Dear Oscar, it's time to reveal your vote totals

  • Article by: JOSH LEVIN , Slate
  • Updated: February 24, 2014 - 2:43 PM

It would add interest to our arguments — and maybe to the awards themselves, too.

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Oscar Isaac, left, and Justin Timberlake in “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The film missed out on a best picture nomination.

As usual, last week’s Oscar nominations quickly become an occasion for movie lovers to grouse about which of our favorites did not get nominated. When we talk about these glaring omissions, the conversation always gets framed in the same way: Robert Redford, Oprah Winfrey, Emma Thompson and “Inside Llewyn Davis” got snubbed by the motion picture academy.

The academy, though, is not a monolith — it’s not as if 97-year-old Olivia de Havilland is sitting at home in bed, personally choosing all of the nominees. (Actually, there’s a 2 percent chance that that is the academy’s secret voting procedure.)

Redford, Winfrey and Thompson surely got some votes in their acting categories, as did “Llewyn Davis” for best picture. The boring reality is that there’s no such thing as a snub — some actors, and some movies, simply get more votes.

There’s an easy way for the academy to change how we talk about snubs: Reveal the vote counts. That’s how it’s done with most every sports award, from the Heisman Trophy to the NBA MVP award to Baseball Hall of Fame balloting. If the Oscars got with that program, we could have much more entertaining arguments about who did and didn’t get the academy’s imprimatur. It’s also possible that this kind of transparency would lead to more deserving films and actors earning nominations.

Here’s how Oscar voting works. In the first round, academy members cast ballots on categories in their specific disciplines: actors vote for actors, directors for directors, etc. In most categories, everyone gets to vote for up to five nominees, and is asked to rank them in preference from first to fifth. The nominees are then chosen via some confusing mathematical jujitsu based on that first-round vote. When it comes time to decide the winners, everything gets voted on again, this time with every member allowed to vote a single time for every category.

On the day the nominations are announced, the first round of ballots should be laid bare, with point totals announced for both the nominees and everyone else. Did Redford miss out on a best actor nomination by a single vote? Did Chiwetel Ejiofor get listed on every ballot? Did “Grown Ups 2” get a single vote for best picture? We would know it all.

According to Entertainment Weekly, the “academy instructs voters to ‘follow their hearts’ because the voting process doesn’t penalize for picking eccentric choices.” In reality, it’s easy to imagine some voters ignoring that dictum because they know their vote for “Fruitvale Station” or “Short Term 12’s” Brie Larson will be lost to history. In this new reality, where every vote is publicized, following your heart is not folly. Eccentric voting would be encouraged, and more movies would get the acclaim they deserve. And with voters free to vote their conscience, perhaps longshots like Larson wouldn’t be such longshots after all.

Because each branch votes for its own categories, it would also be fascinating to see, for example, how actors’ opinions vary from those of the academy as a whole.

Revealing the vote totals on nomination day would lead to intense speculation in the run-up to the big show: Can Amy Adams hold on to her slim lead over Meryl Streep, or will Streep’s over-the-top performance in “August: Osage County” sway all the non-actors in the academy-wide re-vote? (Or maybe the actors love Streep more than the non-actors. I’d like to know either way.)

Now, this is the part of the story where I report with great sadness that this will never happen — that the academy is too old and stodgy to reveal its internal deliberations. And it’s not like the Oscars are an outlier here: The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick was just suspended by the New York Film Critics Circle for revealing the NYFCC’s vote totals (in breach of the circle’s bylaws).

But we can still dream. For the academy, voting transparency would be a way to increase interest in the Oscars without resorting to songs about boobs. So, how about a compromise: Open thy ballots, Oscar voters, and I’ll sit through yet another dreadful montage about the unceasing allure of the Hollywood musical.

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