The elite members of the Oscar Club

Actors: It's not easy getting into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but once you're in, you're in like Flynn.

January 17, 2000|By Patrick Goldstein | Patrick Goldstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD -- It is the most exclusive of all clubs, though its annual black-tie meeting is broadcast around the world to an audience of nearly a billion people. It has no official membership requirements, but the informal necessities include consummate talent, an impressive body of work, good manners and respect of your peers. Some would say it also helps if you're British, can do accents, suffer tragically and are willing to attend a lot of banquets and talk shows.

Welcome to Hollywood's most prestigious fraternity: the Oscar Club.

Meryl Streep, Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Al Pacino are old-guard members, as are Dustin Hoffman and Jessica Lange. Sir Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hanks and Ralph Fiennes are in; Sean Penn, Steve Martin, Barbra Streisand and Eddie Murphy are out.

When you're in, you're really in -- Emma Thompson has five nominations (and two wins). Supporting players like Dame Judi Dench, Kathy Bates and Brenda Blethyn (six nominations total) are academy favorites while big-salaried stars like Jim Carrey, Bruce Willis and Harrison Ford (one nomination total) are still on the outside, looking in.

With ballots in the mail for the 72nd Academy Awards ceremony, which will be held March 26, it may be time to usher some new names into the club.

Possible nominees include Julianne Moore and Matt Damon, who are early favorites to pick up best-actor nominations again this year, Moore for her role in "The End of the Affair," Damon for "The Talented Mr. Ripley." In fact, Moore and Damon, who already have three nominations and one win between them, are model club initiates, gifted actors with a squeaky-clean reputation for grace and professionalism.

"The academy respects talent and a willingness to take chances," says veteran producer David Foster, who has made movies with longtime Oscar Club members Streep and Hopkins. "But remember, the voting members of the academy are working stiffs, so they also value people who bring a touch of class to the profession. If someone is a troublemaker or a pain in the ass on the set, people don't forget that when it comes time to vote."

Actors are the ultimate arbiters of membership in the Oscar Club. The 1,300-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' acting branch choose the five nominees for all four acting categories. The academy's entire 5,500 voting members select the winners. But the acting branch, which is three times larger than any other branch and makes up nearly 25 percent of all academy voters, clearly has the biggest say in the final outcome.

Elected for life

The academy doesn't keep demographic information about its members -- or make available a list of member names. But in many ways, it's Hollywood's answer to the House of Lords -- an elite body of elected-for-life peers whose inscrutable choices are often shrouded in a fog of tradition.

"I'm convinced that the average age of the academy [membership] is 111," says manager Marty Bauer, who joined the academy as an agent. "You're talking about a very gentrified ruling class of very old voters. I mean, if [director] King Vidor was still alive, he'd still be voting."

Like other members, actors are invited into the academy after receiving a nomination. Otherwise, most members have to be proposed to the academy by two peers, either after having been in the industry for six to eight years and having worked on three "quality" films. Once you're in, you're in for life, hence the preponderance of older voters. "I got in at a relatively tender age," recalls one prominent industry publicist. "And at the first few screenings I went to, they kept trying to kick me out because I looked too young."

"The academy likes serious, distinguished professionalism," says critic David Thomson, author of "A Biographical Dictionary of Film." "They want men to have dignity and women to have decency. Tom Hanks gets nominated all the time, even though he's not that profound an actor. And Meryl Streep -- you'd have to see a profoundly disturbing story about her being a child abuser before anyone could undermine her credibility and appeal with the academy."

With so many older members, the academy's acting branch has consistently rewarded conservative, prestigious films populated with British actors. Two years ago, the best actress category featured four Brits -- Helena Bonham Carter, Julie Christie, Dench and Kate Winslet -- and one token Yank, Helen Hunt (who won). In 1992, the best supporting actress category had an almost all-Brit cast of Joan Plowright, Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson; the lone American was Marisa Tomei, who won for "My Cousin Vinny."

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