The 84th annual Academy Awards ceremony will blast us with hot golden radiation for four plus hours on Sunday night, so of course everyone's excited. Because the Oscars are fun! Yes they're long and ridiculous and self-congratulatory and everyone's a zillionaire so who really cares in the end, but c'mon. They're fun. As a spectacle, as a guessing game, as a chance to see actors rattling around in their bodies as themselves instead of characters on a movie screen, they're a good time. (Plus: dresses!) Though something increasingly gnaws away at that fun.
In a fascinating new piece looking into the makeup of the 5,765-member Academy, The Los Angeles Times presents some telling statistics, the chief takeaway being that, yes indeed, as long suspected Academy voters are predominantly older white men — oftentimes, depending on the branch, almost exclusively so. Let's excerpt some of the article's findings:
Oscar voters have a median age of 62, the study showed. People younger than 50 constitute just 14 percent of the membership.
[S]ome of the academy's 15 branches are almost exclusively white and male. Caucasians currently make up 90 percent or more of every academy branch except actors, whose roster is 88 percent white. The academy's executive branch is 98 percent white, as is its writers branch.
Oscar voters are nearly 94 percent Caucasian and 77 percent male, The Times found. Blacks are about 2 percent of the academy, and Latinos are less than 2 percent.
So those figures all paint a pretty clear picture of what we're dealing with here. When the Oscars get handed out, they're a reflection of a pretty homogenous group of people's tastes. One could get upset about lack of the representation among women and minority groups (and even younger people), and probably one should, but that's a different post for another time. Really what we're concerned with today is that the The Times' article makes it plain and clear that we were never wrong to dismiss the Academy's rulings as qualitatively uneven, maybe even useless.
As independent cinema has grown sturdier and more mainstream over the past twenty years, the Academy's often frustrating (if you care about such things, anyway) blindspot for non-glossy prestige fare has become more glaring. It always existed in some capacity, but in recent years we've seen stark examples like Brokeback Mountain defeated by the Angeleno-pleasing, race-pandering Crash, sharp Sideways losing to treacly Million Dollar Baby, Sandra Bullock winning for schmaltzy pluck over the quieter smarts of Carey Mulligan in An Education, and the undeniably heart-swelling but squarely straightforward The King's Speech besting films a little more narratively daring like Black Swan and The Social Network. The list of Oscar upsets or groaners or whatever we want to call them is miles long, and the only way that we've soldiered on in following all this Oscar business without throwing our hands up in the air is that we could always rely on the vague but firmly held truism that this is just the out-of-touch Academy voting their own demographic: old, white, and traditional. (Oftentimes the rare "nontraditional" win is actually quite traditional in its own way, as in the Crash affair.) We've always taken this as a given but now, finally, we have some easily digested concrete proof.
The trouble is that, while we can dismiss our favorite little film being overlooked as the foolish and ultimately meaningless work of old philistines, the Oscars do actually matter as far as the business of making movies is concerned. Trying to get a film into that selective group of twenty or so movies per year that vie for a spot on the consensus "Oscar contender" list is an entire marketing strategy unto itself. A win for a movie or an actor (and sometimes a director, perhaps) is often treated like a societal stamp of approval, an encouragement to proceed forward in that particular vein. And by that same token when a movie doesn't connect with the Academy, it can be seen as a mark of disapproval that can have effects well beyond the scope of the Oscars. Obviously independent cinema is thriving and, really, we've no shortage of crafty and interesting pictures to see every year, but we are still placing a lot of the job of quality assessment in the hands of a bunch of institutional, innately privileged old-timers. We spend a lot of time writing and reading What It All Means post-Oscars analysis pieces, but really we already knew the answer and here's the definitive proof. Sure there are flukes in Academy voting, and of course not everyone who votes, be they an old white man or not, is some evil old elitist who only occasionally wants to prove how racist they aren't, but if anyone you know throws up their hands this year at some particular slight or upset or whatever, you can just calmly point them to this article and say "Yeah, see? That's all it is. That's all." It's kind of comforting!
Of course you should work to rectify this, white Academy dudes. We're not letting you off the hook. But just as the terrific documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated plainly exposed how a small, also somewhat homogenous group of people on the MPAA's ratings board is filtering our cultural consumption, this Times article does the necessary work of documenting the problem, laying it out bare and simple, arming us with a comfortingly sturdy knowledge. Don't get mad on Sunday! Don't get mad next year! It's just those old white dudes again, talking to us about their favorite movies. Sure it'd be nice if it changed, but, eh, forget it Jake, it's Hollywoodland.