Academy Awards 2012: why Oscar winners are often head-scratchers

Academy Award winners aren't always the ones the viewing public expects – or wants. But the secretive Academy likes it that way. Don't forget, you're not in the Oscar club

Amy Sancetta/AP
An Oscar statue under a sheet of protective plastic stands on the red carpet outside the Kodak Theatre as preparations continue for the 84th Academy Awards in Los Angeles. The Oscars will be held on Sunday.

Woody Allen, up for best screenplay Oscar Sunday night for “Midnight in Paris,” is famous for quoting Groucho Marx's quip: “I don't want to belong to any club that that will accept people like me as a member.” On Sunday night, however, the more likely quote will be: Who, exactly, are the 5,765 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and why do they vote that way?

Every year, it seems, the Oscars offer at least one pick – and sometimes several – that confound the American filmgoing public. And every year, the fact that those who vote are kept secret confound those seeking a smidgen of accountability. 

But don't expect the Oscars to change. 

“People need to remember as they watch the Oscars that the winners may or may not reflect mainstream tastes, but rather reflect the likes of a very specific constituency – that of their colleagues,” says Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.

If you want to know what America likes, check out box-office figures, he and others say.

“This is only the Academy deciding what it wants to reward for excellence and we, the viewers are being allowed to watch in,” says Thompson.

Sometimes, Academy voters feel it’s important to spotlight films that did not do well at the box office, but which they feel are excellent. “Hurt Locker,” which won Best Picture in 2010, is an example. Its box office was only $17 million, compared with $750 million for Avatar, which was also nominated.

“The annual Oscars are a vital component of our cultural machinery, not only reflecting taste but producing it – and thereby creating profit for moviemakers," says Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory in the University of Texas at Arlington’s sociology department, in an e-mail. "The voters are insiders rewarding insiders.” 

But who are the insiders? 

A Los Angeles Times report found that 94 percent of Academy members are white and 77 percent are male, with blacks making up only 2 percent and Latinos less than that. The median age of Oscar voters is 62, with just 14 percent under 50 years old.

This has led to accusations of gender and race bias. But Charles Bernstein, who for 10 years was chairman of the Academy Award rules committee, is a bit tired of the yearly accusations that come AMPAS’s way.

“The Academy is not a democracy but a meritocracy,” he says. 

The job of the Academy is not to reflect but to lead, he adds. These are great professionals who have achieved distinction in motion picture-making, and they are merely saying, “Here is what we most respect.’”

He cites two reasons for why the Academy does not print member lists. One, it prevents them from being polled by newspapers and polling organizations. Two, it prevents direct lobbying of academy members.

“The integrity of the Oscars is protected by not publishing comprehensive lists,” he says.

Indeed, the Oscars have never been about reflecting America or even Hollywood at any given moment in time, says Peter Lehman, director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, in an e-mail.  

That's why many great directors have gone unrecognized throughout their entire career and many great films are overlooked, he adds.

“The Oscars give Hollywood a chance to put forward what they perceive as the most favorable image of themselves in any given year," he says. "The Oscars are more about how the industry would like the public to perceive their films and what is best about them.”

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