Stuart Gordon’s Academy Blues: “Branding Us a Bunch of Old Crackers Does No One Any Good.”

The veteran director kicks off his new Talkhouse Film column by weighing in on the controversy surrounding the change in Oscar voting rules.

My membership card tells me that I have been a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1999. In order to join you have to be sponsored by two esteemed members in your field. I was lucky enough to have directors Joe Dante (Gremlins) and the late Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) as my sponsors, although John Landis likes to remind me that he had to sing my praises to the nominating committee, “Because they didn’t know who the hell you were.”

As most people are aware, the Academy is now in the midst of a crisis regarding the fact that no actors of color were nominated for Oscars the last two years. There have been talks of boycotts, and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Academy’s first black President, has unveiled drastic new changes to “prune the dead wood from its membership” in order to avoid this embarrassing problem in the future.

I have always known the Academy seldom gets it right. Neither Alfred Hitchcock nor Stanley Kubrick ever received an Oscar for directing any of their masterpieces. No comedies have won Best Picture since Shakespeare in Love (1998), and the only horror film that has ever won was Silence of the Lambs in 1991. (I still run into people who claim that Silence is not a horror film.) And most shocking of all – no science fiction film has ever won an Academy Award for Best Picture.

Jeremy Irons, in his acceptance speech for Best Actor in Reversal of Fortune actually thanked David Cronenberg, the director of Dead Ringers. This was because Irons should have won the award for that picture two years earlier.

This year’s flap began immediately after the nominees were announced, when actress Jada Pinkett Smith questioned whether people of color should attend the Awards, because no black actors had been nominated. This included her husband, Will Smith, whose performance in Concussion was ignored. Spike Lee quickly joined Jada’s boycott, despite the fact that the 58-year-old director had just been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy. Spike is an odd choice for this award considering his directing and producing career is far from over, and in fact his new film, Chi-Raq, was opening at the time. But his ingratitude must have especially hurt president Cheryl Boone Isaacs whose fingerprints could be clearly perceived in his recent honor. “Spike will be Spike,” was all she said.

But actions speak louder than words, and on January 21, Boone Isaacs called a “stealth Board of Governors’ meeting” in which she laid out plans to change a fundamental rule of the Academy: voting privileges would no longer be for life. Instead, members would serve a 10-year term which could be extended as long as they continued to work in the industry. If they no longer were productive members, their voting privileges would be revoked. This would allow for a younger, more diverse membership. I think Darwin calls it “survival of the fittest.”

Cheryl told the governors, “We need to make this happen now, tonight.” And so rather than being given time to even think about this major game-changing concept, the Board of Governors were forced to vote immediately. Supposedly they unanimously accepted these changes.

The Governors represent the various branches of the Academy: actors, directors, writers and so on, with three governors per branch elected by their peers. You’d think that some governor would have suggested the idea that they needed to poll the members of their branch before voting on these radical new rules of membership. But, as far as I know, none did.

Why the big hurry? In an article in The Hollywood Reporter, Boone Isaacs and Dawn Hudson, the CEO of the Academy, stated that they feared a massive boycott by the actors would destroy ratings for the telecast. But how had they come up with such a detailed new plan so quickly?

The article reveals that these changes, developed by Academy Secretary Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams) to improve diversity in the Academy by 2020, were originally not to be implemented until later this year. But like new gun-owners, Boone Isaacs and Hudson couldn’t wait to use their powerful new weapon. And like many new gun-owners who end up shooting their grandmother when she wakes them while taking a pee in the middle of the night, they fired before thinking.

By railroading these changes, Boone Isaacs and Hudson were blaming the entire membership of the Academy for the lack of diversity in the actors’ nominations, and worse they were essentially labeling all of us racists. They even went so far as to propose appointing three new governors whose sole purpose was to be “people of color.” What their official titles would be boggles the mind.

So people who were not working members within the film industry would lose their voting privileges (they, of course, would still be able to pay dues.) The press, who seemed to thirstily swallow the Kool-Aid that Boone Isaacs and Hudson were serving, did bring up some interesting examples; such as actress Dolores Hart, who left Hollywood in the 1960s to become a nun, but as a member of the Academy, still watches the nominated films and votes every year. I’d pay to see Boone Isaacs telling Sister Dolores that her voting rights have been revoked.

And will retired members of the Academy who happen to belong to the various minorities also lose their right to vote? Isn’t this working against the goal of a more diverse membership?

But the main question is: will these changes actually result in more racially inclusive nominations? Every member votes for the person they honestly believe did the best work without regard to anything but the performance on the screen. And the Academy has rewarded many people of color over the years.

Watching this year’s SAG Awards, it seemed as if every nominated black actor won an award. It was as if the SAG membership was so cowed by the shouts of discrimination coming from the Academy that they had to prove they were not racists. Is this what we want? People being given awards not for the quality of their work but instead out of political correctness, fear that we have to award them or suffer the consequences of appearing bigoted?

Clearly the Academy is not infallible. As we all know, we screw up each and every year. But throwing the entire membership under the bus and branding us a bunch of old crackers does no one any good. And by implementing such sweeping changes without the approval of the entire membership, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Dawn Hudson, and the current Board of Governors are doing irreparable damage to the institution they supposedly serve. We need new leadership who will allow us to simply do our jobs – choosing, rightly or wrongly, the recipients of the golden bald dude with the sword.

Stuart Gordon is a writer/director/producer of film, television and theater. He is best known for the cult classic Re-Animator and for murdering his wife Carolyn in his films whenever possible.