Affirmative action is at the core of Oscar’s new membership roster, just as it should be.
It’s always struck me as one of the great ironies about Hollywood that this industry, whose very survival is rooted in the notion of populism, is among the least populist when it comes to its own conduct.
From the very beginning, when moguls such as Louis B. Mayer and Darryl F. Zanuck followed the maxim “Go west, young man,” they didn’t so much reject the Eastern establishment as create a new one of their own, replete with black-tie dinners, country clubs and polo horses. Then, as now, they understood that their tenure was precarious, and the more they could surround themselves with the trappings of class, the more others might believe they were entitled to its perquisites, too.
Launching the motion picture Academy was part of that grand design. Nominally formed to celebrate the best and the brightest of film, it was also a subtle reminder that there were insiders and outsiders, haves and have-nots. Like all clubs, it was conceived with a dual purpose: to allow some people in while keeping a whole bunch of others out.
Groucho Marx understood this concept better than anyone when he wrote, reportedly to the Friars Club: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as one of its members.”
I feel the same way: I’ve never wanted to join a club that would have me as a member, whether Soho House or one of the various L.A. country clubs or even a private beach resort. Splendid isolation holds little appeal for me. And yet I must admit, I’ve always held a soft spot for the Academy. It’s done exceptional work over the years, supporting other organizations, donating to the needy and restoring classics that might otherwise have faded from view. It seems to have some of the best qualities of a club, without glorifying too much in the worst: the exclusion of ordinary mortals.
That’s a myth, of course. The Academy, for decades, has been the preserve of the Hollywood establishment, as fine a way of taking its measure as any visible to a reporter’s eye.
Now, at long last, the Academy is doing something to change that — not exactly opening the floodgates to the hoi polloi, but at least loosening its boys’ club tie in order to dress itself as something altogether more modern and fashionable.
In admitting 774 new members earlier this week (or at least giving 774 sundry men and women the chance to join, if they’re willing to shell out hundreds of dollars in dues), the Academy isn’t just making up for its largely white, mainly male past; it’s also reimagining itself as a more contemporary, cutting-edge institution, an institution that reflects the times — and perhaps, just a little more than before, the populace at large.
The outrage that’s accompanied this move (including ad hominem attacks on several prospective new members) has been accompanied by a slew of highfalutin nattering focused on “lowering the bar” and “diluting the quality,” but make no mistake: It’s really about keeping the insiders in and the outsiders out — an argument in favor of fossilization, if ever I’ve heard one.
Let me confess: I was among the first to question the Academy’s plans when it said it would shake up its roster in response to the shocking absence of minorities two years running for the 2015 and 2016 acting Oscars.
I didn’t blame the Academy for that. Allegations of racism were spurious, I argued (12 Years a Slave had recently been named best picture) — or at least overt racism, though a more covert kind inescapably comes into play when members are so uniform in their ethnicity.
More than the Academy, I argued, the problem lay with the executives greenlighting films, the studio heads who surround themselves with men and women of their own ilk, who inevitably cut off the pipeline to material that doesn’t jibe with their own experiences.
But that doesn’t mean the Academy should not be responsible for change. The organization doesn’t just represent the industry; it influences it, too. And just as the industry influences the wider world, so does the Academy.
In June 2016, the organization unveiled a list of 683 new members as part of its response to the movement known as #OscarsSoWhite. And guess what? The list was spectacular. It featured such eminent filmmakers as Hou Hsiao-hsien and Ken Loach, as well as notable newcomers including director Patty Jenkins and actor Mahershala Ali.
Now the Academy has released its latest list, a larger group without quite the same artistic pedigree (some notable exceptions aside). And there’s the rub, the itch the old guard is so eager to scratch.
Relative newcomers are everywhere, from Zoe Kravitz to Gal Gadot, along with others better known for TV than film, from Jon Hamm to Lou Ferrigno. Can I quibble with certain individuals? Of course. Does that mean this isn’t a big step in the right direction? Not at all.
By adding these members, the Academy is saying it must change or die. It’s saying that takes precedence over the tried-and-tested methodology of the past, which only ever ushered veterans into the Oscar-voting club. It’s saying, if affirmative action is a positive thing for society at large, it’s a positive thing for us, too.
I agree. Mistakes may be made along the way, but that’s inevitable: cutting a new course through a thicket spiky with thorns can’t help but draw blood. This is what the Academy is trying to do — find a way forward. Like it or not, it must embrace the future or risk being swallowed up by the past.
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