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NOV
7
11 MOS

No, Oscar Voters Aren't Too Old to Like '12 Years a Slave' (Opinion)

Are they afraid to watch "12 Years A Slave?" That's the rap, as another awards season begins with an ageist dismissal of Academy members.

Issue 40 BIZ The Race Illustration - P 2013
Paul Blow

This story first appeared in the Nov. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

I'm 64. (There, I said it.) And though I'm not ready to define myself as a senior citizen -- except to take advantage of discounted movie tickets -- there's no denying it. Suddenly, my mailbox is full of flyers for Medicare supplement plans, and jokes about old people, which are pretty pervasive in our culture, start to leave a sour taste. I'm a big Bill Maher fan, but this summer when Dick Van Dyke tweeted Maher, "Enough with insulting old people on your show. I'm 87 years old and I can whip your ass," I silently cheered for Van Dyke.

Which brings us to the Oscars: One of the perennial themes among the millions of words of commentary that will be spilled between now and the 86th Academy Awards on March 2 is sure to be: The Academy is made up of too many old white guys -- and all those geezers are out of touch.

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Over at GoldDerby.com, Tom O'Neil opined earlier this year that Hollywood hunks such as Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp don't win acting Oscars despite repeated nominations because "the geezers are telling each Adonis: 'That's quite enough, dude. You've got good looks, hot chicks, fame and fortune. Here's one thing you can't have!' " And when the Academy introduced electronic ballots in January, he suggested that if older voters failed to vote out of frustration with the new system, that could leave "younger voters to pick more hip choices."

Thanks to older moviegoers, Gravity and Captain Phillips are hits, but there's already a developing meme this season that the unflinching violence in 12 Years a Slave will be too strong for older Academy voters to stomach. On Grantland.com, Mark Harris wrote jokingly, "Yes, it's probable that some dainty or delicate voters will stay away from 12 Years because it's too rough, or too punishing, or because about a third of the Academy membership is old enough to remember Reconstruction." And at Hollywood-Elsewhere.com, Jeffrey Wells chimed in, "You know that when older Academy members pop in 12 Years a Slave at home, they're just going to fast-forward through the rough parts."

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It's that "you know" that grates -- the automatic assumption that all older moviegoers are unable to grapple with a work of art just because of their age. It's the very definition of casual ageism, stereotyping a whole group at one fell swoop.

But why assume that every Academy elder shares the same taste? Olivia de Havilland, now 97, began her career in the midst of MGM's hallowed heyday in the 1930s, while Jane Fonda, 75, was part of the New Hollywood that redefined the industry, challenging the establishment in the '60s and early '70s. Of late, she also has embraced social media, so she can hardly be dismissed as a fogey Luddite.

Sure, the Academy has a lot of seasoned members. While the organization itself doesn't keep track of its members' ages, the Los Angeles Times claimed in a 2012 study that the mean age of the Oscar voters is 62.

The Academy itself currently is attempting to diversify its membership. The 276 new members invited to join this year included 31-year-old Rebecca Hall and 32-year-old Joseph Gordon-Levitt. At the same time, it also sent out invites to recent best actress nominee Emmanuelle Riva, 86, and veteran actor Charles Grodin, 78. According to a THR analysis, of the new 112 members with accessible birth date information, the median age was 51.

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Certainly, the Academy's determination to bring more women and people of color into its ranks is laudable. But bringing down the median age doesn't automatically mean that its voters will make hipper choices.

I'm willing to stipulate that over the past few years, the best picture Oscar has gone to what some have felt, to their dismay, is the safer, most upbeat, middle-of-the-road choice: The King's Speech, The Artist, Argo. But, I'd argue, that's not necessarily because of the voters' age.

If Academy members often prefer a certain type of well-made movie, it's because most of them work in an industry focused on turning out mainstream entertainment. After all, they're not experimental filmmakers. Their taste is not all that different from the older moviegoing public they seek to serve. So how about giving the geezers a break?

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OLDEST OSCAR WINNERS

Clint Eastwood, 74

Director (Million Dollar Baby, 2004)

Peggy Ashcroft , 77

Supporting Actress (A Passage to India, 1984)

Henry Fonda, 76

Actor (On Golden Pond, 1981)

Christopher Plummer , 82

Supporting Actor (Beginners, 2011)

Jessica Tandy, 80

Actress (Driving Miss Daisy, 1989)