Oscars "In Memoriam": The Unkindest Cut

Midway into Sunday's Academy Awards, the annual "In Memoriam" segment ran. The hushed, respectful Oscar crowd listened and watched. Celine Dion sang "Smile," the film rolled. The names and images of 41 industry people who died in 2010 flickered onto the enormous Kodak Theatre screen. Perhaps for their families, the segment provided solace. Problem is, although not included in the "In Memoriam," about 50 additional Academy members--my Dad among them--passed away in 2010 as well. For our families, the "In Memoriam" segment rubbed salt in the grief-wound. The Academy had snubbed our loved ones. And the song's lyrics, Smile, though your heart is breaking seemed to mock us. Smile? Um, okay, we'll try.

Dad's industry-colleagues figured he'd be a shoo-in for the segment. It was just a formality, they'd explained via emails back and forth over the past few weeks. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Governors would meet, vote, and surely give Dad his four-second slot. But eventually, for whatever reason, Dad's name ended up on the cutting room floor. A total of three Academy cinematographers passed away in 2010. Two made the final "In Memoriam" cut. Dad didn't. These things happen. Best to move on, right? As Dad would say, "End of story."

Still, I wondered how this could've happened to Dad: Academy member, outstanding filmmaker, member of the American Society of Cinematographers, inventor of the "Polito Bracket," a consummate professional who, during his many years at University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts, taught scores of Hollywood's current filmmakers. He deserved his four seconds onscreen, didn’t he?

A few days before the Oscars aired, I sent an email to Bruce Davis, Executive Director of the Academy's Board of Governors. I wanted to understand the reasoning behind the decision to cut my Dad. Within hours, Mr. Davis responded: "The explanations ultimately boil down to numbers, and numbers are cold and unsatisfactory things when you offer them in the face of recent grief and strong familial love."

And contrary to what I'd thought, the entire Academy Board doesn't make the decisions about the "In Memoriam" feature. "It's a small committee," Mr. Davis's email explained. "It's a terrible job, and no one volunteers for it. We keep track of everyone we've lost since the most recent Academy Awards, not just Academy members, although most of those finally selected for inclusion will be members. This year there were 233 names on the preliminary list. There is only time on the broadcast to acknowledge 30 to 40 of those individuals, and so a process of elimination begins."

Although Mr. Davis didn't state this in his email, in a Washington Post interview, he explained that those 233 names / candidates for "In Memoriam" spots came "from around the world." Say what? My rah-rah USA, protectionist leanings kicked in. You mean the "In Memoriam" segment is open to any filmmaker or actor anywhere? As if the competition for spots isn't already tough enough, let's just throw open the doors and see who else out there passed away so we can honor everyone? But wait, there are only 40 spots, and "numbers are cold and unsatisfactory things." Deal with it, grieving Hollywood families. Let the "process of elimination" begin.

Is nothing sacred--no industry, no product, no brand, no logo--and just America's own anymore? So now the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is hopping onto the "global" film industry express? According to an industry friend of mine, because Hollywood studios are increasingly hiring British directors and assistant directors, local industry professionals are losing jobs. Hollywood's own aren't happy about that at all. It's the very problem my Dad worried about back in the 70s, when he lost a couple of feature films to foreign directors of photography. "Your Dad was right," the filmmaker said. "It really is too bad there is not more protection."

Ironically, cinematographer Alan Hume, who passed away last year and was granted a spot in the "In Memoriam" segment, was British. Although a member of the Academy here, he lived and worked in England, where he made a nice long list of films, including "A Fish Called Wanda" (one of my personal favorites). Back in 1983, lucky Mr. Hume landed one particularly enviable gig here in the good ol' generous USA: Director of photography for "Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi." No offense to the talented Mr. Hume, but how many American directors of photography--including my Dad--would've loved to land that film?

In all, the Academy gave six "In Memoriam" spots to the global village. Here are the other five: Actor Lionel Jeffries: British. Director Claude Chabrol: French. Director Mario Monicelli: Italian. Actor Susannah York: British. God bless them, and condolences to their grieving families. But our Oscar telecast is not the place to mourn / honor them. Their home countries can do that for them, which they would probably prefer anyway.

Do I sound close-minded? Too provincial? Too {dare I say it} patriotic? Look, I can see extending a global hand were the segment long enough to include the Academy's own and more. But for this one segment, during those precious few moments of air time, shouldn't the Academy / Oscars simply honor the Americans in the industry who've passed on? If the cold, hard numbers don't add up, shouldn't the foreigners get the axe first?

Here are a few of the American Academy members who died in 2010 but didn't make it onto the "In Memoriam" segment. For a complete list, click here.

--Lisa Blount, Oscar winner, Short Film, "The Accountant"

--Tom Bosley, Actor, Board of Governors, 1983-86

--David Brown, Producer ("Jaws," "The Verdict," "A Few Good Men," "Chocolat")

--John Forsythe, Actor

--Peter Graves, Actor

--Fess Parker, Actor

--Harold Gould, Actor

--Kathryn Grayson, Actor

--James MacArthur, Actor

--Gene Polito, Cinematographer

Also (since I've gone this far I may as well continue) I'm no producer, but to me the Oscar telecast could've been rearranged. Eliminate Anne Hathaway's solo song and dance number,"On My Own," which poked fun at Hugh Jackman but came off as awkward. And keep stroke-impaired Kirk Douglas in the audience, wave to him, blow him kisses, let him say hello from his seat and move on. Losing those two segments alone would've freed up time to accommodate a longer, more representative "In Memoriam" segment.

Even though Mr. Davis had informed me {in the kindest words} that Dad wouldn't be included, the Hollywood part of me--the girl who grew up surrounded by Dad's industry publications and movie scripts--hoped for a happy ending. The Board would change their mind, insert Dad's name. The segment would run. Celine Dion would sing Smile, though your heart is breaking and there, on the screen, Dad's picture would fade in, hold for four seconds, and fade out. End of story. Right, Dad?