91-Year-Old Oscar Voter Says He'll Sue to Fight 'Inactive' Status (Exclusive)

Retired Oscar - H - 2016
Wren McDonald

The Academy may be headed to court over its controversial new policy to strip "inactive" members of Oscar voting privileges. Robert Bassing, 91, a member of the writers branch since 1958, says he plans to take legal action against the organization for age discrimination after receiving a letter this summer from Lorenza Munoz, the Academy's managing director of membership and awards, informing him that he is one of an unspecified number of members who may lose their ability to vote because of inactivity in the business.

"Based on published information researched by the Academy, it appears you may qualify for emeritus status," Munoz wrote in her letter, a copy of which was obtained by THR. She asks recipients to inform the Academy if it is missing any "important information" that could influence a decision. Members then will be notified and given a chance to appeal. Munoz also reassured recipients that they would still receive movie screeners even if their voting privileges are stripped. Bassing says he interprets the offer as, "We're going to put you in a very comfortable cattle car."

In January, Academy CEO Dawn Hudson and president Cheryl Boone Isaacs announced plans for an annual review of its members, originally linking the initiative to efforts to diversify in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite outcry. But after many older members objected — actor Tab Hunter, 85, tells THR "it's a thinly veiled ploy to kick out older white contributors, the backbone of the industry" — the Academy insisted in an April follow-up that it was acting to ensure the Oscars remain relevant. That message failed to assuage many longtime members.

The Academy, which told Bassing to expect a verdict in mid-September, declined comment on his threat. But sources say the group is confident the "negligible" numbers affected have no grounds for a legal challenge since it's a private organization.

Bassing, who started as a story analyst at Columbia in 1944 (he gave notes on 1950 best picture Oscar winner All the King's Men) and whose most recent screen credit, for Evil Town, came in 1977 (he's also written books and for TV), finds the purge "very disturbing." He insists he's less bothered about losing his Oscar ballot than the perception that retired Academy members are somehow to blame for the recent all-white acting Oscar nominations. "At the time I was invited into the Academy, you only needed one major credit and a sponsor," he says. "If they want to change the rules, then change the rules going forward, not going backward."

He sums up the Academy's tactics as simply "trying to reduce the number of old white men so they can meet their numbers, and that's not right."

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.