The nominations for the 55th annual Academy Awards come out tomorrow, serving notice that Hollywood is once again undergoing its annual trial by peer.
The Oscars, of course, are about money, fame and glamor: A strategic win often adds $10 million at the box office, doubles or triples the theater bookings of a struggling film and invites a chosen actor to raise his rates as high as he dares.
But although the stakes are high for the April 11 awards ceremony, there are relatively few players in the Oscar Game. Exactly 3,953 of them, the membership of the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. They have a wallet-sized membership card that gets them into movie houses free -- and a secret ballot with which to judge their fellows.
They are actors, art directors, cinematographers, directors, executives, film editors, sound men, producers, short-subject filmmakers and writers, and they vote on their peers -- actors for actors, musicians for musicians. Only in the category of best picture do they all cast their votes together.
It is often said by artists, assembly-line workers and orange pickers that the highest glory comes in being judged by one's peers. This is a noble sentiment that also happens to be one of the great fibs of modern civilization. The fact is, nobody in his right mind wants to be judged by his peers.
That is what makes the Oscars interesting.
Last year, Warren Beatty, a darling of Hollywood, produced, directed and starred in a $40 million movie called "Reds." His peers let it be widely known that Beatty's movie was a courageous personal statement, a historical epic that dared to portray John Reed and Louise Bryant in a sympathetic light. Then, when his peers filled out their secret ballots, they voted as best picture "Chariots of Fire," a $5 million English movie made by Englishmen about Englishmen. Beatty got best director.
That is the sort of thing peers do to each other. They are unpredictable, and it is never fair to complain. Some films that are enormously popular do win best picture. But Steven Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark," which broke box-office records when it came out and was hailed for teaching Hollywood how to make an action film again, received only "professional" awards last year: for editing, art direction, visual effects and sound.
This year the academy gets lots more nifty choices to make. What will the peerage think of "E.T.?" The extraterrestrial comes heralded as a lovable little Christ-figure from outer space, but is he more lovable than Mahatma Gandhi, the Christ-like figure from India portrayed by Ben Kingsley in "Gandhi"?
"Gandhi" is a British movie made about an Indian by Englishmen, and distributed by Columbia Pictures, which also did "Tootsie," in which Dustin Hoffman has been widely hailed by critics for his performance as a part-time woman who accidentally becomes spokesman for what full-time women really want.
It is hard to know what the peers will make of this. Also in "Tootsie" is the full-time woman Jessica Lange, once the object of some down-the-nose looks for her participation in the remake of "King Kong." But she is now the star of "Frances," a portrait of the actress Frances Farmer on the road to desperation, and virtually peerless in terms of multiple interviews on "Today."
The Oscar game is watched by us but played by them -- the 3,953 voters. The studios watch, too, but there is really not much they can do.Even though as much as $2 million is spent between Thanksgiving and the close of voting -- an average of $500 per academy member -- most of the money goes for screening rooms and full-page "for-your-consideration" ads in trade papers such as the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety. The price of a full-fledged Oscar campaign is said to be $100,000 to $200,000: peanuts, when a low-budget American movie can cost $10 million, and distribution nearly half again more.
"I don't think it's really possible to influence the members of the academy," says Booker McClay, the Universal Studio publicist running the campaigns for "E.T.," "Frances," "Missing" and "Sophie's Choice," and also "Dark Crystal," "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" and "Conan the Barbarian" -- the last three "not necessarily for best picture."
"Our one objective is to get academy members to see the picture," says McClay. "The demand on their time is great, and no matter what anybody tells you they won't vote for a picture they haven't seen. Those ads in the Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety are more of a gesture. The studio understands that the talent involved likes to be recognized and presented to their peers. But it doesn't get them any votes."
The eds McClay is talking about blossom in the trades even before Christmas. They make use of an advertising technique that might be called subliminal hysteria. An ad for "The Verdict" states in very subdued letters on a field of gray, "Best Picture"... with a pensive picture of Paul Newman below. Translation: PAUL NEWMAN IS QUITE A GUY. IT SAID SO RIGHT ON THE COVER OF TIME MAGAZINE, REMEMBER? YET HE HAS NEVER WON AN ACADEMY AWARD. AREN'T YOU ASHAMED? THINK ABOUT IT.
