Now that the Oscar winners have taken their bows, I’d like to extend words of empathy for the l,800 new Academy members who, having cast their first votes, now face withering attacks from some of the nation’s leading film critics. The phalanx of new voters was heralded as giving the Academy a new perspective. Instead, the winning Best Picture, Green Book, is “an embarrassment — insultingly glib” (Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times) and “a mind boggling compendium of tone deaf racial clichés” (A.O. Scott in The New York Times).
If I were a new member, I’d be asking, “What did I do wrong? I just got here.” That’s why I feel empathy: Years ago I was recruited as a new Academy voter and I, too, got blasted for my first vote. I’m still proud of it. As for this year’s vote no one has any reason to feel embarrassed. The Green Book victory stemmed from many factors: the Academy’s complex process of tallying votes, the undercurrent of resistance to Netflix and — not to be forgotten — the fact that lots of voters feel good about Green Book. And, unlike film critics, they don’t hate themselves for feeling good.
The whole adventure is a reminder of a proposal put forth by William Goldman a decade or so ago: He wanted the Academy to announce the actual totals, as in a normal election. The Academy leaders were outraged: voting totals would undermine the legitimacy of an Oscar. If Moonlight had won by only 10 votes last year over La La Land, it would have diminished the artistic importance of the victory. Really?
So let me get back to my own first vote. Fifty years ago I had just joined Paramount when Howard W. Koch, then president of the Academy, dropped by my office with a packet of credentials. “You’re now a voting member of the Academy,” he told me. “I just got here three months ago,” I responded. “I’ve been a reporter for The New York Times and I’m not even a movie nerd.”
Koch was insistent. The demos of the Academy were downright decrepit, he said. Young voters are needed. “Besides, you and Bob Evans are already putting more movies into production than any of the old timers.” (The slate included Rosemary’s Baby, The Godfather and Love Story.)
I signed the documents. My first vote was for Midnight Cowboy. It was, in my view, brilliant and X-rated and far more interesting than its rivals or the winner from the previous year, the G-rated Oliver. Some friends and colleagues were furious at me, and at other new voters for the selection. Midnight Cowboy was not ahead of its time, it was an embarrassment to its time, they argued — its gay subtext, its brash direction by John Schlesinger, the ferocious performances by Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight. I had helped betray my new profession.
Fifty years later, everything has turned. Academy leaders, pressed by activists, mandated a sweeping change in the membership. The Academy had become hopelessly non-diverse and conservative — witness the recent list of winners like 12 Years a Slave, Moonlight and Spotlight (they were bland?). New blood was needed.
Well, it has arrived. And now we need to control the bleeding.
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