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Oscar snubs? Hey, Academy Awards are just a popularity contest

Posted: January 23, 2015 12:10 p.m.
Updated: January 23, 2015 12:10 p.m.
Of all the “controversy” surrounding last week’s Oscar nominations, the oddest suggestions were that there’s some kind of voting conspiracy to prevent deserving contenders from being nominated — that someone was snubbed, or that gender or race entered the equation.

Not that Hollywood is the most enlightened or politically correct hub in the modern world, but really? Organized snubs?

First of all, the Oscars are just another popularity contest among Hollywood insiders. True, they're the oldest and most established, and perhaps most prestigious, of the many awards that show-biz millionaires give one another.

But the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is primarily populated by old white guys voting for their pals, so what would you expect? (The Los Angeles Times reported in 2012 that a survey found the Academy to be 94 percent white and 77 percent male with a median age of 62.)

Second, while there may be gender or race biases among individual voters — hey, it could happen — to suggest that it’s a conspiracy is something even Oliver Stone would dismiss.

To understand why, however, might require some knowledge of how the Academy Awards work.

The Academy has just under 7,000 voting members — or just under 6,000, depending on whose statistics you believe (the Associated Press reports the former, the Los Angeles Times reports the latter and the Academy is silent on the matter).

Each member belongs to a specific film discipline — actors (the largest single voting bloc), directors, cinematographers, costume designers, sound editors, etc. And for the nominations, each votes only in his/her category — actors vote for actors; directors vote for directors … you get the idea. Then everyone votes in the Best Picture category. (There are some exceptions: Best Foreign Film, Best Documentary, Best Animated Feature and a few others are selected by committees.)

So if you’re, say, a costume designer with friends who are costume designers, and if your best buddy landed an A picture that received a lot of attention, maybe that will swing your vote. (Certainly no one would vote for himself, right?)

After the nominations are announced, new ballots go out and all 6,000 (or 7,000) members vote in every category.

It’s an imperfect science, of course. Voting on any given day might be completely sincere or just a hurried whim. Maybe someone is voting for a person or a title because it seems to be the popular choice. Or because it seems to be an unpopular choice.

Or maybe the voter doesn’t recognize some of the titles or names on the ballot. It’s doubtful that every voting member has seen every eligible movie. Or even half of them.

There have even been anecdotes floated over the years about Academy members who couldn’t be bothered with voting, so they allowed a spouse or a best friend or a child or a chauffeur to fill out the ballot.

But was anyone deliberately snubbed? Were voters calling each other and saying, “Hey, don’t vote for so-and-so”?

The Oscars are nothing if not capricious.

The biggest complaints were about the obvious lack of diversity among nominees. All 20 of this year’s acting nominees are white, which hasn’t been the case since 1997. Adding fuel to the fire is the absence of David Oyelowo as a Best Actor nominee for his highly praised performance as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma.”

Of course, white actress Amy Adams was not nominated either, despite having just won a Best Actress Golden Globe for “Big Eyes.” Was Adams snubbed by Oscar voters? Since she’s been nominated five times before, that seems unlikely.

The director of “Selma,” Ava DuVernay, was also left out — and she would have been a historic choice, the first African-American woman to land in the Best Director category. But it didn’t happen.

Is that because of her race or gender? Or did the directors' arm of the Academy, the votes of which decided the five nominees, simply find five other filmmakers’ works more compelling than “Selma”?

After all, should DuVernay receive votes because of who she is or because her work is considered the best?

Many also feel that Academy favorite Clint Eastwood should have been nominated for directing “American Sniper.” That didn’t happen either.

This, despite the fact that both “Selma” and “American Sniper” are up for Best Picture.

It’s not uncommon, though, for a movie to be nominated without the corresponding director being nominated. Nor is it uncommon for a director to be nominated but not the movie.

Actually, with eight slots available for Best Picture this year and only five for Best Director, there were going to be disappointments.

But, again, it was the members of the directing branch of the Academy who voted for the five Best Director nominees, while the entire voting Academy selected the eight for Best Picture.

This obviously reflects the lack of diversity in the directing branch — in terms of both people of color and women in general.

If people in the Hollywood community really want to see that change, they need to be more inclusive in their membership. And Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs — the organization’s first black president — says that she and others are working to make it happen.

In the end, however, it’s all subjective.

In theory, Academy voters cast ballots for the people or films that they felt were the best candidates.

But perhaps they just voted for their friends.

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