? My vote will likely be drowned in the flood of oohs and ahs already heard for films I found disturbing. I’ve not seen Anna and the King. I hold out hope this epic managed to achieve it’s potential. If I had to choose tonight-and the time is drawing nigh,I might go for Tea with Mussolini. I suspect I’ll be alone.

You can blame us, but we only have ourselves to blame. The Oscars are awarded to filmmakers by their fellow filmmakers. Why is it so hard for us to honor the films we love the most? I wonder sometimes if it is because we take ourselves so seriously as filmmakers. I wonder if we are desperate to authenticate the prestige that comes to us in the flickering shadows of fame. I wonder if it is because we are afraid to recognize that in the end we are little more than the circus sideshow of life.

Cinema has been elevated to art, but what we now accept as “art” has fallen so far from true master works, it deserves little if any elevation at all. Celebrity is a poisonous thing. It creates value where none exists. It presumes importance in a world of irrelevance. Where is the nomination for the doctor who saved a human life today? Where is the nomination for the missionary who fed a gaggle of starving children? Where is the nomination for the patient scientist who will tomorrow cure AIDS and conquer cancer? I hope they have their own academy and receive the acknowledgments they deserve.

Meanwhile, we of the Motion Picture Academy approach our responsibilities with grave sobriety and a sense of importance that should be reserved for challenges that change the destiny of mankind. But someone must do it. It has fallen to us. So we step boldly forward with resolve, conviction and in complete denial of a simple fact. By this time next year, you will never remember what we did or care. Only the one with the little gold man will never forget.