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Ghost of Alfred Hitchcock looms over the Oscars' voting system

September 1, 2009 |  6:48 pm

Changing the Oscars' voting method in just one category — best picture — is odd. Suddenly, academy leaders believe that using the preferential voting method that's employed now to determine Oscars nominees is the best way to pick a winner in the top race (which will have 10 nominees), but not the others (which will still have five). Thus voters will rank their faves when deciding the best-picture race, but merely check off their number-one choice of a winner in all other categories. Huh? 

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When Steve Pond (The Wrap) broke the news of the new voting system yesterday, he quoted academy executive director Bruce Davis saying, "There are certain mathematical dangers with more nominees. You could really get a fragmentation to the point where a picture with 18% or 20% of the vote could win, and the board didn't want that to happen."

OK, but why not use the preferential ballot in all Academy Awards races? No doubt the answer to that is: butt out — the Oscars have used the current voting method to determine winners in the vast majority of categories since the 1930s. Can't mess with tradition. When there were more than five nominees for best picture between 1934 and 1943, the preferential ballot was used to choose winners, so that's what must be done again. Period. Oscar tradition and history are sacred.

But that means future voting will be schizophrenic and illogical. To see what that may mean, let's examine what occurred from 1934 to 1943 when there were more than five nominees — and in 1944 and 1945 when there were just five, but preferential voting still decided champs.

In the 63 Oscar derbies since 1945, the films that won best picture also won best director — using the same voting method — 50 times (80% overlap). During the 12 derbies (1934-1945) when schizophrenic voting was used, the two categories agreed eight times (67%).

One of the most notable disagreements between those races back in the old days led to one of Oscar's greatest tragedies: the snubbing of one of Hollywood's greatest directors, Alfred Hitchcock, who ended up going to his grave Oscarless despite the fact that his film, "Rebecca," won best picture of 1940. Hitchcock ended losing the helmer's honor to John Ford ("The Grapes of Wrath").

Doesn't this snub suggest that the same kind of outrage could occur in the future? Doesn't logic suggest that the year's best picture is also its best directed?

Voters didn't think so in 1937 when they picked "The Life of Emile Zola" as best picture and Leo McCarey's "The Awful Truth" as the best directed. But, of course, such splits have occurred in more recent years when voters chose "Crash" as best picture and Ang Lee's "Brokeback Mountain" as the best directed film. It's just that the split between the two awards is likely to occur more often with two different voting methods used to determine their victors. Stats from the 1930s and 1940s bear that out.

But that may be good news for Oscar watchers like you and me. It'll add more mystery to predicting winners. But not much. All four times from 1934 and 1945 when films that won best director didn't win best picture ("The Informer," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "The Awful Truth," "The Grapes of Wrath"), they were all nominated for best picture. Because there will still be only five nominees for best director in the future, we Oscarologists can shrug off the movies on Oscar's top-10 best-picture list if they don't have directing bids.

Well . . . maybe not shrug them off completely, of course. Three times films won best picture without being nominated for best director, but two of those were back in ancient Oscar days: "Wings" (1927-28) and "Grand Hotel" (1931-32). The other was "Driving Miss Daisy" (1989).

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Photo: United Artists

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