For all the talk about “historic” moves to change the makeup of the membership and Board of Governors in response to a threatened Oscar boycott over a woeful lack of diversity in the last two Oscar nomination classes, the Academy faced similar crisis before, and found a way to make it work. Nearly 50 years ago, none other than Atticus Finch himself, Oscar-winner Gregory Peck, used his position as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to oversee a series of sweeping changes in 1967 when he was first elected. The changes were enacted after a two-year study was completed. The similarity in the solutions pressed by Peck could provide a template for the struggles faced by the current Academy regime that promised to double the numbers of women and minority members by 2020 to keep the Academy relevant and the Oscars meaningful.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs finds herself in a tough spot, but imagine the difficulties faced by Peck in a far more volatile time. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968 forced him to break precedent and delay the Oscar ceremony for the first time ever — by two days, from April 8 to April 10. Several black performers nominated or scheduled to present had said they would not appear unless the ceremony was held after King’s funeral. This is certainly different than the current social media outcry and recent veiled boycott talk from several actors and directors of color, following the second straight year in which Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and Emmanuel Lubezki were practically alone among non-white nominees in major categories.
In 1968, the Oscarcast went on without incident after the burial of King, and ironically, two nominated films that dealt with bigotry owned the night: The Best Picture winner In The Heat Of The Night, and the inter-racial marriage comedy Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner — both starring Sidney Poitier — won the most awards. The Academy, circa 1968, at least didn’t have to deal with the crisis over the diversity shutout that moved current leadership to confront the problem and take hard measures.
That doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection between the two crises. Peck insisted before his term ended in June 1970 that the Academy had to reshape its stodgy image informed by a mostly white, and old voting body. He pressed for the Academy’s membership rolls to be infused with younger, more active members. He began a campaign to encourage them to join the Academy, reminiscent of the global effort the current Academy has launched to bring in a more diverse class of voters.
Hollywood was truly at a crossroads then, and so were the Oscars, which had nominated in 1970 such daringly different kinds of films as Midnight Cowboy (the eventual Best Picture winner), Easy Rider, Z, and Medium Cool, while also giving Best Picture nods to films like Hello Dolly and Anne Of The Thousand Days, two movies more representative of the past than the future. The times, they were a changin’ in a country full of political upheaval.
Peck realized that his effort to inject youth into the rolls would mean retiring many older and/or inactive members who hadn’t worked in eons but still prized their vote. He eased that hardship by moving them to “Associate” status. That meant that while their voting rights were taken away, they were still able to feel part of the proceedings by attending screenings and lectures. Sound familiar? That’s exactly how the idea is being sold this time around; voters who have ballots taken away can still attend screenings, and receive screener DVDs under their “emeritus” status.
The media glare on Peck’s effort wasn’t nearly as harsh as it is now for Boone Isaacs. The Academy was able to make significant changes to its membership, keep it fairly quiet, and come out relatively unscathed. Peck sent a letter to all members stating that 335 of them had been reclassified as Associates with no voting rights; 109 additional members were taken from craft branches and re-designated as members-at-large, which still allowed them to nominate Best Picture candidates and vote most categories in the final tally. As Boone Isaacs reportedly plans to do, Peck gave the individual branches the right to designate who was in, who was out, and how the voting system was going to work. At the time, there were 784 voting members in the acting branch; 30 moved over to associates based on what was basically determined as the fact thay had not worked in seven years or more, a loose yardstick of voting eligibility. The new 2016 Academy changes require activity within 10 years, or three 10-year periods, which grants lifetime membership.
The Peck-led Academy announced that 17 directors lost voting opportunities as well as 24 cinematographers, and so on. “We are making the Academy more truly what it has always been or meant to be, a society of working professionals actively involved in the making of films,” Peck said at the time. Conversely, current members who may be pushed out in the current reorganization have been assured they should they be reclassified as Emeritus members. The Academy will do its best to keep downgraded members a secret. It plans to keep its process under the cone of silence, though it seems harder than ever to keep any kind of secrets in the Academy.
Just as Boone Isaacs is adding three Governor positions meant to represent diversity, Peck took steps to make the Academy Board more reflective of the times. Some bureaucratic branches were eliminated, term limits were imposed, and the Academy added a new Governor to the remaining branches who was required to be under 35 years old and have no more than five years of experience. The hope was that the infusion of fresh blood would reinvigorate and keep the Academy in step with the times.
“We believe that the new procedure will result in a Board that will be increasingly responsive to contemporary attitudes and to the ideas of a new generation of film professionals,” Peck said. Just as Boone Isaacs will discover, well-meaning changes don’t mean there won’t be controversy. It was immediately pointed out that under the reforms pressed by Peck, one of those deactivated voters would have been Academy pioneer and former president Frank Capra, who shot his final film — Pocketful Of Miracles — a decade earlier. The Academy realized that exceptions had to be made.
This could have influenced the Academy’s 2016 dictum that an Oscar nomination, or win, automatically ensures lifetime voting rights. Caution is being urged this year by disgruntled rank-and-file Academy members who have been very vocal about the pending loss of their voting rights. Ironically, some of those dissenting voices — now in their 80s and largely retired — may well have found their way into the Academy because of Peck’s youth membership drive.
As Peck did, the current Academy leadership must be changeable as it traverses this slippery slope. At least current Academy leaders can take comfort in knowing this isn’t the first time the organization tried to change its DNA to reflect the sensibilities of a new filmmaking generation. They might learn some lessons from Peck, who was not only a champion of progress and diversity onscreen, but also in carving a better future for the Academy.
A version of this story also appears in the new print edition of Deadline Presents AwardsLine.