It’s become something of an annual tradition for media outlets to publish the ballots of anonymous Oscar voters. The Hollywood Reporter, in particular, has made a trollish art of it, selecting ballots that seem tailor-made to anger people who’ve spent months thinking seriously about the films nominated for awards. Today, for instance, the magazine published the ballot of an anonymous Oscar voter, in the public relations branch of the Academy, who declared that the widely-perceived snubs for Selma were right as the film lacked “art” and its cast were “stirring up s–t” with their real-life social-justice activism. This voter also said Patricia Arquette should win the Best Supporting Actress trophy for never having had plastic surgery: “It’s a bravery reward.” This ballot was provocative and at times borderline offensive. But it also serves as a brilliant reminder that the Oscars are voted on by real people. The only thing wrong with it is that there isn’t an equivalent one for each member of the Academy.
People tend to speak of “the Academy” as though it has a single mind and set of opinions. But winners are chosen by consensus, and a narrow one at that: In all but the Best Picture category, all a nominee needs is 21 percent of the vote to win. Accordingly, individual quirks and peccadilloes become incredibly important, and incredibly hard to predict. Michael Keaton got The Hollywood Reporter voter’s endorsement because “he seems like a completely sane person” and “he seems grateful, not particularly needy.” The performance doesn’t enter into it, really. This is the sort of thing entertainment reporters, and the Oscars ceremony itself, are too polite or movie-mad to acknowledge: Most voters aren’t film scholars, but workaday professionals who bring to bear their own prejudices onto the ballot.
Those prejudices include this voter’s treatment of Selma, a movie around which controversy has largely been cloaked in concern for the legacy of Lyndon Johnson. Those who have dismissed the movie have done so out of carefully constructed arguments around historical veracity, not just because they didn’t like it. No matter what one thinks of Selma, it’s actually refreshing to hear one of its detractors speak forthrightly to better understand in clear terms the systemic obstacles a movie like this faced at the Oscars. The Oscar voter in this case denies that any racial impetus went into the nomination voting, claiming that members of the Academy don’t think along racial lines because they’re not “the cast of Deliverance,” and then stating that actors taking part in protests about recent police action in New York is “offensive.” It’s this visceral manner of speech, not a series of historical claims and counterclaims, that will help us understand what, exactly, happened to Selma. If Arquette wins, it’s at least one vote’s worth due to her “bravery” in aging, for all the performance is supposed to count.
When it comes to Oscar ballots getting revealed, it’s always like this, likely because the most serious Oscar voters tend to keep their votes to themselves. Last year, a voter told THR that he didn’t vote for Lupita Nyong’o because “a lot of the commotion over her is attributable to people’s tremendous empathy with and sympathy for the role she’s playing.” Voters are entitled to vote however they want and for whatever they want, but the remark was so diminishing of Nyongo’s work as to make clear both the challenges the actress had to overcome to win the award and the mindset of Oscar voters, generally.
The Oscars don’t emerge from on high to anoint whomever is empirically the most deserving. They end up in the hands of whomever pleased the most or annoyed the fewest people, people whose applause at the ceremony is far less interesting and revelatory than their back-channel chatter. The Oscar ceremony itself will never grow any more transparent than it is, given the producers’ interest in maintaining the awards’ mystique. But cheers to the secret ballot revealers for chipping away at the pomp and circumstance just a little.