It takes a certain kind of insanity to care about the subjective opinions of 6,000 total strangers. And yet, on Sunday night, roughly 40 million people will tune in to ABC to do just that.
We all know that the Academy Awards ceremony is Hollywood's biggest night of the year. Each studio spends countless millions of dollars, on both production and promotion, to chase the whims of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which hands out the shiny golden trophies each year.
But who are these Oscar voters who command so much power and attention in the industry, anyway?
Even now, more than 85 years after it was originally founded, the academy's demographics remain surprisingly murky. On its official website, the academy proudly trumpets that the voting body includes "over 6,000 of the most accomplished and talented men and women working in movies." The academy has long declined to reveal its full voting roster. But an impressively comprehensive 2012 survey by the Los Angeles Times reveals a depressing (if unsurprising) truth: The academy is incredibly old and incredibly white.
According to the survey, those 6,000 Oscar voters "are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male.... Blacks are about 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent. Oscar voters have a median age of 62.... People younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the membership."
Yes, even now, the old cliche generally holds true: The academy is full of old, white men — and unfortunately, the admittance process doesn't offer many opportunities to change that. According to the academy's own website, most prospective candidates begin their "journey to membership" after being sponsored by at least two members. (The other, less common path is actually earning an Academy Award nomination, which automatically qualifies you for membership consideration; as of 2012, just 19 percent of members had been nominated for Oscars, and just 14 percent had won.)
The positive spin on this process is that it requires each candidate to be an accomplished industry professional before they're given the honor of judging their peers. The negative spin is that it turns the academy into a self-congratulatory group of buddies who ensure that no one but their buddies can join the club. Guess which spin is more accurate?
To its credit, the academy is quick to acknowledge that there are some questionable names in the group — but that doesn't make it any less jarring when you learn that the entertainment industry's highest honor is awarded by a body that includes Lorenzo Lamas and Peewee Herman. There's also "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" singer Meat Loaf, who was inexplicably admitted to the academy after he asked his Crazy in Alabama co-star Dennis Quaid to sponsor him in 1999; in 2011, Meat Loaf told the Los Angeles Times that War Horse was his favorite film of the year "because it made him cry five times."
Meat Loaf's transgressions aside, the academy has strict rules barring voters from revealing the contents of their ballots — but that doesn't stop at least a half dozen voters from doing it, anonymously, at a few major entertainment publications anyway. Though they represent just a fraction of the academy, these ballots are as instructive as they are disheartening, offering a frustrating mix of ignorance and grudge-holding that generally bears almost no resemblance to an actual evaluation of the films in question. One voter repeatedly refers to the Best Picture-nominated Philomena as "Willamena." Another admits he wouldn't have voted for Hugh Jackman for Best Actor because the actor "whizzed right by" him after an academy screening of Prisoners. In an inexplicable and inexcusable aside, the same voter expounds on Amy Adams' American Hustle performance: "Amy Adams had no boobs in that dress. A beautiful dress, but she's flat chested."
Worst of all, perhaps, is the open nepotism, which is just as rampant during the actual Academy Awards as it is during the academy's admittance process. "I don't watch the shorts. And, if I don't know anybody who made one of them — a friend or an enemy — I just don't vote," said one anonymous voter at The Hollywood Reporter. When asked about the Best Film Editing Category, another voter said, "One of my dear friends is the editor of Captain Phillips, so how do you think I voted?"
The academy is aware of these problems, and is actively working to solve several of them; a year after the damning Los Angeles Times article about the academy's demographics was published, Cheryl Boone Isaacs was elected academy president, becoming the third woman and first African-American in history to hold the office. And some academy members take the job far more seriously than others: Steve Guttenberg, who called it "one of the greatest honors you can have," makes a point of attending the academy's year-round events dedicated to issues like film preservation. These are hopeful signs for the academy's future, but they're also far too infrequent; Guttenberg himself notes that most academy members "just want to get the free DVDs."
Sadly, real change is not imminent. So for anyone who truly believes that the year's best films and performances should be honored at the Oscars, the best we can hope is that each academy member will hold themselves to a higher standard in the future. Unfortunately, history offers no real reason to believe they will.