Oscars-selection process to be reviewed


It was the morning after in Hollywood.

"You have reached the mournful, baleful and generally sad Bill Haugse . . .," intoned a phone message recorded by one of the three editors of "Hoop Dreams" -- the critically acclaimed story of two high school basketball players, which having been snubbed as a best documentary nominee, failed last week in its bid for an editing Oscar.

"Without a branch of our own, we're regarded as a stepchild of the academy, which is a commercially oriented group focused on popcorn and stars," said Mr. Haugse, whose picture's current $7 million gross is huge for a documentary but is peanuts by feature film standards. "After the initial rebuff, this was salt in the wound."

One that won't heal quickly, it seems. After the "Hoop Dreams" furor in February, academy President Arthur Hiller vowed to take a "close, hard look" at a documentary selection process that in previous years also had spurned such highly regarded entries as "Roger & Me," "The Thin Blue Line" and "Shoah."

But with controversy brewing on a number of fronts and the Oscar ceremonies looming large, Mr. Hiller had little time to follow through.

Mr. Hiller did meet with academy executive director Bruce Davis and a few documentary committee members to discuss the issue. He asked Price Waterhouse to examine the category's balloting to see if anything was irregular or "off-base." The real work, however, lies ahead.

"There's sufficient reason to conduct an investigation which I plan to start [today]," Mr. Hiller said. "But more than that I can't promise. We'll consider the possibility of a new documentary branch or changing the size and composition of the committee -- anything a reasonable person suggests. Maybe we'll make changes. Maybe we won't. It could go either way."

After Freida Lee Mock -- former chair of the documentary committee -- and her husband, Terry Sanders, walked off with the best documentary Oscar for "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision," a lingering controversy was rekindled. If her nomination raised eyebrows in some quarters of Hollywood, current chair Walter Shenson viewed her victory as a vindication of sorts.

"The Oscar is voted on by the entire academy -- or at least those who have seen all five nominated documentaries," Mr. Shenson said. "So the award puts an end to charges of cronyism leveled at us for making Freida one of the nominees."

After the trades ran an ad protesting the exclusion of "Hoop Dreams" and calling for an investigation of the nominating process, Mr. Shenson asked Mr. Hiller to invite "heavy hitters" such as Paul Newman and Robert Redford, who signed the petition, to come aboard. Letters were sent to all of them, asking that they convert their interest in the issue into "real and valuable participation" next year.

That's a difficult proposition for anyone gainfully employed, however, let alone someone on the fast track. Not only must committee members be Los Angeles-based, but they must have the time and determination to see 80 percent of the 63 entries over a three-month period in order to vote.

"It's easy to follow the leader and play the game of political correctness, but you have to earn the right to criticize," Mr. Shenson said. "It's not a big committee, but it is a big commitment.

"[Director] Michael Apted ["Nell," "28 Up"] joined but left after two screening sessions. We have only 47 people compared to 400 on the foreign-language screening committee, and the more people participating in a democratic process, the fairer it is."

Maybe so. But critics say the foreign-language nominating process is also badly outmoded with rules out of sync with global realities. Foreign films are often joint productions of a number of countries, with cast and crew drawn from each.

Krzysztof Kieslowski's "Red" earned him nominations for best director, screenplay and cinematography. But because none of the major creative team members was born in Switzerland, which financed the film, the academy refused to accept it as the Swiss foreign-language film entry.

"These little rules work most of the time, but when they fail, they fail big," said producer-director Lili Zanuck ("Rush").

Next on the academy agenda is a board meeting in May during which a preliminary report on "Hoop Dreams" will be presented.

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