By Roxanne Roberts and Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, February 25, 2011; C01
For the moment of greatest suspense at the Academy Awards, we already know what names will be called.
It's the Oscar death montage: Fate has already tapped those winners.
But which recently departed star will get the most applause? And which will have the position of honor - at the end?
Since it formally began in 1993, the "In Memoriam" segment has become one of the most popular parts of the annual awards broadcast - and probably the most controversial. This year's segment will be longer than ever, says the academy's executive director, Bruce Davis, clocking in at nearly five minutes. The usual montage runs three minutes.
But in a big year for Hollywood deaths, not everyone can be mentioned. Davis last year found himself apologizing to the family of Farrah Fawcett, whom the academy left out of the montage because they believed she was better known for her TV work than movie work.
"You make more people disappointed or angry than you make happy," he said.
There's no questioning the emotional and nostalgic power of these deftly edited tributes. In 2009, the segment opened with Cyd Charisse in a 1950s Technicolor splash of long dancer leg. Then it was on to brief glimpses of Bernie Mac, Van Johnson, Michael Crichton . . . (Watching at home, you thought, "I didn't know he/she died," or "Was that just this year?" or simply, "Awwww.") There were Charlton Heston and Sydney Pollack - big-deal guys, who might have been the montage closer in any other year. Except that it was Paul Newman's year. They devoted the final 20 seconds to him.
Last year, it was Patrick Swayze opening the montage. Then, Jean Simmons, Natasha Richardson, Brittany Murphy, Eric Rohmer, David Carradine. Most of the clips were presented silently (over a song by James Taylor), but they turned up the sound for a few pieces of dialogue: "I coulda been a contendah" from screenwriter B udd Schulberg's "On the Waterfront"; and, from Horton Foote's "To Kill a Mockingbird": "Scout, stand up, your father's passing." Why those lines? Probably because they just made you cry a little. The last face we saw was Karl Malden - not just a beloved American Express pitchman, but an Oscar winner who served as the academy's president.
For Davis, this year's bumper crop of notable film-world passings - 233 around the world, according to the tally kept by his staff - was cause not just for sadness, but for headache.
A committee of six academy governors convened to whittle the list down to those who would make up the montage. The Oscars are not just entertainment for TV audiences but a closed community's celebration of itself, so as much consideration is given to the backstage players - all those guys you've never heard of, the aviator-framed studio execs, the mild-faced directors of photography, the Brylcreemed screenwriters shown picking up a trophy in grainy black-and-white - as the big-name actors. "It's not enjoyable," said Davis (a D.C. native, Sibley-born, Bladensburg High-educated). "You're leaving on the floor whole remarkable careers."
This year, the academy decided to expand the roster to 40, its largest "In Memoriam" ever. But that means "nearly 200 people are left off," said Davis. "And those are the ones whose families call the next day."
Twice in the past 15 years, the academy has weighed putting an end to this stress by getting rid of the tribute reel. But the audience enjoys it too much, and "we always get bullied into putting it back," Davis said.
(Another tweak this year: The broadcast's producer has been asked to tone down the sound of the applause that surges in the room for some lost faces more than others. The cheering "gives an energy to the sequence," Davis told us, "but it inevitably suggests a lack of respect for some of the people" who don't get as much.)
The process of compiling an affecting montage takes so long that Davis had to establish a death cutoff of late January - which means anyone who died since then (sorry, Betty Garrett and Maria Schneider) will have to wait for consideration next year.
So poignant and so popular, "In Memoriam" has been ripped off by virtually every other televised awards show - even the ESPY Awards from ESPN. Davis finds not only flattery in the homage but a measure of relief: "When you get down to those last terrible decisions, if a person's career has been primarily in television or live theater, we say, 'We're going to let that person go and assume that the Tony people or the Emmy people will pick that up.' "
Such as . . . who? Davis, discreet, would give us no hint of what to expect of Sunday's montage. But as scholars of the genre, we suspect John Forsythe and Tom Bosley - who both made some fine movies back in the day, but gained fame for their TV work on "Dynasty" and "Happy Days" - may have to wait for the Emmys.
So, who will we see this year?
Directors Arthur Penn and Blake Edwards, probably. Very likely producer Dino De Laurentiis. Without a doubt, Oscar nominees Pete Postlethwaite and Lynn Redgrave. Probably producer David Wolper. Maybe, in a nod to old-time film-colony royalty, a woman named Yvonne Stevens, one of the last silent-movie actresses and first wife of Oscar-winning director George Stevens.
Perhaps, we can hope, little Cammie King? She had only a handful of movie roles but an indelible one as Scarlett and Rhett's daughter in "Gone With the Wind."
And who will be the last face we see? Patricia Neal will likely take precedence over Clayburgh; she won an Oscar, Clayburgh was only nominated. But neither has the iconic stature to close the montage.
You could make a case for Leslie Nielsen: People really loved him. But he was never nominated for an Oscar. Maybe he'll open the tribute.
Curtis? Hopper? Both had nominations, and long careers.
But Hopper has the visuals - motorcycling down the endless sunny highways of "Easy Rider." We're not film editors, but it feels like the perfect clip.