A Hollywood Reporter "consideration ad" for "Tootsie" promotes Bill Murray as "best supporting actor," even though for some reason Murray's name does not appear in the credits of the movie itself. Translation: GOOD FOR BILL OF COURSE, WE ALL KNOW WHO THE REAL STAR OF THE PICTURE IS. BUT JUST TO PROVE DUSTIN HOFFMAN ISN'T AS PUSHY AS YOU THINK HE IS WE DIDN'T EVEN INCLUDE HIM IN THIS AD. BUT REALLY, WHO'S GOT MORE TALENT THAN DUSTIN? THINK ABOUT IT.
Warner Bros. took a full-page ad for Clint Eastwood, promoting "Firefox" as best picture. Translation: WARNER BROS. LOVES CLINT EASTWOOD BECAUSE EVEN THOUGH EVERYBODY SAYS "FIREFOX" WAS A LOUSY MOVIE WITH A DUMB PLOT AND EXTREMELY MURKY CINEMATOGRAPHY, HE IS STILL A BANKABLE GUY. THANK YOU, CLINT, WE LOVE YOU. LET'S HAVE LUNCH.
Debra Winger seemed to be a one-woman trend this year, insofar as she reportedly requested that she not be pushed for her role in "An Officer and a Gentleman." This does not mean she doesn't want to win an Oscar, just that she doesn't want to be pushed for one. Nobody turns down Oscars anymore. What's the point? The academy is older and wiser, the movies are battling cable TV and video games, and whose side are you on? What's wanted now is a touch of class. And speaking of class, have you heard that Debra Winger has asked not to be the object of vulgar promotion mania this year? In any case, tasteful, full-page ads for Winger appeared anyhow, and Paramount sent out a free sound track of "An Officer and a Gentleman" to every member of the academy.
Universal, which used to provide buffet dinners with its screenings, stopped this year. "The purpose of the dinner was to be a social event along with the movie," said Booker McClay. "You saw the colleagues in your field under sociable conditions, and it was a nice feeling. It was stopped, I guess, because of the cost."
Robert Wise, who directed "West Side Story" and "The Sound of Music," has been on the academy board for many years. He views such attempts to sway the voters with non-hysterical bemusement.
"I chaired a committee many years ago," Wise recalled, "in which we examined ways to curtail some of the over-eager ads and untoward displays. But we found out that there was really nothing we could do about it, and, anyway, it can backfire. I remember the year 'The Alamo' was a candidate, one of the character actors launched such an aggressive campaign it turned everybody off."
Nevertheless, the academy still advises its members to beware of efforts to sway them from the valid decision-making of the peerage. "You will be importuned by advertisement, promotional gifts and other lobbying tactics, in an attempt to solicit your vote," this year's message reads, urging members to "register your displeasure with those who in an unrestrained and ambitious manner attempt to do so."
"You can't buy a vote with a dinner or a stuffed animal," says Bob Werden, publicity coordinator for the Academy Awards. "Besides, the studios don't even know where to send their stuffed animals, because they have trouble getting the members' home addresses. They leave cards around the screening rooms saying, 'If you'd like to have screening announcements sent to your home, leave your name and address.' But nobody fills them out.
"There's always the chance of a backfire, too, if a studio is too ambitious. Even a win can backfire, by pricing you out of the market. When George Kennedy won best supporting actor for 'Cool Hand Luke,' the first thing he cautioned his agent was don't raise my price. He wanted to keep working.
"Anyhow," Werden said, "marketing movies for any audience is a tricky business. It's not the same as marketing soap powder. Some of the people they put in charge of finding a market for movies have trouble finding their own cars at night."
Voting closed Feb. 4 for tomorrow's nominations. But voting closes even earlier when the peers of the realm are offended.
Turns out that last year, Pia Zadora, of the film "Butterfly," won the New Star of the Year award of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association after a sustained promotion campaign by her husband and producer, "Rik" Riklis, who owns the Las Vegas Riviera Hotel. Alas, Pia Zadora was not eligible for an Oscar last year, but her name has not been entirely forgotten.
It is frequently heard this Oscar time in the phrase "Pia Zadora Syndrome" -- the Hollywood buzzword for trying to sell your wine before its time.