Oscars: The Academy's Terrific New Membership List Faces Long-Term Problems (Analysis)

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From left: Ice Cube, Patti LuPone, John Boyega

One has to believe that the Academy has pursued a strategy that is not so much about affirmative action as it is about recognition of those who have been overlooked unjustly.

A few months ago, after the #OscarsSoWhite kerfuffle shamed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences into addressing its woeful lack of minority and female membership, its president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, moved quickly to address the organization’s graying membership by proposing to eliminate the voting rights of members who had not worked for a given number of years.

I was (and continue to be) critical of that proposal. It seemed a slap in the face of many distinguished veterans who had accumulated years of experience, a solution that seemed to substitute ageism for racism and sexism. (I couldn’t help but note the irony that at least one or two of the men and women the Academy invited to join on Wednesday appear not to have worked in years, which theoretically might disqualify them from the Oscar vote.)

I was equally skeptical about Boone Isaacs’ plans to vastly expand the Academy’s membership, opening the doors to 683 new members this year, more than four times the average number of new members who were invited just a few years ago. The danger, I feared, was that in the haste to redress one problem (minority-ism), the Academy would be creating another: opening up the prestigious organization to a group of untested and unqualified members.

Certainly, the new membership roster includes some very young and barely proven talents whose long-term viability is open to question. Dakota Johnson is a promising actress, but is Fifty Shades of Grey really evidence of the kind of excellence Academy membership is meant to reward?

The verdict is out on several other new members, but on the whole this is an excellent group that will both democratize a stodgy institution and give hope for its future.

What’s striking is how many of the new members weren’t invited to join before. Among them are Ice Cube, Freida Pinto, Regina King, Rachel McAdams, Eva Mendes, Gabrielle Union — and they’re in the acting branch alone. Some of these performers are household names; each already has a significant body of work; the fact that all are women or minorities (or both) is an added bonus.

Looking at names like these, one has to believe that the Academy has pursued a strategy that is not so much about affirmative action (which seeks to balance out the grievances of the past and improve society in the future by giving bonus points to those who are presently disadvantaged) as it is about recognition of those who have been overlooked unjustly. These actors are all acclaimed for their work and each legitimately deserves Academy membership.

Insiders may carp that some of the new members belong to the world of theater (Cherry Jones, Patti LuPone) or television (Dennis Haysbert, Martin Starr) rather than film; even these invitees, however, have many movie credits and a level of talent that merits acceptance by the Academy. If I were an actor hoping for an Oscar nomination, I’d be thrilled to have Jones, LuPone or Haysbert judge my work.

This is the good news. But for those who are looking to shore up the Academy in other ways, there’s also grounds for concern.

First, the influx of younger and foreign members, as well as the many who come from the indie field (the director and documentary members are brimming with art-house filmmakers) is likely to impact the Academy Awards in a way that won’t help the telecast. The new members are far more likely to vote for indie films than studio blockbusters, meaning that we can expect a lineup of best-picture nominees that has less and less to do with mainstream Hollywood.

The Academy tried and failed to address this matter by upping the number of picture nominees from five to as many as 10 after The Dark Knight failed to get nominated. But it’s hard to imagine the new members — who include an array of talents, from the U.K.’s Ken Loach (The Wind That Shakes the Barley) to Denmark’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) to the U.S.’ Rebecca Miller (Maggie’s Plan) — veering toward classic studio moviemaking rather than cutting-edge productions.

That’s going to leave the Academy with a challenge when it comes to bolstering the diminishing audience for the Oscars, its biggest money maker and part of its very raison d’etre. Pity the telecast negotiators who have to reach a new deal with ABC.

The second problem the roster creates is one that may emerge years from now — like a hidden ticking time bomb — when another board of governors looks back and wonders how relative newcomers whose careers might not match their promise were ever invited to join.

Dozens of the new members are so untried, it’s hard to know where they will be in five years, let alone 50. Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ John Boyega is a hot name now, but he’s also only 24 years old and has few movie credits beside the Lucasfilm blockbuster. It’s way too soon to tell whether he’ll have a career that will justify this membership.

(His experienced Star Wars colleague Oscar Isaac also got an Academy invite, but newcomer Daisy Ridley did not, presumably because this was her first mainstream feature film and members must have at least two credits.)

It will not be apparent for years whether these younger members will have distinguished careers or whether they will simply be submerged, like so many others with promise, and become footnotes in movie history.

For now, this is an impressive group that rights old wrong and bodes well for the future. Hats off to Boone Isaacs for achieving the near-impossible.

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